Imagine that an artist spends three months designing a beautiful glass swan. Meticulous and passionate, he spends hours every day etching the finest details into the glass, perfecting each feather, smoothing the surface of the slender neck until it shines luminously. After endless weeks of hard work, the artist inspects the swan. It is not perfect, but it is as close to perfection as the artist can make it. Anxiously, the artist carries the swan to a gallery where he is confident that it will sell for somewhere between $10,000-35,000. The artist carefully places the swan on a pedestal, sits down and nervously waits for the buyers to arrive. The time draws near and the gallery doors swing open. Excitedly, he stands, but too abruptly. His arm brushes the pedestal and as if in slow motion, the swan wobbles and tips, falls directly to the ground beneath his feet, shatters into a thousand pieces and is worth nothing. That, in essence, is exactly what happened to me this weekend.
It’s easy for professional runners to show up to a big race narcissistically believing that they have outworked their competition. I am certain that every woman on the starting line of the LA Marathon worked exceptionally hard to be there, but the only thing I know for sure about myself is that in the past few months, I have worked harder than I ever have in my life. I pushed my highest weekly volume into the 140s, ran a huge amount of intensity and rounded out my final 23 mile long run with a 5:09 mile, a time that would have been a one mile PR until I was 19 years old. And then, on the one day I was to showcase my product, my carefully sculpted swan, it shattered 14 miles in and was worth nothing.
The truth is, professional distance running is a dreadfully volatile way to make a living. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost thousands of dollars by the length of a long blink. Of course, I’ve been on the flip side of that coin as well. The point is that my paycheck is determined by how much physical agony I am willing to endure and whether or not my tolerance of pain outlasts that of my competition. Once, when a man approached me at a bar and asked what line of work I was in, I looked him straight in the eyes and said “pain management” without a single trace of irony.
As I sat on the sidewalk at mile 14, I watched the string of runners thicken into a crowd. Elites became sub-elites, sub-elites became runners and runners became weekend warriors.
Right before I got on the bus to the start, Pete grabbed my arm and said, “Remember, Sarah, not many people get to do this for a living.” He’s right. Less than 1% of the field was out there trying to make a living but the rest of them were doing it anyway. The rest of them bought their own airfare and hotel room, planned rides to the start and from the finish, paid for their entry into the race, took time off from busy work and family life, bought hundreds of dollars worth of gear and fuel, took care of every last detail that I haven’t had to plan for myself in years and all without one single, solitary hope of making a cent in the process. My God….why?!
I am spoiled with a fabulous Reebok sponsorship, the best coaching and facilities I could imagine, every plane ticket, hotel and race entry I could ever use and yet, as I watched the 3-hour pace group run by, and as I watched runners push and struggle up the hill, I couldn’t help but wonder, if this weren’t my job, would I still be here? Would I still want to invest in a sport that steals repeatedly from one’s body and wallet and sanity?
Yes. I would.
When I was quite young, my family went to church on Wednesday nights. Almost every week, as soon as dad pulled the van back into the garage, I yanked open the door and bolted into the dark. I kicked off my shoes and felt my bare feet trample the cold, wet grass as I sprinted across the yard and into the night, whipping between tree trunks as fast as my little legs could carry me, a dark swirl of hair lashing at my eyes and mouth. I never felt more alive than when I was bursting at the seams of my tiny body, running as fast and as far as I could until I surrendered to the burning in my lungs and legs. I was a wild, precocious, competitive child and I loved to run. I still love it 20 years later, but I’m not the wild child that I was. Oddly enough, professional running and all of its necessary structure is what has tamed me.
I wanted 2015 to be a breakout year. I wanted to establish myself in these first few races as a serious contender for the 2016 Olympic team. But honestly, what I want deep down is to let the wild child in me run free again. I want to live, really live as though the step in front of me is the only piece of ground that exists in the world. I want to feel the grass beneath my feet, let down my hair and soar through the night on feet that might as well be wings. And I intend to.
Why do you run? Why did you start? Have you lost the part of you that takes joy from putting one foot in front of the other? Let’s find it again; let’s find it together. Let now be the time that we remember and surrender to the pure delight of a strong set of legs beneath us. What a marvelous gift!