“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”–On the Road, Jack Kerouac
A few weeks ago I was sitting on the couch watching American Idol (I admit it!) when my cell phone rang.
It was my old friend Justin, whom I’ve known since high school.
“Yo, Kim!” he said, “I’m going up to Columbus to run a marathon next weekend. It’s a crazy course but you’re crazy so you want to come run with me?”
“What makes the course crazy, exactly?” I asked skeptically. I was in my sweatpants and, if memory serves, holding a beer in my hand.
“Well, it’s a lap course.”
“Like, you run laps around a neighborhood?”
“Well, more like an industrial park.”
“And how many laps are in the half marathon?” I asked, sensing my limits.
“13?” I practically screamed. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to run 26 laps around an industrial park in the cold in Columbus?”
I took a sip of beer and looked down at my schlubby, untested legs.
“Um, I’m sorry Justin,” I said, “I’m not interested.”
A few days later I ran laps through Brian’s parent’s sub-division. The neighborhood is built into a two-mile loop of cul-de-sacs and I ran three of them. I was bored. I couldn’t imagine running 26 loops on a frigid Saturday morning, out there with all of the other crazy runners, pushing myself through the pain and the cold.
And yet, I understand why they do it. Because I used to be one of them. I was one of the crazies who lined up regardless of the weather, and who pushed through the torture and pain. I had learned to ignore my head and my body as they screamed at me to stop. That kind of test is character-building. I’ve still never found anything that feels better.
Trail running 30 miles to celebrate my 30th birthday.
But I gave up the rigorous training and racing schedule when I packed my bags to go traveling. These days, it’s all I can do to hold on to a tiny semblance of the runner I used to be: Six miles here, maybe ten on a warm day.
A week later my phone rang again. This time it is Justin inviting me to a motivational speaking event.
“Yo, Kim, I think you’ll like it.” Justin talks sort of like a Boston cop with a mid-western accent. “You’re gonna walk away all, you know, inspired.”
We meet for dinner and then go to the speaking event. Then we head to a bar. Justin scrolls through his iPhone and pulls up his Kindle app to show me that my book is on his e-reader. The other books he scrolls past are of the nutritional and motivational sort, books called Die Empty and A Life Without Limits. They are books that he has recommended to me.
“Justin, what do you need all of these nutrition books for?” I ask him. He is as sleek as a seal, thin and muscled. He runs marathons the way other people see movies, once or twice a month.
He laughs and puts his arms out, palms up like he’s going to shrug. Instead, he says, “Hey, I guess they worked.”
I look at my oldest friends in the same way a parent might admire their babies grown up. I marvel over the lives they’ve built for themselves, their growing families, their passions, and their hobbies. My heart flip-flops when I think of the years that have bound us together. God, I think, remember when we were just pimple-faced teenagers drinking beer in the pool shed? I feel a swell of pride to have picked this person, so early on, when he could have turned out any which way but has turned out like this: a sensitive, funny, multi-dimensional person who just gets better as the years roll by.
“Hey,” he says, punching me lightly on the arm. “You remember when we went running on your wedding day and you kicked my ass?” I tell him I do remember.
“That was a real wake-up call.”
“What do you mean? “ I ask him. “I’m kind of offended by that!”
“Well, you can be. You’re allowed to be.”
“And when you came back to Cincinnati and qualified for Boston,” he says. “That was cool to see.” He says nothing else, but in the silence, I can feel that he is proud of me.
After qualifying for the Boston Marathon at the rainy Flying Pig Marathon.
In the years since my Boston-qualifying days, Justin has taken the place that I used to hold, that of the obsessive runner. In truth, he’s gone much farther than I ever could. He is an accomplished triathlete and Ironman. He has won marathons. He says things like, “I was having a bad day, I came in fifth in that one.” But he says it without ego or pride. He runs to test himself, plain and simple.
He tells me about his kids, his wife, his races, and his training schedule. He tells me about his job his business idea and the books he’s reading. He tells me he wrote an article for a local magazine. It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night and we are at a bar downtown. “When do you sleep?” I ask him and he says, “I get about five hours a night.”
It is time to go and I hug him. He fist-bumps me and we make plans to get together again before I leave Cincinnati. He climbs into his car and I climb into mine. (For some reason all of the stories I tell from Ohio end in the car.)
I drive home and it feels like the molecules in my body are vibrating in firewater. Justin was right; I did find inspiration tonight. He has left me zinging with his laser-like focus and determination.
The feeling that builds in me as I drive back through the dark streets of Cincinnati is the re-emerging desire to be that girl who toes the line again. To be the girl who stands at the brink of her abilities and flies like a bat out of hell when the starting gun fires. I want to feel, above all else, the cleansing that comes from wringing every drop out of myself. To stand once again at the finish line; empty but overflowing.