I was running with Robin Arzon after Thanksgiving when she threw down a challenge: run 5k every day for the month of December. Do you know Robin? If you don’t, you should.
You know those folks on Instagram, forever posting the inspirational sayings? ‘Inspagram,’ I call it—the pics of clouds or food with some corny inspirational saying superimposed on it—like that’s going to solve the weird old man pain in my back or the parking ticket on my windshield or the new venture capitalist landlord driving me out of my home, the place I’ve lived the longest in my entire life, the slanted, trembling apartment where I went to hell, and then came back. If you can see the SPAM, in ‘Inspagram,’ well, I can, too. At best, that shit is like aspirin or hot coffee or cold beer—it’s a quick fix that’ll keep you going while letting the root problem quietly fester.
Yes, Robin rules Instagram, but her shit’s different. You won’t meet a cuter badass, or a more badass cutie. Great story—she’s a former lawyer who was held hostage at gunpoint, an experience that didn’t scar her as much as it destroyed her capacity to feel fear. She trashed her old life, broke a new trail, and now gets paid to be an everyday superhero (tights and all). Getting diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after running 5 back-to-back marathons has only increased her drive. Her tolerance for bullshit is lower than mine. She won’t try to sell you anything she doesn’t believe. It may sound like she speaks in hyperbole but that’s just dry reporting on a life lived in hyperbole. When someone like that issues you a challenge, you don’t say no. But I know Robin—she reminds me a lot of my badass trainer Tracy Helsing who was so instrumental in getting me sober—so I suspected it was going to suck.
Human beings are odd. When we encounter something bad, we feel the need to share it with a friend: “Oh man, this carton of milk is really sour—it smells like someone ate asparagus, then peed in it, then left it in a hot car all summer. Here, you smell it.” 5k comes out to 3 miles so I came up with a catchy hashtag—#3for31—and created a Facebook group and tried to rope everyone I knew into doing this stupid thing with me. A lot of you signed up.
I don’t want to say I approached it with arrogance. I mean, I absolutely approached it with arrogance, like I do everything, but I just don’t want to say it. 3 miles is nothing, hardly enough time to even get warmed up! 3 miles a day works out to only 103 miles for the month. I’ve done that in a week. Piece of cake, right?
Not so much. If a bully is picking on you at school, it only takes a split-second of courage to throw a punch and get them off your back. It’s much harder to go from being totally sedentary to running your first race—you can’t just do it once and be done with it, you have to go back to it again and again. Running every single day, shit, that’s the worst. Each day undoes the work of the day before. You do it—good job, gold star!—and then you wake up and, Christ, you have to do it again. Running every day is like trying to change your posture. It’s like trying to change your mind.
It never got easy for me. Yes, Morrissey, it is really so strange: the last mile is not the hardest mile. The hardest mile is the first mile. And what’s harder than the first mile? Lacing up your goddamn running shoes before you even leave the house. I’m a big guy, 220 pounds, and a distance runner. It takes me a long time to warm up, six or eight miles. Once I finally got the hated running shoes on after a long dry ocean of procrastination, there was that first shitty mile where my old, lumbering body was still waking up. Then another. Then another. Then my run was done. Just three miles, but none of them good miles, none where I felt like I was cruising instead of just laboring. Sure, I could run more and sometimes I did—21 one day out in California a couple days before Xmas—but it didn’t matter. The next day, there were still 3 shitty miles waiting for me.
I managed to get sick twice in December. My IT band acted up. My left knee hurt the entire month. I ran with Robin a couple of times, in the freezing rain. I ran with my sister, also sick, who hasn’t mastered my technique of blowing snot rockets and just blew her runny nose on her shirt. I ran with my brother-in-law, Bill, who has no cartilage left in his knees after 26 years spent rucking in the Marine Corps with a 70 lb pack. The day after my big run, I hiked four miles with my old man, coughing and feverish, tottering along behind him though he’s 70 and has had both knees replaced. Mostly, I ran alone, in the cold, in the heat, in the dark, in the blazing sun, my chest aching with each breath, annoyed that these stupid little runs were annoying me so much, hating Robin’s challenge, hating myself for hating it.
But running is reliable magic. Epiphanies have often come to me on long runs, but I expect nothing from runs under 20 miles. Doing this #3for31 challenge, I stumbled on a big epiphany at the beginning of a small run, a puny four- or six-miler: through running, I can understand the relationship believers have with God.
I don’t believe in God. It’s not that I did and then, in a fit of hurt, I decided God was dead to me. Nothing terrible happened to destroy my faith. I’ve just never had it. I remember when I was maybe six, walking out of our house with my shirt off and standing in our driveway. I looked up at the sky, looked at it all around, in every corner and just thought to myself “…Nah.” At times, I’ve wished I believed in God, but I have never come close to believing. I have never been able to understand how people believe.
But, running, I understand how believers feel about God. Running is greater than I will ever be, it is more powerful than I will ever be. Running is invisible and it is all around me. I can never beat it, I can never escape it. I can throw myself at running with all my strength, with all my will, curse it and flail at it. I will never trump it; I will never hurt it; it will never even register the attack.
Running is unconditional. I can ignore it for days, weeks, months, but running is always there waiting, always listening. Running will always be there for me when I need it. Running will always welcome me back. When I have been arrogant, running will humble me. When I have been bad, running will punish me. Running won’t wait for me to be good to reward me; it won’t wait for a new accomplishment; it will reward me for every single attempt I make.
Running is infinite. I can be greedy, gluttonous, take as much of it as I want and there will still be enough for everyone else. Running is mysterious. I am more intimate with running than I have been with any lover. Running knows my body better than any person alive, it knows every part of me. Running through a canyon in New Mexico, so lightheaded from the altitude that the entire world sparkles, moving forward just to keep from falling over; running through the hot California summer, so overheated and dehydrated I am barely moving, the desperately wringing hot, sour juice out of a moldy grapefruit on the side of the road just for some moisture, rinsing my shirt in a mud puddle just to cool down; stumbling into a hotel bathroom, reeking terribly of every possible bad organic smell, swampwater and mud, horseshit and old, wet shoes and fourteen hours of sweat, layer upon layer, every possible body odor, my pruney feet, my crotch, my ass, then stripping down and after a minute of agony when the hot water washes the crusted salt into and then out of each abrasion of my skin, the heavenly scent of clean water and nothing else.
Running listens patiently without judgment. Running keeps my secrets. Running is comforting because it never answers back. Running is infuriating because it never answers back. Running is endlessly sympathetic. Running is endlessly cruel. As much as I have learned about running, I can’t pretend to understand any more than the smallest part of it. Running alone understands all of me. I want to love running. I try, again and again, to love running, but I fail, I can’t. Running is too hard, and I hate it. It doesn’t matter. Running loves me.
I accepted Robin’s challenge because I’d fallen out of love with running. I’m back. Totally in, one hundred percent, till death do us part.
Did you run #3for31 with me? Andy Andrist did. Last time I saw him, we were shitfaced and doing whip-its in a beer-drenched hotel room in Death Valley. Tina Lipsky did. I had a wicked crush on her in high school but I’ve only seen her one night since I was fifteen and that was ten years ago. Alex Puls did. I’ve met him twice, once when I bought a guitar from him on Craig’s List and once on the floor of MSG when he got me VIP tickets to a sold-out Billy Joel show. I ran with Tim Sweeney once in Toronto, met Scotty Kummer once in a town I hope to never go back to. I’ve never met Erik DeAngelis, who posted a new drawing each day with his mileage. I’ve never met Tamiko Radke, the woman who gave birth to an entire rock band, three brothers who have outshone their influences: Radkey. I’ve never met Heather Belizzi, who sent me a hat that said GRATITUDE.
What’s next? A revelation: this ain’t the end. Robin knew that this challenge would be tough for me, but she knew I could do it. She knew I could do it because she ran 3 miles every day for seven months.
If you know me at all, you know I’m not going to give something up without exacting something in return. I completed Robin’s challenge; now she has to take on mine. The next challenge is #31for31—write for 31 minutes, each and every day, for all 31 days of January.
Are you up to it? Maybe you’ll be too busy, working on running 2015 miles in 2015. I’ll be on tour, doing my own challenge: 35 shows in 38 days. I hope to see you out there.
What’s touched me the most about doing this challenge is the people who took it on with me. If you ran #3for31, I probably don’t know you. Some of you, I know your name or your face but probably not both. Most of you, I don’t know at all. You ran in Finland or Mexico or Illinois or Canada or Spain. Most of you, I have zero frame of reference for.
If we meet and you tell me you know me from Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I will give you a blank look because there are a lot of you out there. But if you tell me you ran #3for31, I will know instantly who you are. Because we are now related in some way. We shared something. We ran alone together, every day, for a long time.