On one memorable occasion, I took a wrong turn, mistakenly skipping a good half-mile of the race. A group of soccer players decided that I was intentionally cheating, and began to kick their soccer balls at me in succession. I immediately snapped out of my reverie, and ended up dropping out from the race.
Despite my difficulty navigating cross-country courses, I do have some sense of direction. But I have always viewed running as a time to escape from people and from all forms of tedious thought. I was never out to win, but to fade away into obscurity--at least temporarily. And I believed that focusing on where I was going took away from my goal.
Other runners were also a distraction. In races, I avoided the pack. Even on low-key training runs, I struck out on my own. I always felt pressured to keep up the pace and the conversation when running with others. So I sacrificed the companionship and became a lone--and often lost--runner out on the course.
That all changed last year when I began training for the 2000 Marine Corps Marathon through the AIDS Marathon Training Program.
Participants in this program agree to raise a minimum of $1,700 for the Whitman-Walker Clinic in D.C. The clinic provides treatment and care for district residents suffering from HIV and AIDS. As part of the program, we were assigned training groups based on our speed.
My group met on Sunday mornings to run a 10:30 pace on the bike trail along the Potomac River in Arlington and Alexandria. Our first group-run was four miles. By the end of the six-month program our long runs were more than 20 miles, and our "short" runs were 10 miles.
The training regimen changed several things about my running habits. A fanatic late sleeper, I became a sometimes morning runner because of the 6 and 7 a.m. start times for our runs. I began to stretch before and after runs more religiously, and I even took up yoga in an effort to stay limber and prevent injury. I drank water obsessively, running with a fanny pack (an accessory that I had ridiculed previously) so that I could carry a water bottle. But most significantly, I started running with people and actually liking it.
We--my AIDS marathon training group and I--consisted of a journalist, a pub owner, two government lawyers, a physical education teacher, a youth group leader, a social worker/graduate student, an unemployed dot-com worker, a corporate trainer and three consultants. We talked about many of the usual things, including jobs, movies, politics and significant others.
We engaged in the common Beltway behavior of networking. And, sometimes, we shared moments of absolute silliness, inventing nonsensical rhyming chants during the last few miles of a particularly long run to help ease the pain, or taunting grumpy bikers who complained that we took up too much of the bike trail.
Training with this group drew me into the world of social runners. I looked forward to the conversations, and between the weekly runs I found myself jogging with co-workers and friends for the first time (previously I had tended to duck such invitations).
On marathon day in October, my training group started off together as a unit. We eventually split up into smaller groups, but I ran with a few of them the whole way. I did not mind running a little faster than I otherwise would have during the middle part of the race to keep up. Nor did I mind running a little slower than I otherwise would have at the end of the race to stay with some of them.
The throngs of people--thousands of runners competed--and the frequent water stops made it difficult to stay together throughout the race. But keeping in sight of at least a couple members of my group became a priority--even when we were too tired to talk. We did not finish the race as a complete unit.
But when I finally crossed the finish line after four-and-a-half hours, one member of my training group was still by my side, and another was only a few seconds ahead. The sight of a couple more staggering in within the next two minutes helped ease the pain in my own legs. Even better, I didnt have to finish my first marathon lost in a sea of unknown faces.