My Other Half

“No,” was my answer the first time my then-boyfriend suggested we run a half marathon together. “I don’t know,” the second time. “Alright, fine,” the third, shoulders hunched and walking with haste through a mid-summer Boston drizzle.

I hadn’t run competitively since high school, and had only ever been to the gym when the sudden and overwhelming fear of premature death by arterial plaque buildup consumed me, which is to say approximately twice. Blessed with a naturally lithe frame and fast metabolism, my main concern at 24 years old was paying my exorbitant New York City rent, not curating a body fit for 13.1 miles.

We hadn’t even started training when our relationship came to a sudden but necessary end. On another rainy Sunday morning back in Manhattan, I supplied my own unending waterworks during a diatribe that began with the ostensibly simple: “I’m unhappy.” He sat stone-faced on my lumpy, gray couch while I calmly explained that his nuanced insults and politically correct denunciations were impetuses for a spiral of insecurity that had descended into a deep and consuming depression. It was clear that our relationship wasn’t working, for me at least.

“I’m obviously not going to train with you,” I said definitively, addressing our first matter of practical business as exes. “But I’d still run the race with you if you wanted.” He had registered us for the Brooklyn Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon just three days prior, and the race was a mere ten weeks away.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” he said, shuffling awkwardly in his seat. He was silent for a moment, and then started again. “Oh, so I had to guess your finishing time when I registered us. I projected you to finish in two hours and 10 minutes.” Employing some quick mental math, I nodded in assent…10 minutes per mile sounded about right. Then I replayed the sentence in my head, irked by the singular pronoun: “you.”

I turned to him, premonitory heat rising to my face before I even asked the question. “Wait, what did you project your finishing time to be?”

Sheepish, his reply was barely audible: “Two hours.”

I felt like I’d been smacked. After going through the motions of begging me to sign up and planning to train together, he was aiming to cross the finish line not in step with me, but an entire ten minutes ahead? My competitive streak ran hot up through my spine and into my flushed face as I writhed in tortured embarrassment; once again, he had made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. It was the stinging climax — and hallmark — of our breakup.

The following afternoon, I stormed out of a long, blurry workday, determined. Pulling my sneakers out of a lengthy retirement, I headed to the East River, compiling a playlist anchored in melodramatic anger en route; “GO MO GO!” featured Kanye and Eminem heavily, with additions by the likes of Skrillex, AC/DC, and the aptly named Prophets of Rage. But as I walked across the footbridge to the pedestrian path, I felt, suddenly, nothing; empty, hollow, and deadened by a well of complex emotion run dry.

All I could hear through the cacophonous roar of my blistering playlist was a single phrase, gleaned from memories shelved long ago: “Keep your head up, Morgan!” It was the voice of my varsity track coach, lamenting my inability to maintain a neutral upper body. Loping around the track like a newborn fawn, my swinging head wasted precious energy, and he spent three years coaching me out of the habit. It became a mantra — keep your head up, keep your head up, keep your head up — that dictated the staccato of my steps.

Five miles came and went with stark ease on that first run, and I clocked in under my goal time, to my own astonishment. Replicating the all-star times from my high school heyday was still a long way off — if even remotely attainable — but it was a start.

It wasn’t long before I became obsessed, busying myself with scribbling the week’s training schedules on neon sticky notes every Monday morning at work, and planning routes based on their proximity to my apartment and office. I eschewed dinner plans, set alarms for Saturday and Sunday mornings, and started drinking green juice because it sounded like something an athlete would do. As someone who struggles with self-motivation, this was uncharted territory; never before had I rearranged my entire life so meticulously to accommodate a new routine. It was equal parts refreshing and terrifying.

Week after week, I logged mile after painstaking mile, fueled by the increasingly vivid daydream of crossing the finish line ahead of my ex that often brought resilient tears to my eyes and a choking lump to my throat. I was getting faster by the day, and my body reflected the hard work; my pale stomach, which had once exhibited a subtle paunch, was now cut like a beveled diamond, my red belly button ring the accenting cherry on top. And cross-training with yoga (any day but Monday, his preferred day at our favorite studio) had instilled in me a previously unknown haven of calm to return to in times of distress. Every time I looked in the mirror, I smiled.

Just as the runs became easier with time, so did thinking about Mike. Painful flashbacks of our relationship that had once induced physically gut-wrenching pangs of emotion now cued only remote despondence. Passing restaurants where we’d dined barely fazed me, and I became adept at referencing his positive attributes without launching into a backpedaling diatribe. When he reached out to check in a month after the breakup, I told him the truth: “The thought of beating you in this race is one hell of a motivator.”

But as race day loomed close on the horizon, I was gripped by dichotomous feelings of utter confidence and crippling stage fright. Scared witless by the thought that all of my hard work would be for naught — and intimidated by all of the beautiful, fit people in the Penn Plaza Pavilion atrium — I sped through the pre-race expo like a hunted gazelle, hyper-vigilant. Walking towards the corral change booth with my race bib in hand, I made a decision I had contemplated every day since my feet hit the pavement on that first run: I moved my projected time from 2:10 to 1:45.

“I don’t want there to be any chance of me seeing Mike before the race,” I admitted to my mom over the phone that night. “And based on the way my training has gone, I think I can do it.”

She agreed, her voice echoing over the thousands of miles between us. “But don’t do it for him, Morgan…do it for you.”

Two days later, I awoke before the sun. Donning a long since chosen ensemble — black technical tank top, black crop tights, black compression socks, black sneakers — I prepared for the long road ahead. Heading out into the inky blackness of pre-dawn morning, I scarfed a pint container of spaghetti with soy sauce while I walked to the subway, humming “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” in the passing company of sanitation workers and off-duty bartenders. Fellow runners heading to the starting line were all but silent, lost in their own worlds of preparatory thought.

When we reemerged in Brooklyn, I was struck by how lonely I felt; the majority of runners were in teams or pairs in matching uniforms and colorful accoutrements. I had a sudden and immediate curiosity about Mike, but dismissed it just as briskly with a shake of my petite blonde ponytail. Killing time as I entered my starting corral, I befriended an experienced half-marathoner twice my age, and we chatted while the sun rose over 12,000 eager bodies outside the Brooklyn Museum. With minutes to go before the start of the race, I adjusted and readjusted my timing chip, shook out my legs, and cued my trusted playlist. As the countdown began, I breathed a silent prayer: “Feet, don’t fail me now.”

The entire race was a blur; I remember my best friend’s bright blue parka at mile four, the American flag bolstered by an army veteran at mile eight, and the gross stabbing sensation in my knees that started at mile ten. Crossing the finish line with smile wide and arms outstretched, I knew neither my own finishing time nor Mike’s, only that I was done. I felt the weight of the finisher’s medal against my chest as my own figurative weight lifted from my shoulders…it was finally over.

Triumphant tears streaked down my flaming cheeks as friends rushed to congratulate me in the throes of my personal victory, brandishing paper signs and a bottle of cheap, sweet champagne. My eyes were still swimming when a friend shoved a smartphone into my hands, my timing chip’s recorded finishing statistics on display; one hour, 39 minutes, and 55 seconds. I started to cry anew, bewildered and proud. My months of hard work had not been in vain.

Another friend looked up from her own iPhone coyly, calling my attention. I ambled over in an ethereal daze, peering at her upturned screen.

“He hasn’t finished yet,” she said. I cracked a wan smile, and raised the champagne to my lips. That was just the cherry on top.