Something funny happened at the Marine Corps Marathon expo yesterday. When I went to pick up my bib, I took out not my driver’s license, but my military ID, which I usually bury in the back of my wallet until I need it to get on base for the gym or commissary. I don’t hide the fact that my husband is a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot; it’s just that usually, there’s no reason to go there, and I’d just as soon be seen as a “normal” person rather than answer the barrage of questions: Do you live on base? (No). Does he wear a uniform? (Yes.) Will he have to go … to Iraq? (He’s been on two Persian Gulf deployments, during which, thankfully, he flew over the water. They were horrible nonetheless.)
But as I stood there, surrounded by the sea of Marines and runners, I realized that this last bit is an essential part of not only who I am as a person, but as a runner. If not for that first, horrible deployment, I would still be the kind of person who thinks there’s something wrong with marathoners. Now, as I prepare to run my second marathon, I know training to run 26.2 miles can make a lot of things in a person’s life seem right again.
The idea to run a marathon myself popped into my mind one dark, sticky night in Florida, on what had become a routine late-night run for me. I sprinted through my gated community, barely noticing the gaudy fountain recycling water in the retention pond, losing my footing as I scraped past some overgrown palmetto fronds. I wasn’t carrying Mace, or wearing reflective clothing, or carrying a cell-phone, as safety tips and common sense suggested I should. I hadn’t told anyone where I’d gone. Ever since Steve left, there had been no one to tell.
Steve had already applied to transfer to the Naval Academy in Annapolis when we met as University of Colorado freshmen. I fell in love with his quick wit, uncommon generosity and independent thinking, anyway, and we decided to date long-distance without thinking too much about it.
Maintaining a relationship over 2,000 miles and two time zones was hard in all the obvious ways. But it also worked for us, and we stayed together through several moves, never living in the same place for long as his orders pinged him to flight school in Pensacola to his first helicopter squadron in Jacksonville.
We called each other every night, unloading the minutia of our daily lives: the crazy guy at the city council meeting I’d covered, the disparaging comment from Steve’s flight-school instructor. We spent long Sunday afternoons on the phone, lazing on our respective beds as we talked about our long-term career goals, or planned the details of our next trip. We learned the landscape of each other’s lives during regular visits. I knew where he kept his Tupperware, what he watched on TV on Tuesdays, which picture of me sat framed at his bedside. I could call anytime. If he wasn’t available then, I knew he’d call back as soon as he could.
We got married on the beach in 2005, and lived in the same zip code in Jacksonville, Fla., for just long enough to spend our first Christmas together.
Then, he started to be gone.
Deployment, and the shapeless dread that accompanied it, resisted the coping mechanisms I’d fine-tuned during years of long-distance dating. There were no phone calls, sporadic e-mails and uncertain homecoming dates.
I did not want to work. I did not want to surround myself with the friends and family who tried to rally around me — their attempts to reach out only highlighted the intimacy I’d lost when Steve left. I didn’t want to join a book club, or learn Spanish, or redecorate my house.
I did want to run.
I’ve run most of my life: for a team in high-school cross-country, to stay in shape and get outdoors in college, for peace of mind as a young adult in my first job in a strange city. When Steve left for his first deployment in early 2006, I ran to confirm that my heart could still beat, and to feel sweat drip down my face rather than tears. I ran to regain a sense of control I desperately wanted in my life. I ran faster than I ever had before, telling myself I could outpace bitterness and rage if I sprinted hard enough. And for the first time, I ran far, knowing my best chance at getting a good night’s sleep came from logging enough miles to tire myself out.
The transition from crazy lady sprinting through the night to marathon runner happened gradually. Unfamiliar long-run routes forced me to train in the daylight, making my runs more like exercise and less like death wishes. I stopped considering a few gobs of brownie batter – meant to be baked into goodies to send to Steve – dinner. I started eating legitimate, grown-up meals like salmon and broccoli or pasta and squash to refuel after 15- and 20-milers, at least saving the brownie batter for dessert. I quit obsessing over Steve’s e-mails; instead, I read them once, then pored over running magazines while dousing my sore muscles in ice baths. And when I e-mailed Steve back, I had something other than loneliness to write about. I wrote about the sights and sounds I experienced on my runs, describing the way my shadow would dance against sweet clumps of jasmine in a garden I passed on my morning loop, or the serendipity of spotting a half-dozen men riding unicycles by the river on a Sunday 15-miler.
Steve got back from his first deployment in March 2007, in time to cheer me on at the Nashville Country Music Marathon in April. He met me along the route with energy gels, water and Tylenol. He even ran with me for seven miles of the race. But it was another familiar running companion that carried me to the finish line.
Before the race, I had memorized a host of motivational mantras, like “push harder,” “define yourself,” and “be relentless.” They failed one by one as the miles dragged on, as did the playlist of fast-paced pump-up songs I’d loaded onto my iPod.
So I invited loneliness back for one last run. I switched from my marathon playlist to the love songs I’d cried to during deployment. They would have put another runner to sleep; they reminded me of how far I’d come. I switched mantras, too. I told myself I had one last chance exorcise the rage before I let it go.
In the final yards of the race, Steve moved to the sidelines, where he smiled as he snapped pictures. Flash. The hard part’s over. Flash. I’ve run through the pain. Flash. He is home, the race is done. I ran toward the light to join Steve at the finish line.