Running Streak — Day 14

Everyone knows the Citgo sign. At least everyone who knows about running knows the Citgo sign. The crowds are thick below the white, orange, and blue neon bulbs as the final two turns of the race close in; people streaming out of a baseball game at Fenway Park join the race watchers already camped on the sidelines. The sign marks the beginning of the end of the Boston Marathon, and serves as a beacon for runners to let them know when the race is nearly in the bag.

Everyone knows Hopkinton. Even if you have never visited, you still know that the small town 26 miles from Boston represents a pilgrimage place for runners of who have made their way into the United State’s longest running marathon. I might be dressed in a garbage bag in the racer’s village, staying warm between trips to a port-o-john out behind the local high school, but from where I stand it might as well be the sidelines at the Super Bowl.

Everyone knows Wellseley, with nearly the entire college’s student body pressed up against the barricades, waving signs and waiting for racers, offering them kisses and creating a tunnel of sound that can nearly pick me up and launch me through the halfway mark of the race.

What everyone doesn’t always know are the miles in between. The quiet stretches between the small towns out in the suburbs, passing nothing in particular of interest, serving only as a conduit for a steady flow of racers. These are the miles where spectators grow thin on the sidelines, and sometimes a runner questions how on earth anything of magic is going to happen in the race. These are the miles where sometimes a conversation with a training partner at your shoulder or even a new friend might take shape, usually revealing nothing profound, other than ideas uninterrupted by the usual distractions waiting for us each day.

There are the quiet miles before the Newton hills, the four summits that attempt to drag people down by stacking themselves one upon the next like a quadruple-decker knuckle sandwich. Before and after those hills, the sign, the students, are the miles in between.

I calculate during these miles, I pray for the runners around me and the rest of the world, I get emotional thinking about how far I have come in my race season, and how many people I have to thank for their support. I sometimes calculate again and start to visualize what the next big obstacle will be. This is where the thinking gets done, and thinking can ruin a race if you aren’t ready for it.

I like to run with friends or listen to music to help distance myself from the sound of my footsteps on the pavement and my breath in my ears. I like distraction, but the best race strategy includes learning to cope with, or even enjoy, the absolute solitude of miles without spectators, garage bands, college students, or landmarks. The best race strategy can often be to enjoy running with yourself.

Once you are comfortable alone, you can make friends with a total stranger, or give out encouragement to someone struggling. You can listen in to other conversations, read the back of t-shirts ahead of you, or you can just enjoy placing one foot ahead of the other in order.

The miles in between give us a chance to “catch our breath” and re-focus for everything in a big race that is looking to take our breath away. I will always get emotional as I hear Wellesley students raise a chorus of encouragement, and I appreciate that, but after my breathing settles and my legs begin to resume the right cadence, I remember once again the importance of carrying myself through the race.

Most spectators will only access part of the course that are easiest to walk or drive to — you won’t see many on a freeway overpass, or on a stretch of two-lane highway with narrow shoulders. Where they grow thin, the race still continues.

Robert Pirsig, in the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” frames the importance of the whole journey as he talks about the sides of the mountain that we spend most of our time on until we reach the summit.

He writes, “You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”

After this comment, Pirsig gets around to the necessity of the mountain’s summit, which I might translate into representing the final turn onto Boylston and the straightway to the finish line. We so often envision that moment in the race, but it can’t happen without the 26 miles before it.

Pirsig continues, “But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides. So on we go — we have a long way — no hurry — just one step after the next — with a little Chautauqua for entertainment — .Mental reflection is so much more interesting than TV it’s a shame more people don’t switch over to it. They probably think what they hear is unimportant but it never is.”

As a runner, I have the honor of accessing the miles in between. That is where much of the growth happens.