Running always sounded like a dreadful idea. I wouldn't even run to catch a bus, because buses are notorious for being repetitive and you know what's even worse than riding the bus? Running to catch one. The only time I even considered running in my former life was when trying to escape a gang of raccoons. (Roving gangs of raccoons are a more common city occurrence than you might expect.) This isn't the first time I've been wrong about some belief I've cuddled stubbornly close to my heart for no reason at all.
What I've learned since agreeing to run Ragnar - a 200-mile relay from Los Angeles to San Diego - is that running burns off the crazy. This is helpful, because it takes a vast plentitude of crazy to agree to spend 37 hours in a van with eleven other people in order to run an insane number of miles in Darwinian conditions meant to pick off the weak and cranky.
But wholeheartedly embracing the crazy is my default strategy. So I signed up, trained to run farther than I've ever run in my life, slathered gold puffy paint in the shape of hissing honey badgers onto t-shirts, and climbed in the van that would be our collective home for the weekend.
Climbing out of said van after it broke down at 12:30 at night in order to hitchhike to the point where I would start running many miles down a dark freeway, I might have briefly reconsidered my default strategy. But once I decided to stop worrying and just go, I tore down the dirt hill of our doom, waved my hands at the sky to stop the wind, jumped in a random van (LIKE A BOSS), and all the anxiety about stalled behemoths and dark, desolate runs melted away.
Clambering into an unknown van with a bunch of strange men and a cooler of beer at midnight and praying you get where you need to go is not something you do in real life. But in running life, you hop in, find that every last person in that random van is either snoring or genial - especially when you tell them your team name is Mr Bear and the Honey Badgers over a blare of Irish music - and they offer you a beer before dropping you off exactly where you need to be.
I'd been awake for nineteen hours and I was facing what the Ragnar bible had labeled my hardest run. I'd already run twice - once in the blazing sun up a beast of a hill, a run the powers-that-be had labeled my easiest. My smug, sea-breeze washed jogs had not prepared me for a heat index of a hundred and fuck. But after I handed off food, water, and a sweatshirt to our stranded runner and he slapped the team bracelet on my wrist, I took off.
As I settled into my stride, I realized that just because someone labels something easy, doesn't mean it is. Just because someone tells you something is hard, doesn't mean it will be hard for you. And never underestimate the power of endorphins to flood your over-worked system with peace.
Alone on an empty stretch of road with nothing but quietly chirping insects and velvety dark shadows opening to the brighter dark of a sky dotted with stars, I remembered why motion is always better than sitting still. Moving forward - even if you don't know where you're going and it's so dark you can't see more than a few feet in front of you - always feels better than sitting, unsure and anxious, in the back of a broken van. Moving your feet across miles of road cycles all the anxiety and exhaustion and madly spinning thoughts out of your mind and body and into the quiet ether.
Cartwheels on the beach at mile who-the-hell-knows.
Ragnar was my own personal Everest. When you aren't getting much sleep but you are doing weird amounts of physical exercise with zero personal space (even if it means you get to spend the weekend petting the heads of awesome people), the situation has a way of turning up the flame on the usually still pool of your insecurities until the water bubbles over.
The patterings of my own mind are always my worst enemy, and boy did it kick my ass during the last eight hours of our journey. But I came away knowing that if I run for long enough, the inside of my brain shuts down.
And when you find yourself holding it together (mostly) while surrounded by people who are also holding it together - even though they're exhausted and dealing with setbacks like delayed flights, injuries, longer-than-expected runs and vans that aren't doing their job - and everyone's working as a loving and respectful team and still managing to be mothereffing delights, you know you've done something right with your life.
Waiting for our final three runners, we sat by the water in downtown San Diego as the sun set over the harbor. When we saw their three dancing headlamps in the distance, we started screaming like loons. As they passed, we joined up behind them to run across the finish line together.
It was the first time I felt like a real runner.
I want to qualify this, because I believe that if you run, you are a runner. It doesn't matter if you run around the block or you run Badwater. If you tie on your shoes and start moving your feet, you are a runner. Just as it doesn't matter if you write on cocktail napkins or head the New York Times bestseller list. If you put words to paper with the intent of telling a story or sharing a truth, you are a writer. That said, crossing the finish line with ten friends after covering 200 miles with our own 22 feet, I felt like a real runner. And I felt like the meaning of the word "empowered" finally dropped from my head and settled into my bones.
Because if we can run from LA to San Diego, what else can we do?