Pop! A small burst of sound breaks the silence, and a group of 5 to 10 year-olds move across the asphalt, a sea of neon windbreakers and white Reeboks that sails down Media’s State Street. As the runners pick up speed, the colors disseminate, with some runners breaking ahead, and some falling to back of the pack.
I’m one of those runners in the lead of the pack in this 1-mile race, but I don’t even realize it. I’m focused on the fact that I’m running past the places I often walk to with my parents: Deals 5&10, Baker Printing. And I’m elated. Mainly, because I’m running in the middle of the street and my parents are encouraging me to run faster. Which never happens.
At home, I’m guilty of running around the block just because “I liked it,” only to return to my front yard and my mother’s disapproving stare. With our house just a few blocks from State Street and Media’s bustling downtown, my parents never allowed my siblings and I to walk into town by ourselves, warning us that it was “too dangerous,” with statements like, “Cars drive too fast,” and “There aren’t stop signs at every corner.”
But now, on this humid Friday night in June, there are no cars where I run. I can feel my face getting warmer from the hot, sticky air, and as I glance down, I see that my hands are shiny with sweat as they swing across my body. When I glance back up into the sinking sun, I see a white banner with thick blue letters. My 6 year-old self can’t read them yet, but I know I’m supposed to run to that banner because that’s what the man with the brown clipboard told us at the starting line.
They Call it Wild and Free
With my eyes on the banner, I focus on how exhilarating it feels to move my legs this fast, so fast that if feels that if I stopped, I’d slam into something and fall. Yet, I don’t want to stop. I want to keep moving this fast and free so that I can forget about all of the things I can’t do yet, like cross the street by myself. In this moment, I feel capable of anything.
A man with a bright orange megaphone is standing under the finish, waving at something past him and shouting, “All the way through!”
When I reach the white banner, I keep running past it, until I see my Dad, standing at the corner of Jackson street and waving. “You can stop now, Sarah,” he yells. I stop suddenly, and it feels like my legs are stuck in mud. I try and move them forward, but it feels as if someone is pulling them back. I walk a few steps, and then stop. The mud feeling is now replaced with a shaky, unstable feeling, as if I’m standing on jello. I’m so overwhelmed by how I can barely move my legs when just a few minutes ago I felt as I couldn’t stop moving them, that I don’t even realize that my Dad is standing next to me, telling me that I won the race.
Finding a Pasttime
The point of this post is not that I won that Media 1-Mile Kids Fun Run back in 1992. Although that was a proud moment for my parents, it was a moment of discovery for me. I’d discovered the runner’s high.
I didn’t call it that at the time, but that feeling of freedom I felt while running down State Street with no cars, that feeling of being capable of anything, was a runner’s high.
After that race, I tried to replicate that runner’s high by running. All the time. I ran around the playground, playing tag a recess. I ran around my backyard, playing capture the flag with my cousins. I couldn’t wait for the Presidential Fitness Challenge in gym class because we had a timed mile portion. In middle school, I played on a recreational soccer team, and played the position that required the most running: midfielder. I think I liked the running more than the actual dribbling and passing of the ball, so after I started high school, I dropped soccer and took up cross country and track and field. The longer the distance, the more I liked the event, because it meant that I got to run for longer.
Now, I run for many reasons. I run to clear my mind, I run to train for an upcoming race, I run to achieve a personal record (PR), and I run because I believe what the medical field has proven: that regular exercise promotes overall health and prevents disease.
Most importantly, I run because I genuinely like that feeling of freedom, that runner’s high.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Recently, I completed the Philadelphia Love Run Half Marathon. It was my fourth half marathon, and my third time running Love. After learning a few things about running and training for longer distance races, I believed this was my chance to PR and have the race of my life. I’d trained with a new coach who taught me that I didn’t have to push myself to the point of exhaustion during every run. I’d cut back on my mileage and incorporated more cross-training. I’d recovered from a few nagging injuries. I’d run my entire life without a running watch, but for this race, I’d purchased a Garmin watch and finalized realized how helpful it was to monitor my pace and be aware of my distance. I’d also run my entire life without drinking any water during races, but for this race, I’d purchased a handheld water bottle and had practiced drinking water when I needed it during a run. I’d even trained with energy blocks, and would carry them during this race, something else I’d always sworn I didn’t need.
I had all of the tools that I needed to PR. It was in the bag.
On race day, I wasn’t feeling my best, but I chalked that up to normal pre-race jitters. I stood behind the starting line with my corral and waited for the Race Director’s signal to cross the starting line. I programmed my Garmin for Run – Outdoor and waited for it to pick up the satellite. When it did, I waited.
A Shaky Course
After what felt like an extra-long wait time, I was off, cruising down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. My Garmin was picking up my pace as 30 seconds faster than my goal time, so I slowed down a bit. But then, thinking that the time was faster because there was probably interference from all the GPS systems in a small area, and panicking that I might be running too slow to reach my PR, I sped up.
My first 6 (yes, 6) miles were the same exhausting dance in my head. I’m running too fast. I’m running too slow. I won’t PR. I need to PR. My mile times were all over the place. Some were way too fast. Some were too slow. None were at my goal pace. My stomach was in knots. My legs were shaky. I couldn’t settle down, mentally or physically.
Ironically, at mile 6.5, my left ankle gave out, rolled to the left, and I almost fell on the course. That’s it. I’m giving up, I told myself. I stopped my Garmin, ran off to the side of MLK drive, and stopped running. I’ll just run a 10K. Today just wasn’t a half marathon day for me, I told myself. I started walking in the opposite direction of the race, heading back to the Art Museum.
Bigger Than My Body
What I wasn’t prepared for was the inexplicable pull to get back on the course. I was now stuck in the middle of MLK Drive, 2 miles from the Art Museum with nothing on me but my Garmin, water bottle, and some energy blocks. It felt downright weird to be dressed for a race but to be walking in the opposite direction. This was a race that I was dressed for because I’d trained for 3 months to be able to run it. If I didn’t run it, I wouldn’t finish what I started.
Eventually, the pull to begin again was strong enough to get me back out there, and though I stopped again a few times, I made it to mile 10 feeling better and ready to finish the race. Then, the unthinkable happened. My ankle rolled to the left again, and completely gave out, as if I couldn’t even stand on it, and I fell in the middle of the course, landing hard on my knees and elbows. A few runners stopped to check if I was OK, and a bystander waved over the medic, who was prepared to carry me off the course on a stretcher.
No way. Even though my ankle was a shade of purple I’d never seen my skin turn before and it was the size of a tennis ball, I had to finish the race.
I hobbled to mile 11. I started settling into a rhythm, working hard to forget the pain in my ankle.
Running Down the Dream
Then I remembered something I’d completely forgotten at the start of this race. I remembered why I liked to run.
It wasn’t for the PR. It wasn’t for the bragging rights of having completed another half marathon. It wasn’t even for the mental or physical health benefits.
In that moment, with the Art Museum and the finish line looming, I remembered that I liked to run because I liked the feeling of freedom, of being capable of anything.
That feeling is what got me across the finish line.