My relationship with running has been a long and complicated one. The other evening I was catching up with an ex-boyfriend from my college years, and he said it seemed as though I used to run because it hurt. I hadn't thought about it like that before, but immediately knew he was right. In high school I literally ran away from home to escape my parent's fighting. The first time my beloved baby brother, Alex, was incarcerated was while I was in college, and I ran ten miles as fast as I could, giving myself a stress fracture. When my parents filed for divorce, I ran twenty miles, then drank myself to a blacked-out stupor. When I stopped denying my brother was a drug addict, I ran until I thought I felt as miserable as he did. I was rarely happy while out pounding the pavement, but was grateful I found a way to redirect feelings and turn emotional pain into the more bearable, physical sort. But even after my glum college days were long gone, I was still in the habit of fueling my miles with negative notions. Until, that is, the Great Lakes Relay.
The GLR is a 270-mile relay race across Michigan done in teams of ten. Each runner is required to run at least 24 miles over the course of three days. That may not sound like much, but these miles are run through over-grown, six-inch wide trails that are topped with a good four-inches of sand. The trails are poorly marked, so at least once a day, a teammate gets lost, causing the poor sap to run even more miles while looking for his or her way back. Sounds gruesome, doesn't it? Well, it gets worse. The majority of the participants are not normal people like my friends, but finely-tuned running machines with hollow bones and a few dozen abdominal muscles. Normally when I find myself in a group of people who are a) in better shape than I am while still b) eating more than I do, I become very angry. I don't hate thin people, I just think that if I have to be around them I should at least get the satisfaction of knowing they'll never know what a beer and donut taste like together. The participants of the run across Michigan, however, mostly consist of the kinds of jerks who weigh one hundred pounds, run like goddamn gazelles, and could out-eat me even during a PMS week. My childish bitterness combined with the almost-overwhelming desire to fit in with them made me start the first leg I ran that weekend way too fast, leaving me a heaving hot mess after what should have been an easy five miler through the woods. After another run later in the afternoon, a six miler, my IT band was killing me and my hip was so sore I couldn't sleep that night. I ran the second day like I did the first: mad at myself, mad at my achy body, mad at all the people passing me, and really mad at everyone who was having a good time.
Much of the relay involves waiting for your teammates to finish their run, driving to the next destination, picking up the last runner, then driving to your next starting line. During the latter half of day two, I got to spend a few hours picking-up and dropping-off runners with my teammate Pat, who just so happens to be as enthusiastic about running as he is about drinking beer, which is a lot. Pat is also the only person whose genuine love for running rivals that of a race horse or my KitchenAid mixer. Even though he was clearly hurting after a grueling 10+ miler, all he talked about was how beautiful the scenery was, how excited he was to have a beer, and how much he... loved to run. I believe at one point in our conversation, he said something about how if you run with love in your heart, there will be no pain. I mean, that's nauseating, right? Just reading the phrase, "with love in your heart," makes me want to chain smoke unfiltered wall insulation and steal an old lady's seat on the bus. But when I woke up the next morning to run the very first leg of the very last day, that's exactly what I did. Standing in the middle of dozens of aspiring/current/and former college athletes, I accepted the fact that I couldn't run six minute miles and decided to enjoy my last run through the lush Michigan wilderness, even if IT band pain might cause me to walk. When the gun went off, I moved aside to let the serious runners pass and switched my iPod and my body to "shuffle." For the first mile I hung out in the back of the pack with a guy who looked barely awake, appreciating how nice the chilly morning air felt after three straight days of being in the sun. My pace quickened a little, and I caught up to a runner who had a grasshopper hitching a ride on her back. I helped her swat it off then continued to go faster and faster until I felt my body click into a challenging, but manageable groove next to a woman who was both significantly older and in much better shape than me. We took turns drafting off each other, slowly but surely picking off tiring runners as our pace stayed steady. After a few miles with her I started to regret pairing up with someone so fast, but was afraid to fall more than a few feet behind in case the defeat would cause me stop. Since my IT band felt surprisingly good, I was able to concentrate on my stride and on breathing in threes (three counts out, three counts in). A slight downhill gave us sight of the finish line off in the distance just as the opening notes to "Born to Run" came through my headphones. When it was over I looked at my watch: 4.4 miles in 35 minutes and no knee pain.
After spending three days driving, running, and camping in the middle of Nowhere, MI, I had hoped to have some sort of epiphany about perseverance, or overcoming limits, or what happens when I put myself in difficult situations, but I didn't. Nothing particularly new about my character was revealed. When I left Michigan, all I brought back with me was a pile of filthy running clothes, an exhausted dog, and the best run of my life, the ultimate trek that made me remember why I picked it up as an awkward fourteen year-old, and what now inspires me to run with love every day. Was it worth it? Spending three days slogging through sandy trails in blistering heat, sleeping on the ground, showering in small-town high school gyms, and driving a 12-hour round trip, just for those 35 minutes? You bet it was, and I'll be back next year to find them again.
Oh, I also learned how to poop in the woods during my Great Lakes Relay experience, but I'll tell you what; knowledge like that ain't worth shit.
(Me, at one of the finish lines. Photo c/o Pat Thurber.)
(Our team's badass jerseys, cleverly designed by Ashley Plummer)
(Runs really don't kill people, they just make them stronger/deranged.)