I run. Unlike writing, I’m not particularly a “great” runner, but I’m pretty good. I’d say I’m above-average. In college, I was on a relay that was ranked 11th in the nation and I’ve held as many as four school records at Friends University (all of which have been broken in the 10+ years since I graduated college). I was an all-state medalist in track in high school, which led to track scholarships in college, which pretty much defined the other third of my college life (the remaining two-thirds being academics and sex-crazed partying).
Throughout the 22 years that I’ve been a competitive runner, running is (and has always been) the purest thing in my life. I’ve never cheated at running, I’ve never given up on running, I’ve never hated or neglected running – the sport itself has been the only part of my life that I haven’t managed to taint, damage, or completely destroy.
Last Sunday, I completed my tenth marathon, and it was the third-fastest marathon I’ve run. It wasn’t a spectacular time by any stretch, but nor am I a spectacular runner. The great thing about the sport of competitive running is that it is 100% relative. In fact, relativity is built-in to competitive running. Competitive 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons, (and pretty much all competitive road races) are scored by overall places, but also by division places which are categorized by age and gender. Thus, when they give medals to the competitors, I am eligible (for example) to win a medal in the Male 35-39 division. Runners are awarded medals relative to other competitors their own age, and as a result of this, I earn a medal in about two-thirds of the races I run, depending on the size of the race and the age-group competition who happen to show up that day.
Another reason running is 100% relative is because the distances are (typically) consistent and are timed. Every race, I have a time goal. And more often than not, that time goal is based on what I’d run in the race before (and I race three or four weekends a month), always looking for a time improvement. The goal, typically, is for each race to be faster than the one before – constantly striving for self-improvement. And as Coach Sell (my high school coach, and personal hero) used to say, “Well, isn’t that kind of like life?”
Coach Sell is the greatest man I’ve ever known. We haven’t spoken in years (not since before I was arrested), and I doubt I will ever have occasion to speak to him again. I wrote him a letter from prison, but he didn’t respond, and I pretty much understand. I don’t fault him for that. If the roles were reversed, I’m not sure if I would respond either. But maybe it’s better that way. The last time I spoke to Coach Sell was at a running store in Lawrence (KS) and we talked about the only two things we ever talked about: Running and Life – two subjects about which he knows more than anyone I’ve ever met. It was a great conversation and if we never speak again, I’m fine with that being the last conversation we had. I know my actions have most certainly disappointed him, and he is blunt and honest enough to tell me this. And to hear the words, “I’m disappointed in you” in the voice of Coach Sell would be tremendously difficult for me to handle. So I am perfectly content with our last conversation being about our typical discussions of running and life. He taught me more about those two subjects than anyone, ever. And since life is a subject I have seemingly failed, then I owe it to Coach Sell to keep running.
Running has never hated me or told me I wasn’t good enough. Running has never left me alone. Running has never complained that I was selfish or terrible or evil. Running has never left me broken, full of remorse. Through junior high, high school, college, and adulthood, running has always been there; if I am Dr. House, running is my Wilson. Even today, the only time I feel completely at-ease, in control, and secure, is when I’m out running. I know as much about running as I do about writing. And just as I know the feel of a good write, I know the feel of a good run. I know exactly what 8:00 per mile pace feels like. I know exactly how much to lean on the curve of a track. I know exactly how to pump my arms running up a hill and how to relax them going down. I know when fast is too fast and slow is too slow. I clearly know more about running than I know about life. So, in my life, freedom is that invigoratingly tired feeling of being at mile seven of a ten mile run; freedom is that out-of-breath feeling after number six of ten repeat 800s; freedom is that silence of being in the midst of a long easy run and hearing nothing but footsteps and breeze; freedom is running, and running is freedom. I ran before prison, I ran in prison, and now I run after prison. I ran before my addiction, I ran during my addiction, and I run in recovery from addiction.
It’s not just running – it’s commitment, it’s dedication, it’s honesty, it’s integrity – it’s a metaphor for the kind of life I wish I’d lived. And to this day, running is still the purest thing in my life. So in the face of the lies, sin, dishonesty, infidelity, and manipulation that cloud my past, running is my proof to myself that I can still keep one thing in my life completely honest, faithful, and clean.
What no one sees (or cares to see), however, is that my life now is as close to that purity as I’ve ever been. But I don’t care. I can tell them I’ve changed until I’m blue in the face, just like I can tell another runner that I can run a certain time in a certain race. But in either situation, talk is cheap, and nothing matters until I can prove it on the track, on the race course, at the finish line, and in my life.
So for me, the race is still going. And maybe it will never end – but I’m fine with that.