The writing below is an account of the first time I ever ran more than 20 miles. My wife had just given birth to our daughter 3 months before her expected due date. Our daughter would spend 5 months in Neo-natal Intensive Care. I had also recently started a new career. In the midst I thought it would be a good idea to begin training for my first marathon.
Run enough miles, figuratively, literally, and you will be stripped bare. My attempt here is to illustrate what the mind does in midst of extreme stress and vulnerability. In the middle of our shit, there is still unfathomable light.
It’s two-thirty A.M. and I’m fifty feet from my front door. The fog has already rolled in, a thick, damp blanket. I hate the damn weather reports here. And the damn weather, though it’s better than living in the Northeast. The forecasters can’t ever predict the weather, especially during the winter. Neither can I. Schizophrenic Central Texas weather like a woman who wears a ball-gown to Black Sabbath concert, who’s a health-nut, a flag-flying PETA member, but eats a half-rack of ribs before she goes out with her cross-dressing boyfriend on Saturday night. Now the wind starts and all I’m wearing are some jogging shorts, a t-shirt and a headlamp. I didn’t dress for this. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees since I started. There’s my front door. I could quickly run in and grab a sweater and hat and ignore my warm bed, my sleeping wife and the cramp that’s really a bowling ball lodged somewhere beneath my right calf. My wife was right. I’m a damn psycho and this was a bad idea.
“You’ll be fine,” I keep telling myself, “Finish what you started. You’re 16.5 miles in. Only 5.5 more to go. That will bring your grand total to 22 miles for the night. You can do this in your sleep.”
Yes, sleep. That’s where I want to go.
I’ve been going on what?…like four hours a night now for the better part of a year. My brain is used to it, I suppose.
“You can do it.”
But I really want to sleep. My right nipple is bleeding.
Your right nipple is bleeding.
Here I am eating a banana poolside about to go out for more. The cop making his rounds for the night already spotlighted me once. Why didn’t he just stop me and take me back to the apartment and tell me to stay off the roads until morning? That’s what would’ve happened anywhere else. I’ve been beaten up by cops enough times in my life, but right now I would gladly take another beating. Not tonight though. Damn, I want to jump in that pool. That would really stifle the burning bowling ball that mysteriously appeared around mile eight.
My wife is going to be pissed.
I’m a wreck.
I can’t think, I can’t think about… I’m stronger than I think, dammit. We all are. Where are the reserves now?
You’ll be fine.
Someone needs to save me.
I wouldn’t be here if those assholes would’ve kept their word. Do you have any idea what that put my family through? I really wanted to throw the guy through a window.
You walked away like a pussy.
Yes, but with violence there are consequences. The cops would’ve come. Jail. Bail. Court. Then another year or two paying fines and getting my name cleared. There’s a rock in my shoe. Somehow I’ve drifted a mile from the house. 4.5 more to go.
You’ll be fine.
I’m about to hit the water tower, a quarter-mile climb, a total rise of about 300 feet in elevation. Once I hit the back side, it’s lights out. A long shot in the dark with a few street lights placed several hundred yards a part. It feels like traveling in deep space, going from orb to orb. The hill shields the end of the road from view so the road and the lights appear to pass forward into eternity. The batteries in my head lamp wane as I make this climb one last time.
The path grows darker and my light grows dimmer.
I may never reach the end of this crap. But the end comes abruptly. I make the turnaround and almost step on a killdeer nest. The mama makes a reluctant peck towards my right leg, the leg with the bowling ball lodged in it, and then she scurries away into the dark with a series of shrill cries. Damn all of them for putting me here.
Wait a second. No one is making you do this. No one made you come out for this challenge-run on Friday night when you should be sleeping. Why are you out here?
Damn them. Damn myself, I’m one stubborn bastard. What got me started? Yes. What got you started?
I don’t want to think right now. I just want to run, to glide, to fly over the rest of the course, to fly over the abyss. This far in, the running gets hard. When the running gets hard, the thoughts start coming. I started to run in order to forget. Now I run in order to remember. At this very moment, I don’t want to think. Think about the hospital. Think about the layoff, then the other layoff. Think about finances, provision. Think about the health of your family. Think about global economic crises. Think about murder, sex-trafficking, child pornography and those who perpetrated it all.
Sick bastards. They need hugs.
Think about all those babies, born with their defects and fighting, too early or too late, loved and forgotten, they’ve done nothing to no one, how is any of this fair? Think about boxes. Think about that man and his doublespeak, I wanted to throw him out a window. Think about forgiving him. Think about your bleeding right nipple. Think about the sweat pouring out of you and the goosebumps forming on your arms. Think about the next step. Think about shortening your strides, the footing is more loose in the upcoming section. Don’t think about her, your child. Don’t think about your job. If you think about those two things, you’ll lose it. What got you started?
What got me started?
I ran four miles barefoot in the snow. I’m not making that up. It’s not a cute story meant to inspire the cultivation of mental toughness. My heart was burned by a consumptive fire, strange fire. This was not the kind of fire anyone wants to have burning within. I needed a counteractive flame. I’d been trying for years until I reached the brink of death. In fact, I wished to die.
But that’s another story my friends…
It’s not as extreme as it may sound. Four miles barefoot in the snow. I saw this documentary once where a man ran 13 miles barefoot with his shirt off in Siberia in the winter and he didn’t get frostbite, or gangrene or anything. In my case, it was about 20 degrees. I was on the soccer field by the university. It was snowing as I ran, but the field was by no means covered with flurries and drifts. I ran barefoot to test a theory, to do something for myself, for a change, to reclaim what I thought was my life. I graduated soon after that, suffered a betrayal, boozed and spiraled, squatted in my parents’ house, worked a series of menial jobs and wrote thousands of angry prayers on the backs of my hands as I sweated and walked down country roads and through public parks in the summer. My hair grew long so I cut it. I put on a different face. Despite the disguise, the jig was up. The counteractive flame had been ignited. Something about busting out four consecutive five minute miles in the New York almost winter had done it.
You’re off your rocker.
I should’ve thrown the bastard out the window. Two more miles and I’m home free. He shouldn’t talk to people that way. So what, he said it to my wife, it matters not. No one should be spoken to in such a manner. My anger level would definitely have been a nine if I would’ve had to rate it for the group, luckily I had just finished my required time in the class two weeks before the incident. The incident before that one, the one that sent me to the group under court order was the time where the cop beat me up and I let him. Yet here I am chugging out miles in the middle of the night with nothing on but a headlamp and some bloody nipples, and the local smokies won’t even so much as look at me.
I’ve passed this house eight times now. The party was really kicking on the previous lap, but now seems to be winding down. If I’m here, that means somehow I just managed another ¾ of a mile. I’ll ask them what time it is. I need to know. I don’t have a watch. This has nothing to do with the desolation of running in the dark. This has nothing to do with solitude and desperation.
They tell me that it’s 3:13 A.M.
I called the hospital to check on my daughter before I started the run. It was about 12:30 A.M. They said she started having the episodes again. More than before. Apneas and bradycardias, or A’s and B’s in the nurses’ slang. Her nurse for the night sounds a bit annoyed, like she’s given the same report a million times. My wife probably called before she went to sleep. Before I left the house to go run in the dark. They’re cutting my wife open again next week. They’re supposed to be removing a tumor. They say it will make her feel better. They say the tumor is what caused all the complications with the pregnancy.
There’s less than a mile left.
The bowling ball in my right leg has disappeared. This is how you learn to fly. See, you’re tougher than you think. You’re much much tougher than you think.
I’m sprinting and the sobs start coming. I pass in through the gate by the mailboxes. The wind howls. I hear coyotes yipping in the distance. I tear off my shoes and fall into the pool. The sobs get more violent when I come up for air. I sit on the steps and let my legs soak. I look at the stars. Pinprick graffiti. I can’t stop crying. You’re much tougher than you think and no one knows what you’re going through. What got you started?
I thought I was so over this. It happened years ago. But here it comes. The egg cracks and a million baby spiders crawl into my brain. I feel them scurrying all over me. They’ll spin webs eventually and suck the liquified insides out of others for food. Sometimes I think people do the same thing. Only if we let them. It was years ago and I saw the two of them silhouetted in the 9th story window going at it like the world was ending. I wanted to crush his head. Secretly I hoped they would fall through the window and land in puddles on the pavement below me. I wanted to cast my judgment upon them. Everyone else already knew. This confirmed the rumors. I was too stupid to see the signs. I was too stupid to stop believing. I tried to walk it off. All the other whores kept calling. The shudder enveloped me. The shadow grew within me and I could witness my face changing. I tried to crush my soul with whiskey for a few months, but that only made the gnawing stronger. Then one day I kicked my shoes off and went for a run.
A month later and two thousand miles. I’m getting by on wit and grit. I work hard. I play hard. Momentum hit a standstill. Somehow I was alive and I started to believe. So did everyone else. Before I know it, I’m standing on a rock with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen and we’re exchanging wedding vows. We don’t have anything figured out. But we’re in love. I’m thirty pounds heavier then. I’d stopped running for a while because I thought I was going to be a circuit rider. When all I had to show after two months on the road was $30 cash and a bunch of internet groupies, I thought better of it. I don’t want to be anybody’s guru. I don’t want to build another man’s kingdom.
We moved into a cheap one bedroom apartment in an ethnic neighborhood. I did manual labor for a contractor. I worked long hours and got paid dick money. Somehow we were never late on any of our bills and still managed to have extra to travel. I got laid off. I got laid off because a billionaire couldn’t control her dogs. Really, I got laid off because I should have never let myself get into that situation. Yes, I know, we all do, I was responsible because I’d made every decision in my life that led up to that and so on and so forth.
That’s when we moved. We moved to help the children. We moved because we thought we were called to it. And that’s exactly what people kept telling us. Prophecies and words of knowledge came cheap those days, but no one could show me a man who is excellent at what he does. There’s the rich man. There’s the man who knows the secret. We moved to start a family. She got pregnant. We celebrated for one day. I told our boss then he told us we were no longer welcome with their organization. I worked too hard to get there. Why I wanted to throw him through the window had absolutely nothing to do with him. He just poked the monster that had been sleeping beneath my bones for years. I held my tongue.
Then none of it mattered because she was here. The little bundle, yelling to the worlds her entrance. They cut her mom open. Pulled her out. Scarcely bigger than my hand. They stuffed her full of tubes and put her under bright lights. The whole thing seemed like an alien abduction. But she’s here, she’s alive. There is progress to be made. I’m thankful. I’m tired. I feel like every day is a fight and I’m no warrior. Other days I feel like I can fly. Maybe enduring is the only thing I know. I’m still a little pissed. I don’t understand a thing. Mostly I’m confused. Mostly I’m scared.
But I can stare up into that great void and those pinpricks are like graffiti made from glitter. I know that we are the glue that holds them on the canvas of that expanse. I know that each little star is tied to a person for we are all made of the same substance. I remember walking down forgotten roads at night when I was a teenager and asking God to let me live only in the wash of raw and bleeding experience, to never be sedated, to never let my soul die as long as I walked the earth. It was those times I would see myself outside of myself and how calm and gentle the world looked from a distance. Everyone sleeping in their homes as I watched over them.
When I was 22 years old, I walked into a coffee shop and the world changed. I followed willingly through the gates, to emerge, a few years later, alive, although I was left for dead, something spurring me on as I ran through the dark.
I’m at my front door. I have a family now. I have dreams, lots of dreams, dreams about things for which no worlds currently exist. The bed beckons me. My tears have dried. It is time to dream. I’m sliding beneath the covers, shivering. I hear the rise and fall of my wife’s breathing. She’s been through too much. We have endured. Many would say tonight was a bad idea, a case of self-induced insanity. I’d say somehow we have to tap in, to dig through the reasons we run, what we’re running to and running from. I do know this: I wouldn’t take back my running through the dark.
I run into my friend Evan at the grocery store the next morning. He tells me, “Yeah, I got home late last night from a gig in San Antonio. I was sitting at the stop light on Main Street when I saw this floating light behind my car. I waited for it to come a bit closer. It could’ve been an orb, it could’ve been a ghost. Either way, it was late, I hadn’t slept much. I was curious. Turns out it’s just some guy running, he was going at it too. I didn’t catch his face. He just sort of passed my car and floated into the distance. Can you imagine, just going out for a jog in the middle of the night? Some people, man. Some people.”
“Yeah,” I tell him, “Some people.”