On getting naked
I could not have been more naked.
Six months ago, I stood behind an open car door. It was the only thing blocking my man-parts from an entire grass-field-turned-parking-lot full of people on a warm, spring afternoon. I was muddy, sweaty, and naked. In public.
“Woah!” said an unsuspecting passer-by, a friend but not one that should’ve seen me in the buff. “I did not need to see that.”
I covered myself and dressed in clean clothes. I probably should’ve been more embarrassed, but I wasn’t. The constant and frustrating fount of self-loathing had dried up and been replaced by something akin to peace. Very naked, blowin’ in the wind peace.
A few minutes later I was dressed, sipping on a beer, and laughing with my brother and two good friends. We’d just completed the Greenville Mud Run, approximately four miles of mud pits, tall obstacles, and trail running. We weren’t the fastest team, but we never planned to be. We set a goal. We beat it. We got naked and drank beer. It’s pretty much the story of man’s evolution from beginning to end.
Long about the second beer, Chuck and Blood started chatting about this half marathon they were planning to run. In Las Vegas. On my 38th birthday. At night. Down the Vegas Strip.
“No,” I said. Because at that moment, on that military base just a few minutes removed from flashing a parking lot full of innocents, I’d run as far as I had run in one stretch in my life. These guys were asking me to tack 9.1 miles onto the distance and somehow make my body ready to do it in seven months.
Indeed, I said, “No.”
Right before I said, “Maybe.”
* * *
In August of 2010, I couldn’t run a mile without stopping for a breath, but I had foolishly promised myself I would complete a 5k (3.1 miles) race before the end of the year. I undertook the popular “Couch to 5k” program, completed it, and ran the race on Halloween weekend. I’d only hoped to finish in less than 30 minutes. I crossed the finish line at 27:36. I figured that would probably be the last the road would see of my feet.
Not too many days passed before I’d been convinced to run another 5k. This one was on the morning of my 37th birthday. It was cold. My friends laughed at me as I high-stepped across the college campus lawn to warm up. I hit the finish line at 27:16.
There was my buddy Blood cooling off after taking second in his age group with a 22:17 time. My wife wasn’t far behind me. She won her age group. G-Rob, in the midst of a huge self-improvement program, came in eight minutes ahead of where he had finished five weeks earlier. We felt somehow accomplished in spite of the fact the 21-year-old winner of the race came in at 16:39. In any case, that night we ate like kings and celebrated until the wee hours.
The holidays came and went, I spent some time on the road, and I fell out of shape. I tried another race with my wife in mid-January but found myself struggling to the point that I was sure I was finished with running. It was yet another six-month-long pastime I’d engaged and let fall by the wayside. The problem was that I’d agreed to do the Mud Run with my brother and friends in late April. What’s more, I’d signed up for a trail run in early February.
Even two days before the 6k trail run, I was waffling on whether I would go. My wife and I didn’t have a babysitter. Snow was threatening. Our dog had just come out of surgery. The night before the race, it stormed for hours. The morning of the race, it was near-freezing. The hilly trails were covered in ankle-deep puddles. It was miserable.
Of all the things my parents instilled in me, the two I’ve carried as both trophies and burdens are the imperatives that I finish what I start, and I keep my promises.
My wife and I drove out to the trail and ran into a woman we’ve known for a decade. Fun Amy. Fun Amy who had beaten breast cancer and swam the Florida Keys. Fun Amy who was out there with everybody to run on that miserable morning. Fun Amy who would go on to fight cancer again in the coming months. An inspiration in every wry smile. Fun Amy.
Midway through the race during what was, for me, a tough uphill climb, I found a button in myself that I didn’t know existed. It was a button made of pure pride. I could press it to make the only voice in my head become one that screamed, “You will not give up.”
The water in the puddles was frigid. The mud was slippery. The hills and switchbacks were tough. I wasn’t the fastest runner that day by a long shot, but I don’t know if there was a person out there who felt more accomplished.
* * *
By the time the endorphins from the Mud Run had worn off, G-Rob had told Blood he was going to run the Vegas half marathon with him. Free from post-race euphoria, I continued to demur. Six months seemed like precious little time to turn my body into one that could run 13.1 miles and do it at a pace in which I would be proud. That understood, saying no meant that my buddies would be spending my birthday in Las Vegas while I sat home and thought of what might have been.
It was around that time that an old writer friend of mine offered to coach me as he had coached Blood for a 2010 half. He was planning to run the Vegas race, too. It would be have to be a remote coaching, but if I was in all the way, he would do it.
Dan is a runner, blogger, writer, journalist, and climber who lives in Colorado. He manages a busy family life, his work as a columnist, and his non-stop training all at the same time. Like my friend Colin, an ultra runner and all around good guy, Dan was a source of inspiration. I wanted to do what he and Colin could do and do it with the joy they seemed to share. Now Dan was offering to help me out.
The last weekend in May, with the encouragement of my friends and new coach, I started working to get in shape for the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Half Marathon. That race is now 27 days away.
* * *
If you had walked in my bathroom yesterday morning, you would’ve found a 37-year-old man slathering cocoa butter on his nipples and inner thighs. His eyes bloodshot, his hair a mess, his aging body a horrifying reflection in the mirror, this man was lubricated for war. On many Sunday mornings in the past two decades, the man would’ve been shaking off the cobwebs of an indiscrete night, one spent in a dark bar or smoky poker room. On this Sunday morning, I was emerging from a good night’s rest and going out to run ten miles before the morning got too late. I barely know myself anymore. That’s probably a good thing.
Over the past five months, I’ve had to face myself in the mirror a lot. Some days, it was great. I ran two more 5k races and cut two minutes off my personal best. On the morning September 11th, having never run more than seven miles, I went out and ran 9.11 while reflecting on the 10th anniversary. A couple of weeks ago, I collapsed in the middle of a trail during the seventh mile of a run when my knee seized up on me. After stretching it out in front of people running by me, I got up and ran another four miles back to my car. I’ve run fast. I’ve run slow. I’ve run far. I’ve done it alone, and I’ve done it with some of my best friends.
Some days I didn’t like who was looking back at me. It’s that part that forced me to sit down and write this. Some days I struggled through what felt like impossible runs. On a couple of occasions, I gave up. On other occasions, I didn’t give up, but didn’t do as well as I hoped, and I let that weigh on me for too long. Like training for a race, forcing my brain to avoid self-sabotage is a long process. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. Every day I go for a run, I’m surprised at what I can do, and surprised at what I can’t. For me, life isn’t much different.
But I know this: in 27 days, I’m going to be standing with 40,000 other people about to set out on the same personal journey. Among those people will be five or six of the people I hold most dear in my life. Every one of them will be rooting for me as I am rooting for them. I have my goals and will do everything in my power to meet them. Whatever happens after the gun will come from my heart, and whatever happens at the finish line will be proof that I am 13.1 miles and a step closer to being who I want to be. In the end, running a half marathon won’t have been the biggest struggle for me. The hardest part will have been believing in myself enough to do it. I’m finally to the point that I believe, and I’m not ashamed to tell you, it’s a bigger relief than I can say.
* * *
I won’t pretend to know much about running. Hell, I won’t pretend to know anything about running. I hesitate to call myself a runner until I reach some greater understanding of what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. However, I suspect this much is true: after years of hiding everything behind clothes, under hats, behind shower curtains, anyone in true pursuit of running must embrace laying himself naked in front of everybody. Those who give themselves over to the pure pain, the pure joy, and the purse sense of accomplishment cannot be ashamed. To run, sweat, and limp, to scream, gasp, and cry, to accomplish something you once thought impossible through only your own hard work and to do it all in front of the world, that is something you can only do if you are comfortable enough to stand naked in front of the world and say, “This is who I am, and this is what I’ve done.”