Last-Minute Heroes

The Kansas City Marathon is in less than three weeks, and I’ve been experiencing the usual end-of-the-road burnout. For whatever reason, once my long runs reach 18-20 miles and my weekly totals lurch past 50, training starts to feel more like an occupation than a leisure pursuit.

Lately, I’ve been coping with this in three ways:

Finding new routes—In a smallish town with limited trail mileage, this can only be accomplished by weaving a dashed line through residential areas, Family Circus-style, and hoping to encounter new sights. Stately historic manors. Dazzling autumn foliage. Perhaps a spooky old van with a wizard scene painted on the side. There’s no telling what or whom you’ll encounter (and possibly high-five) on an all-new road, and that keeps things from becoming a GU-fueled death march. I give a wide berth to whatever’s inside that wizard van, though.

Reading books and websites about running when hurricanes/general malaise keeps me away from the real thing—As mentioned in How Not to Train, I read a lot of books about running over the summer (My favorite: Going Long: Best Stories from Runner’s World). I also developed an unfortunate addiction to the New York Times “Well” blog, which breaks fitness news with the same gusto and regularity with which it breaks my heart.

Bold headlines like “Chocolate Makes You Run Faster” lead into articles that stipulate you can’t consume more than a piece the size of the period at the end of this sentence. “Beer Aids Marathon Recovery” wedges the unwelcome qualifier “nonalcoholic” into the copy, thus canceling out any usefulness of what I’m sure took many sad, O’Doul’s-fueled nights to discover. And then there’s the shocking revelation that “Bisexual Men Exist,” which leads me to wonder if the Well blog is actually serving any sort of informative purpose in my life. I did enjoy the recent article on how fellow badassthmatic Paula Radcliffe balances motherhood and marathons, though. Which leads me to….

Seeking out heroic inspiration—There’s no shortage of “triumph of the human spirit” in sports, and distance running is no different. Although I’ve often professed my love for comics legend the Flash, my real marathon heroes are generally more three-dimensional and less likely to have kid sidekicks and time-traveling cosmic treadmills.

As far as superfast role models are concerned, I like tough lady runners—the kind that might have been featured in GQ’s guide to the 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time had the magazine thought to include any women in their jockstrap sausagefest (see the excellent blog Fit and Feminist for more on this.) Believe it or not, GQ, women can be cool and badass too. Just check out ultramarathoner Jenn Shelton if you don’t believe me.

I first read about Shelton’s exploits in Outside magazine and immediately recognized her as the inspirational powerhouse I had no idea I needed. If the events chronicled in Born to Run are to be believed, Shelton’s not only a record-breaking 100-mile trail racer, she’s also a hard-drinking partier and total character. She’s also the background image on my computer, so any time I think about staying in bed an extra hour instead of launching myself out onto the pavement, I have to ask myself “What Would JS Do?” Considering she’s been known to run 50-mile races with a creepy smile on her face the entire time, I’m pretty sure she would lace up. (The fact that she’s cute doesn’t hurt either.)

And then there’s my favorite inspirational distance runner, Jill Giddings. Below is a picture of my mom from when she was just getting into racing at about the age I am now. Note the hipster bandanna, sassy shorts and unfortunate fact that we look nothing alike. I wish I had photos of when she ran the Kansas City Marathon in 1986, but alas—either no one took pictures, or my sister already poached them from the photo album for some weird scrapbook. It’s possible, however, that evidence of that fateful day was just deemed a PTSD trigger and destroyed—all I remember is watching an ambulance whisk my mom away from the finish line to what I guessed to be some kind of underground warming chamber for the severely hypothermic. She managed to win third in her age group, though, despite being so sick and shaky that she doesn’t remember anything from the second half of the race. I don’t expect GQ to have heard that particular Giddings legend, but I’d argue that running 26.2 miles in damp cotton and a near-coma is pretty damn badass.

That’s not to say I appreciated JG’s coolness at the time. Growing up with a running-obsessed mom wasn’t easy for a nerdy kid with crippling shyness, weird stomach issues and a singular love of Nintendo Power. Throughout my youth, I hated running—particularly after being forced to wear matching T-shirts to family “fun runs” and log miles around the block in exchange for time in AOL Star Trek chat rooms. It makes me wonder what kind of torture I’ll exact on my own future kids now that I know they’ll eventually grow to stop resenting me for it. Will I give them space to develop their own reasonable interests and hobbies? Or will I make them run local races dressed up like members of the Justice League?

Now that I’ve worked through my own traumatic exercise memories, though, I appreciate that my mom made tackling a long, difficult race like a marathon even seem possible. Which is really the whole point of having a hero, right? To make the impossible seem like an option. Now I just have to find out what her time was and beat it….