What's the most natural thing to do when you have a new baby in the house that never sleeps and a toddler entering the troublesome threes? Run a half-marathon of course!
Let me explain. First off, I'm not really a runner by nature. I love sports -- I've played and coached tennis throughout my life, and I spend way too much time watching any contest on TV that involves a ball -- but I've never been passionately into running the way some people are. I do run periodically to stay fit and even tried a 5K once -- which incidentally, left me unable to walk properly for a few weeks because of a knee injury caused by a combination of maniacal competitiveness and lack of preparation -- but there is nothing on my athletic resume to suggest that half-marathon was the logical next step. Especially at a time when my mental state could be described as tenuous (at best) and constantly on the brink of full-fledged breakdown (at worst).
What made me decide to dive head first into the world of running? Besides, of course, the constant and burning desire, which only the parents of young children can truly understand, to get out of the freaking house and wallow in aloneness? I've thought about this quite a bit the last couple months. After all, one thing half-marathon training affords is a lot of free time to think about and dissect your most unimportant thoughts and feelings. The explanation I've settled on is that the training and the eventual race fills a gap in my life (I mean...of course it does, right?). Specifically, I have been, entirely or mostly, a stay-at-home dad for the past three years. I started back to work part-time earlier this year, but fatherhood remains my day-to-day focus and the primary source of my identity. And while it's an extremely important undertaking, it's an adjustment. Gone are the external metrics one uses to measure self-worth, from grades in school to salaries and promotions at work to wins and losses on the tennis court. What replaces them is hours and days of sameness and repetitive tasks punctuated with fleeting moments of inspiration and heart breaking joy. And as any parent can attest, in a pretty routine 15 minute span, it's not unusual to go from feeling OK about your parenting prowess to feeling like a total disaster. Even more, you quickly realize, you'll never really know which feeling is most accurate.
So what do I do in an attempt to measure myself at a time when it often feels like my self is fading away, absorbed within the collective unit of a family or replaced by a blurry shadow defined by its relationships more than its individuality? What do I do to keep me the worries and doubts about my children and their futures and our futures at bay? I run. And I run. And I walk sometimes. And I run some more. I run at 6 in the morning or 10 at night. I run even when I feel more tired than I've ever felt in my life. I run in the smothering Florida humidity and the refreshingly cool autumn evenings. I run on wet nights when reflections from the passing headlights and street lights create halos in front of my eyes that make it feel like I'm running in a cloud, separated from the surrounding world. I run for so long that the same Mumford and Sons album loops through twice or I burn through three episodes of Serial podcast on my iPod. I see my distances increase, from two to four to 10 miles and more, and my times come down and I feel accomplished. I ice my aching knee, ankle, and back and waste away late night hours researching the best energy gels and running socks. I'm completely ambivalent about the whole thing, but yet somehow, it fuels me. Perhaps because it's the one thing right now that is all mine. And even better, there are no shades of gray, just numbers -- miles, minutes and seconds.
In the end, I think the finish is going to be anti-climactic. I'll suffer through 13.1 miles on race day, cross the finish line, and nothing will be different. I will either meet my arbitrarily determined time goal or I won't. I won't win any prizes and no one will care really, not even me for very long. Just like a lot of things we do in life, running a half-marathon is completely insignificant, but somehow at the same time, can seem very important. So I keep going.