By Carol Paik
Yesterday, I ran twenty miles. It seemed like a lot of miles, particularly at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. But when I got home, I was able to check off on my training schedule that I had completed another long run. And then, I had a doughnut.
The checkmark plus the doughnut more than made up for the aubergine toenail that was revealed when I removed my right shoe. Especially since it didn’t hurt. If the toenail had hurt, or if it had fallen off, or somehow been more disgusting, then the equation would have been different.
My running partner, Anne, and I get a lot of positive, reinforcing attention for our running. As we set off on our run yesterday, we came across a group of acquaintances, wrapped wimpily in scarves and coats, who asked us how many miles we were doing that day.
“Oh, like twenty,” we said nonchalantly.
“Twenty??” they said. “In this cold?”
“I can barely make it to the gym!” one said.
“Are you guys training for the marathon?” said another.
“Well, yeah,” said Anne. “Do you think we would run twenty miles if we didn’t have to?”
“But, wait,” I said. “Actually, we don’t have to.”
And then I felt confused.
People have asked me how I feel, physically. Do you feel really strong or do you feel really worn out? The answer is yes. At any given moment, I feel either really strong or really worn out, and sometimes I feel both things simultaneously. Strong and worn out are not opposites.
People seem to think that running a marathon is difficult. In fact, at least at my level, it is merely time-consuming. What is involved, in terms of skill, is minimal. One foot goes in front of the other, and then the other in front of that, and so on. Once, out of curiosity, I took a running class that was being offered by the Road Runners Club. I thought that I knew how to run since I’ve been doing it since I was a child, but since they offered the class I assumed that meant there existed some special knowledge about running that I’d been lacking all these years. But—one foot in front of the other, they said. They did provide one useful tip, though: that one should try to spend the majority of one’s energy moving forward instead of up and down, or side to side.
Last night, I dreamed that at the very start of the marathon, as we were waiting for the starting blast, a race official came pushing through the crowd, leading a horse. “Here,” he said, pointing at me and then handing me the reins. “You get to go on horseback.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just got on the horse. Clearly I had been singled out for this privilege and it was obviously going to make this race a lot easier and I would almost definitely do a personal best. But as I was sitting on the horse I realized that now all those twenty-mile runs had been complete wastes of time. There had been a point to them, or so I had thought, and now it eluded me.
I made it through the marathon without any real injuries. The only ill effect was a large purple sore on my thigh which had been caused by four hours and twenty minutes of being rubbed against by the Ziploc bag of jelly beans I carried in my pocket. I had not foreseen a jelly bean injury. This reminded me of how, after my son was born, I examined my body in the mirror. Giving birth had been the most exhausting and painful experience that I had ever been through and it seemed to me it should have left some physical evidence, but the only visible marks on my body were my husband’s thumbprints from when the doctors told him to hold my shoulders while I had my epidural.
You never know what’s going to leave marks.
CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband and two kids. Her writing has appeared in the journals Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among others; and the anthologies The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed. More of her writing is at www.carolpaik.com.