Not every running life is a straight line.
Sure, some of us start in high school and then let it carry us through the rest of our lives, a thread of miles stretching behind and before us.
For others, we stop and start, figure and reconfigure, but we always come back to it, somehow.
That’s how it’s been for me.
My dad asked that every one of his four daughters play a sport, and we did – track and field, cross-country. My older sister was a high school standout, record holder in two states, ran in college on a scholarship.
I once won my heat.
But it never mattered at our house – a runner was a runner was a runner, and we were.
My first hiatus was when I was in college, where I replaced the running miles with chain-smoking and mountain biking. It was a life that went on for a while, with a few tries here and there to return to running, none of them sticking because we all know how hard it is to rebuild.
But then one day shortly after I moved to Sioux Falls nearly 16 years ago, I was standing in a bookstore and realized that I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live. When I closed my eyes, I wasn’t standing where I thought I would be. And when I opened them, I saw a book – “The Non-Runners Marathon Trainer,” a textbook for a class at the University of Northern Iowa. The class? How to run a marathon. For anybody.
For me, too.
I bought it, took it home, was inspired by the stories of people who had started where I was and had ended at the finishing line of a marathon. At the time, I was working second shift, and I would run when I got off work – weaving through central Sioux Falls at midnight, in a pair of ill-fitting cheap running shoes. The first time I completed a 6-mile run, I cried.
The book was good, the advice solid, and I believe the people who wrote it and the students who took the class were successful. It all depends on doing the work. And I did. For a while. Then I quit running a few weeks before the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon in 2001. But I stood at the starting line anyway, because I had nothing to lose.
And six hours and 19 minutes later, I hobbled over the finish line, coming in last place, while they tore down the signs and I nearly lost my way. The volunteers clapped, stopped what they were doing, patted me on the back. I drank a warm beer, looked at my medal, laughed with a friend who had gone with me.
Then I didn’t run for a year.
Since then, I’ve built back up. Qualified for Boston twice. Run it once, the year of the bombing, where I then turned around and covered the event as a journalist. I’ve run dozens of half-marathons, stacks of 10Ks and 5Ks, an ultra. I’ve fallen in love with trail running.
I’m not embarrassed about where I come from as a runner. I’m not afraid to say I took last place in my first marathon, and last place in my first 5K, where I smoked a cigarette behind the church before the start, and where a guy dressed as a cow on the course passed me. Somebody has to come in last, and sometimes it was me.
When I first started training back in 2001, I would run from my apartment at 15th and Summit to the University of Sioux Falls sign – about a half-mile – and then walk home. And I was proud of it. It was the best I could do.
Over the years the “best I could do” has changed – as the result of injuries, or pregnancy, or miscarriage or grief or scheduling, sadness, terrain, weather, training, whatever. Sometimes the best I could do was put on my shoes and go for a walk instead. Or sleep in and allow my body to rest. Sometimes the best I could do was feel like my feet took flight as I crested the hill north of Lincoln High School, made the turn toward the bike path and held on to the Saturday morning group as far as the falls.
Sometimes it meant bursting into tears as I watched a finishing clock log a PR.
There’s no constant.
Except the mileage. Except the belief that running is a sport, a life, that’s open to everyone. All you need is a pair of shoes. A willingness to try and fail, try again. And then one step. Another. Another.
See you on the trails.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.