It was the spring of 2009. I was backpacking across Europe, and my train had arrived in Wien Hauptbahnhof. As I walked out of the station and into the streets of Vienna, the air felt charged with energy. Classical music was blasting from speakers. Spectators were clapping and cheering. Banners were being waved, high-fives were being given. And there in the middle of everything, people clad in moisture-wicking shirts and spandex were running.
With a rucksack slung over my shoulders and without anything urgent in my itinerary, I followed the crowd and the noise. Eventually, it lead me to the finish line of the 26th Vienna City Marathon in historic Heldenplatz. There was madness there, the good kind. Men and women, young and old were crossing the finish line after running for a long time. They were met by family, friends, and strangers with hugs and words of congratulations. Finding myself smiling and clapping and cheering along, I thought, “Some day. I will do this some day.”
But as things often go, life got in the way, and this dream was shelved. It wasn’t until three years later that I actually began to run. Inspired by a friend who finished a marathon, I revisited the shelf, wiped the dust off this dream, and took literal steps to turn it into reality. After doing some research on the most humane way to get into running, I started a program called Couch-to-5K. As its name suggests, the program was designed to take you from being a couch potato to running a 5K in 9 weeks through structured run-walk intervals.
I remember the day after that fateful W1D1 (that’s C25K shorthand for week 1 day 1). My boss asked me, “Why are you walking funny?” despite my best efforts to pretend I didn’t have logs for legs. My body probably did not understand what I tried to do with it, so it acted out. Later on, I found out sports scientists have a name for that: DOMS, which stands for “delayed onset muscle soreness,” aka the literal pain in the butt.
Undeterred, I persevered with a little help from some friends. There was Laura, the C25K podcast narrator, who told me things like, “You can do it!” and “I’m really proud of you for getting this far!” in a British accent. There were redditors from /r/C25K and /r/running who told me that to run fast, I must run slow. Paradoxical as that advice may sound, following it helped me build the endurance and confidence to carry on. I finished the program in 13 weeks (as I’ve said, life had a habit of getting in the way), culminating in my first official run, a 7.5K around the Alster lake in Hamburg.
With a bolstered morale and a sense of accomplishment, I started running a little longer with every training run, bearing in mind the 10 Percent Rule. This guideline simply states that you should increase your activity (i.e. mileage and intensity) no more than 10% per week. It served as a reminder for me to temper my enthusiasm, and kept me off the alluring track of doing too much too soon. Gradually, I developed a base which acted as springboard for marathon training.
Soon, I signed up for the Bull Runner Dream Marathon, a first-timer-friendly marathon. Upon receiving word that I had a space in the starting line, I started training for it. At that time, I was volunteering at an organic farm in Denmark. In between feeding cows, chasing runaway piglets, and making apple compote, I went out on runs along footpaths in the woods beside the farm. It was then that I discovered the beauty of running along trails, and the joy in self-powered exploration.
Each run became what we teachers call a teachable moment. One of my longer runs took me to a neighboring town. With crazy headwinds and without a bottle of water on my person, running schooled me on the importance of hydration that day. Affording me micro-adventures and geography lessons every time I went out, it became a means to be acquainted with a new city, a way to gain fresh perspective on things I normally take for granted. Since I started doing it, running has educated me on the cobblestone streets of Italy, the northeast coast of Denmark, the mountains of Tanay, the pinecone forests of Baguio, the ruins of Corregidor, the nooks and crannies of UP Diliman, and many other places.
A fellow farm volunteer — after I told her I was training for a marathon and that a marathon is 42.195 km long (Yes, a marathon only has one distance. So no, it’s not possible to run a “5K marathon”.) — asked me, “Are you ill?! Are you crazy?!” It wasn’t the last time I heard that reaction from a non-runner. This gave me a better appreciation of the people I’ve met met along the way, on the roads and the trails. These fellow runners, they could understand and empathize. After all, they know what it’s like to be in my (running) shoes.
In a section entitled Weirdos, Freaks, and Breaking the Mold in their book Running the Edge, Adam Goucher and Tim Catalano wrote, “Some people would claim that they would need to have a couple of screws loose to even try distance running (and perhaps they are right), but what an outsider might consider a weakness is actually one of the runner’s greatest strengths. Runners give each other permission to be themselves. Ultimately, no one is as normal as he or she seems, but runners don’t have to hide it.”
This is what running essentially does for those who do it: it allows us to be ourselves, and perhaps more importantly, to become better versions of ourselves. It helps prevent sickness caused by genetic predispositions, sedentary work lives, and less-than-healthy diets. It quiets the nattering brain for a while, and calms down inner demons. (It is cheaper than therapy and drugs, too.) Thanks to the endorphins it releases, it makes us feel good, which hopefully translates to making us more balanced and agreeable. It allows us to meditate through movement, and provides time to reflect about our lives.
Running allows us to see what we are capable of, and some instances, to defy our own expectations. Whether we’re gunning for a spot in the podium, a new personal record or aiming to run a just little faster, longer, and with better form than yesterday, running gives us the space to transcend our physical and mental boundaries. In his memoir Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, arguably the best mountain runner of our generation, wonders if part of why we run is “to find out whether we can overcome our fears, that the tape we smash when we cross the line isn’t only the one the volunteers are holding, but also the one we have set in our minds.” He continues, “Isn’t victory being able to push our bodies and minds to their limits and, in doing so, discovering that they have led us to find ourselves anew and to create new dreams?”
Running quiets the nattering brain for a while, and calms down inner demons. It’s cheaper than therapy and drugs, too.
Growing up, I was neither too keen on physical exercise, nor was I athletic. I have never been part of a sports team. My hobbies — reading, playing music, watching films — were more indoor in nature; they cultivated the mind, but put the body in the sidelines. After years of not bothering much about my body, running reacquainted me with it. To this day, it gives me cognizance for my body and the things it can do. Through it, I continue to learn to distinguish between good ache and bad pain, the rewards of powering through the former and the danger of pushing through the latter. To borrow the words of Anton Krupicka, a mountain runner I hold in high regard, our bodies truly are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for.
Running is so simple and unadorned. One foot in front of the other: left, right, left, right, left, right. It probably couldn’t get simpler than that. Yet this repetitive motion makes us aware of the sensations of being alive. When our lungs thirst for oxygen and our hearts pump blood harder, when we feel the burn in our muscles and the sweat drips off our foreheads, we are reminded that we are privileged to be doing this. That we are fortunate to be alive. In the here. In the now.
These were the things I told myself during the low points of the marathon I ran. These are the things I tell myself during the low points of any run. See, running long distances is an apt metaphor for life. The beginning is usually the difficult bit — the birthing pain, the warming up. After some time, we find our rhythm and settle in a pace our breathing could sustain. Every so often, there are the highs that make the run and our lives glorious. Then at some point, we hit the proverbial wall. Our energies run dry. We feel like if we have to take another step, we’d die. We question our motives and the sanity of what we’re doing. But then, there is a phenomenon called the second wind. It is akin to a new lease in life. We tell the little voice in our heads that says we can’t to shut up. We dig deep to find the strength to soldier on, so we could finish what we started.
Running, ultimately, is a solitary activity. (On hindsight, it was probably what drew me to it in the first place, having long identified myself as an introvert.) The loneliness of the long-distance runner does exist. But in a race or any running event, our solitudes come together. If Christopher McCandless was right in saying that happiness is only real when shared, then the finish line of a marathon is one of the happiest places to be in. It is where our triumphs converge. It is where we celebrate our shared experience and marvel at the strength of the human spirit.
On the morning of February 24, 2013, I arrived at the finish line of my first marathon, the very same spot where it started. The poet T. S. Elliot wrote, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” True, it looked different from when I began running the midnight before. Or was it I who was different?
Once, while watching running-related videos to get me unstuck from a rut, I came across one where Kilian visited Scott Jurek, another legendary ultramarathoner (and one I had the chance to meet last year. He signed my copy of his book Eat and Run with, “Do things always.”) In a scene, Scott leafed through a book entitled Ultramarathon by James Shapiro. As the camera focused on a page, I was taught yet another important lesson in running and in life, that is:
“To go on.
When everything else wants to stop.”
So, go on. Go.
By Ruthie Cristobal
Illustration by Jars Cristobal