There are a lot of weird assumptions about running, like everyone is fast or super skinny or looks amazing in tights. Plenty of us just hit the pavement and tough it out, whether we do six minute miles or 16 minute miles. I’m not one to categorize people as runners or joggers; I just hope they have basic etiquette down when in a race and am glad that they are off the couch and moving. A sort of wise person told me that movement is medicine. For me, it’s the best medicine for my mind. It is time with the Bitches, time to think or not think, time to be away from the emails and phone calls, and it is instrumental to my recovery.
People sometimes ask me how or why I got into running. I wrote the following in late 2012, after my first marathon.
It was about three and a half years ago that my friend, Moto Cat, asked me if I would be interested in running a half marathon with her. She is one of those fearless, sporty chicks who does multi-day bicycle tours for fun and takes kickboxing classes at the Y. Don’t get me wrong, there had been points in my life where I would have called myself an athlete, but those days had passed and I hated running.
I grew up playing softball, volleyball, and basketball. My brother and I played tennis for fun. I loved sports and competition, but the conditioning aspect was viewed as a necessary evil, especially since basketball was my favorite.
I had done a handful of 5K charity-type races throughout my 20s, but was more interested in post-races drinks. I remember one race where I was puffing on a cig while stretching along the path at Yankton Trail. I was the type of racer mothers pulled their children away from and serious runners just stared at in disbelief.
Needless to say, the idea of 13.1 miles in a single stretch seemed out of my league. Although I was sober and not smoking, the race was just after my 33rd birthday and if I hated running when I was half that age, why would I subject myself to it as a grown-up? There would be no coach yelling, or motivating, me. Part of the fun of being a grown-up was doing whatever I wanted. Ice cream for breakfast? Sure. Stay up till four in the morning? Why not. It was the trade-off for having to work and pay bills.
But Moto Cat is good. She talked to several girls and organized a Tuesday night run for anyone interested. Since that was my night off, I figured I better at least go and give it a shot.
I thought I would hate it.
It was always gonna be a one and done in my mind, right up to the first mile.
I thought it would be a matter of, “You have to try the beets, Julie. It’s fine if you decide you don’t like them, but you have to try.” Thanks, mom.
It wasn’t easy and I didn’t love every minute of every run, but something felt right. I leashed up the Bitches for every single run, whether it was a mile or 10. One time, one of the girls from the Tuesday group said, “You know, you aren’t the fastest, but you can go forever.” The Bitches are great pacers…
So we did that half marathon and I surprised myself by keeping the habit. I did a bunch of 5Ks and another half, still logging all the miles with the Bitches. It was like my brain started firing right for the first time in my life when I had those leashes in my hands and a pair of good shoes on my feet. It was never about winning or times or any sort of numbers. I was a bad ass carrying a bag of dog poop for several miles until the next trash can.
I ran with humans like Moto Cat on occasion, but I preferred the company of the Bitches. I began to understand how every run is like an entire life; there are moments where you want to quit and moments where you feel like you never want to stop. You see the place you’ve lived for years differently because you are forced to take in your surroundings as nature intended you to, not through the windshield of an automobile. You get to explore new places and develop mantras to push you through another mile.
So I was just enjoying my new habit and planning on doing another half marathon in the fall when Moto Cat dropped another bomb on me. She wanted to go for the big boy.
It was not a wholehearted onboarding. It was scary and uncomfortable. But since I liked the time outdoors with the Bitches, why not just increase the mileage? It wasn’t a competition in any sense, really just more of a challenge to do something that not everyone does. One of my brothers spent a bit of life accusing me of always trying to be different. Maybe I was a just trying to be me.
Plus I wanted a finisher medal.
It was a long, hot summer of drought. Barely a drop of moisture fell from the sky during the entire month of July. I would pick the warmest year on record to try and complete a marathon. Since my training partners lacked the ability to sweat, this meant we were routinely getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. to beat the sun. If only we could have beat the rabbits—although I think the upper body workout was beneficial long-term.
Mid-August I finally decided to register, an event that I thought would produce a bit more emotion. Instead it was equal parts of a Zen-like “Everything you need is inside you” mantra and Curtis Jackson saying, “Pray or worry. Don’t do both.”
Just keep going.
The light worry didn’t turn into actual fear until we were into the tapering phase. Then I woke up two days before the race, literally shitting myself and my hands were shaking. Thankfully, a couple of miles with the Bitches calmed me, along with a speech from my manager at work later that in a nutshell was, “You did the work. Now do the race.”
Since I already mentioned shitting myself, I think it’s worth having the poop conversation. Yes, there are porta-potties at several points along the race. Yes, sometimes people don’t want to lose time and lose it down their legs. I know someone who had it coming out both ends at mile 18. I know there are a great many worse experiences in this world and in perspective, having a shitty butt/leg, is a low priority problem. Lots of people would like to have two legs. Understood. The puking didn’t scare me from an embarrassment perspective at all. My formerly drunk ass had puked a great many public places, such as in front of Memorial Stadium on the way to a final exam. I just hoped my guts were as tough as my mind.
Before I knew it, the 5:00 a.m. alarm rang and it was oatmeal and coffee time. The ritual began—the shorts, the lucky blue bra, the shorts, the Brooks, no the Asics, definitely the Asics. I grabbed the hip pack and turned to see two very eager looking German Shorthair Pointers watching me with anticipation.
Never before had the ritual involved guilt.
I explained to them that momma was gonna do a big race with Moto Cat and they were the reason that she could because they were the best trainers in the world. Blank puppy stares followed by a race to the front door where the leashes are kept. I have a bigger brain, but they have bigger hearts.
I said goodbye to the sad Bitches, glad that their little brains would forget this and be thrilled to see me in a few hours.
I hopped in the car, picked up Moto, and we headed to the race. It was a beautiful morning, cold at the 6:45 a.m. start, a nice change of pace to the sweltering summer. We found a nice space at the back of the starting group and before I really even had time to worry, we were off.
We had a plan of a nice slow pace. As long as we kept miles around 11 minutes at the start, we wouldn’t stress ourselves and empty our tanks. Plus, that would give us time over the whole course. The course was open for six hours, which gives you like a 13:40 pace. The plan was just to keep trotting along and enjoy the experience.
The previous weekend we decided to tackle the first eight miles of the course. On our test run, someone had apparently had a dresser fall off their truck, evidenced by the chunks of that pressed particle board everywhere. Why do I say dresser? Well, it must have been the big blue dildo resting sadly on the side of the road. I would like to take a moment here to give thanks that neither of the Bitches tried to pick it up. I’ve negotiated various dead critters away from them but never sex toys.
On race day, I was interested in playing “Where’s Blue Dildo” on mile two. Some poor race official or community service kid must have taken care of that bad boy as it was nowhere to be seen.
The first 15 miles were autopilot. We just stuck to the plan, one foot in front of the other. We stopped to stretch a bit here and there. Moto’s hubby did about 400 meters with us at the 20K mark. We ran with a local girl for a while and a woman from New Hampshire for a while. She was doing a marathon in every state.
It started to get harder around 18 to 20. That’s when you really start to love the people at the aid stations. An encouraging word can go a long way when you’re starting to doubt yourself. I got a little weird at one point and started singing, “To All The Dogs I’ve Run Before.” You know the tune. Actually, that really isn’t weird coming from me. And it made Moto laugh.
At this point, my mantra from the summer came in handy. I guess lots of runners have that go-to quote that motivates them to push through the pain and go further. Mine developed from the runs with the Bitches. I would say, “We are not quitters. We are brownheads.” I would say this over and over to myself during the summer, whether it was just to get out of bed and go or to do another mile. The Bitches were always game for another mile, they are brownheads.
I’m not sure how many times I said that to myself between mile 21 and mile 24. I know I started saying it out loud. A lot.
I had been drinking plenty of water and sports drinks. I had downed like 18 gummy chews. I was a brownhead.
Moto and I started to separate a bit around the 22 mile mark. I decided to employ a strategy of race walk the first half of a mile, then jog the second half. It was on a part of the bike trails that the Bitches and I had been on so many times over the summer. It was incredibly flat. I knew I was so close; I just wanted to be done.
And then I saw it, the 25 mile marker. It felt like a pass to the promised land. I had a water bottle with just a few ounces left in my hand, so I poured the water out on the mile marker, like a gangster with a 40 on his boy’s grave, and yelled “This one’s for the Bitches.”
Like I was going to do the whole thing without doing something dramatic.
I took off like a bat out of hell. Well, it was a bat out of hell for me cuz my last mile was just a little over 11:00. I know Scott Jurek can do an 8:20 at the end of an ultra, but he’s Scott Jurek. I’m a brownhead.
Keeping up the workouts was never an issue. I knew I would keep logging the miles with the bitches, whether it was three or five or whatever. Today it was 11 on one of the familiar routes from this summer and as we ran past Paisley Park, I took in a breath of cool air and realized that the seasons had just changed. Fall happened right in the middle of our run, an experience missed by any of you who were stuck in a car, at a desk, or on a barstool. Or maybe it’s something only a runner, or marathoner, understands…