It’s funny what you can get used to.
Your normal can change, and what you used to think was odd seems perfectly reasonable. Anyone who has ever worked an overnight shift understands that – waking up for work at 5 p.m. and having an after-dinner cocktail at 8 a.m.
It just becomes who you are, for a while, when you are. I did it in college, when I worked second shift at a nursing home and chased it with another eight hours of overtime from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at the same place.
It’s the same with running. When you don’t do it, you see people and think, “I could never do that.”
When it isn’t your life, you don’t realize that at first, they couldn’t, either. Most of us don’t just wake up one day, put on shoes and get where we want to go. It’s incremental progress with a huge learning curve – maybe you need less pavement, custom orthotics, more days off, fewer days off, a cortisone injection, a training plan, a running partner.
You figure it out.
I was talking to a friend this week, and she said she’s been running regularly for about a year and a half, logging about 5 miles at a shot at a 9:30 pace. It’s a perfectly reasonable run for anyone. And yet this isn’t how I know her. I know her from late evenings, at what was then the 330 Main Street Blues, from weekend afternoons on the elliptical, from fuzzy-eyed mornings.
She came to a recent group run, terrified she wouldn’t know anyone, or wouldn’t keep up, or would hold someone back. The same anxieties we all have when we try something new.
None of those things happened.
Instead, she connected with Karen Lopez Lechtenberg, and the two of them ran through Good Earth State Park, walked up the big hill, chatted the entire way, because that’s what Karen does.
The next day she texted to say she hopes Karen didn’t mind she slowed her down walking up the hill.
“Nah, she does ultras. She walks up all the hills. We all do."
It was the first thing I learned about ultras, when Natalie Kauffman Stamp told me one day as we made our way through the Big Sioux Recreation Area. I was a few months past a major surgery and still trying to get my feet under me again. I apologized for having to walk, and she told me she power hiked up all of them – in all her 50-milers, her 100-milers, all of it.
It was a transcendent moment for me.
The next was when a woman I know through the world of online running blogs suggested I do back to back long runs instead of trying to tackle 30s and 40s on the weekends – welcome news after having run 25 miles one night after work and then nearly blacking out when I tried to wash my feet in the shower right after.
Suddenly it all seemed possible.
These are normal people. They have jobs. And kids. And spouses who work. And after-school activities and hobbies and houses to clean and groceries to shop for and giant Costco trips to haul in the house.
And yet they’ve found a way. Their laid back attitude about it all helped me find my way, too. With the help of Natalie and Chris Anderson, I trained for a 50K a few years ago, the back to back long runs the exact way to do it for me (except the weekend I did 17 on Saturday and then 17 on Sunday and was mostly solo parenting all weekend, drank almost no water and then began to swoon in the library and almost had to ask the ever-kind Jeri Light to help me drive my kids home).
It’s all a learning curve.
And then I can thank Natalie and Karen and Nancy Kirstein for never letting me once think I wouldn’t be able to complete the Zumbro 50-miler this spring, even though I had done almost no training.
As Owen Hotvet told me over the years, after I had been doing marathons for a while, “This isn’t your first rodeo.”
And that’s true, there’s something to be said for the accumulation of miles – and the disappointments that come with it. I’ve crashed and burned in more than one race, blown up and tried to blame it on everything from the weather to the course.
Most of the time, what killed me was just the mental game. I gave up. It happens to the best of us, and it’s just another thing you have to train for, or I did. Some people have it all at first. I didn’t. Don’t.
I didn’t get the mental game until I ran the Fargo Marathon in 2009 and qualified for Boston. But even then, I was lucky. I got injured, then pregnant and couldn’t run Boston. So I had to qualify again with a tougher standard. I did, in Twin Cities, and it happened after having missed the cutoff by a minute and a half in Phoenix. The run in Phoenix is part of what did it for me – I tried my hardest, for the first time. I really, really tried, and I didn’t get it. I wasn’t lucky.
I knew Twin Cities woud be harder, and it was. I made it -- barely. Every step of the last few miles was terrible – I felt like my entire groin was swollen, like I would fall over with every step, afraid to look at my watch in case I tripped and couldn’t get up.
I got there. Owen was at the finish, told me the real marathoners show up at mile 20, and I had shown up. Still maybe the best compliment I’ve been given in a marathon.
As for Zumbro, I made it because of Natalie. We barely talked. Just ran and hiked and ran and hiked. And all I did was focus on moving. The poetry of it, every step, not caring about the steps before or the steps after. I had no business in that race, no business at the finish line.
A few weeks later, I was at the Good Earth farm, which Nancy owns, planting potatoes and onions alongside Brian Stamp, Natalie’s husband.
“I couldn’t have done that without your wife,” I told him. “I was in a terrible place heading out to that race, worse than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
It was true.
“I know,” Brian said. “She said you pulled it out of your (family blog!).”
And I did. I’ve never considered myself athletic. I’m just not. I run because I have to. I qualified for Boston because I had to, something in me had to do it. I finished Zumbro because I truly felt like I would have died if I hadn’t, wondered if I would die on the course, didn’t care either way at that point.
Maybe you do it for survival. Maybe you do it for the solitude. Maybe you do it because you never thought you could or someone else didn’t think you could or because you woke up one day and realized your life had to change, and you were going to be the one who changed it.
It doesn’t matter why you do it.
You just do.
And tonight, we’re going to talk to Nancy and Nate, Natalie and Chad. They are people who do it for all their own reasons, some of which may be similar to yours. They didn’t wake up one day and say they wanted to run 100 miles.
Some people do that.
They aren’t my people. My people grind their way there. And they do it in between jobs and heartbreak and raising kids and taking their cars to the shop. They do it because something in them makes them.
Tonight we’ll find out what that is.
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 follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.