Issue 35, Final Fringe

On Marathon Thinking

by Michelle Menting Issue 20 11.16.2009

But when you run that far, what do you think about? What should you think about?

I’ve been asked this, more than once. I’m not sure I ever answered.

Before the start: you should relax and walk around. Try to go to the bathroom one last time before hitting the trail. Try not to think about the run.

So I think about laces. The flat ones—cotton and wide and secure—but rarely seen anymore on most trail running shoes. Now the laces resemble tiny climbers’ ropes, and you don’t so much tie them to seal the shoe, but pull them tight and cinch them off like a rappelling rope. But you can buy the flat ones in stores—any store, even a grocery store. I think about laces and wonder if my tiny climbers’ ropes are tight enough, if my shoes will stay on when I step in mud and ankle-twisting crevices of rock.

I think about the laces, for sure, and then the entire running shoe: the arch support, the cushioning, the tongue, and the sole.

My shoe should have a good tongue, a short one, that’s curved—one that hugs and holds and won’t rub my skin raw. A good tongue won’t snag on high roots and low twigs and won’t make me stumble or trip. Unlike that muscle in my mouth, beyond my lips, which makes me trip, which makes me stumble when I’m in a room full of people who make me nervous, and I have to speak with ease and charm to this entire group. My tongue gets tangled then on the roots of words, on the twigs of sentences.

On the trail, I need a good sole. On the trail, everyone needs a good sole—to keep balance, to keep grip, to keep from falling. This particular run is over 26 miles. Some of this trail is flat and simple; it’s uncomplicated paths through woods and meadows. But some miles are tricky, serpentine and slick. I could fall all if I don’t have balance, if I don’t have a strong sole.

I look at all the shoes on all the feet of all the other runners who begin to line up in front of me, behind me, and step all over my personal space. I look at the different laces, tongues, and imagine the soles on the many different trail running shoes these runners wear. I wonder if they have tight laces, functional tongues. I wonder: do they have strong soles? I search their feet, the ground, anything but up and towards the open trail and the butts of all these runners who will surely leave me so far behind in the dust.

I haven’t been running, I haven’t been running, I haven’t been running, not nearly enough. Not ever enough. This trail run is my first full-length trial at a trail marathon. I run. I used to run plenty. I have even finished five marathons, but this trail run is my first full marathon of any kind in over a year. I don’t know if I’m ready to run this far through pine trees and brambles. Maybe I’m not prepared. Maybe I’m not ready. Oh but I wonder: will I ever be ready?

I tried to prepare. I prepared to prepare. I read glossies. And I’ve been warned by magazine articles—and another female runner who struck up a conversation with me while we waited in line for the Porta-Potti—that on a true trail run, a competitive run, I might possibly run through, get hit by, physically lose, or get splattered with any of the following: mud, sticks, pebbles, creek water, moss, maybe a toenail or two, urine (my own), blood (not likely, but it has happened), sweat from the runners ahead of me, and tears from those unprepared and now broken and crying on the side of the trail. But I know the magazine articles most likely refer to those 100-mile ultra-marathons that take place out in the more rugged western states and along the Pacific Northwest, not this fairly tame Great Lakes region. And I know my Porta-Potti friend is probably just trying to psych me out. She’s in my age group and has that insecure, competitive air about her. She wears lip gloss.

The start and the first few miles: you should take it slow and say hello. You should make running buddies. You should make running friends.

At the start I’m suddenly giddy. Everyone is suddenly giddy. They’re about to run a marathon, and not just a run-along-some-city-streets marathon, but a true trail marathon. Whether or not any of these people have finished a 26.2 mile distance before doesn’t matter; they are trail runners now. They have reached a new epitome of cool. In the running world, trail running is daring, trail running is hot, and, oh my, trail running is sexy. I try to seem indifferent towards the other runners and the fact that I’m about to do nothing but run, climb, and fall during the next three to four hours. What does indifference look like? Some runners are stretching—actually stretching—and looking like track stars in some dated Wheaties commercial. Do they still make Wheaties? I imagine the Wheaties commercial’s music—the “jingle” in the advertising. I try humming this jingle, but what’s in my head is “Here she is, Miss America.” And I can’t get it out of my head. And it’s so horrible that it’s cool, so I go with it. I hop up and down. I’m wearing a snug running bra, so I can do that. I’m like a ginger snap. I’m totally ready for this.

The gun hasn’t gone off, but the other runners have already started whooping and hollering. A group of middle-aged women are especially animated. They whoop. They shout. I look at them and wonder are they my future? I decide no: I don’t whoop, I don’t shout, and I’m not one who hollers. Those women are probably all in the same running group back home. They’re probably used to running through cul-de-sacs; they probably run on sidewalks. I bet they’re from Illinois, the Land of Lincoln—where Northwoods’ tourists are born, bred, and buy SUVs. I wonder if these women started running when Oprah did, when she trained for the Marine Corps Marathon. I was only thirteen then, but my oldest sister ran in that marathon. She kicked Oprah’s ass.

When the gun goes off, there is more whooping. To me, this doesn’t sound genuine. Maybe blood-curdling screams would get more respect? We are about to possibly lose toenails and, since it now looks like it might storm and everyone will get wet, some of us will also get our skin rubbed off in our unmentionable areas. The men put bandages on their nipples for a reason. I’m wearing cotton shorts. I like these shorts. They’re blue and stretchy and make me look like a running rock star. They are absolutely the wrong thing to wear while running in a rain storm. Wet cotton will sag, bunch up, and rub no matter what your body type.

When the gun goes off, I trip a bit, but regain balance. We’re all crammed tight like cattle or like sardines or, better, like the many, many running shoes crammed in my closet at home—the ones I’ve laid to rest but can’t bring myself to bury. So many shoes I just can’t let go of. It’s easier to keep them.

When the gun goes off, I focus on the runners’ shoes ahead of me and try not to step on their heels. I see my new friend, Lip-gloss-Porta-Potti (LPP?), smile at me. She waves and yells good luck! from the other side of a bandaged-nipples man on my right. She moves in closer, and I see her lip gloss shine. I wonder if the gloss is some sort of pre-running ritual, like she puts it on for good luck or just as a way to prepare—as if it somehow puts her into the mindset of running. I have a preparation ritual:  I drink coffee. Strong. Black.

Approaching the Aid Stations: you should know how many aid stations there are on this course. You should stop at these stations. You should hydrate early and hydrate a lot. You should be on the lookout for energy gel. And you should know which energy drink they offer.

I hope they don’t have Heed. I can’t remember from the race registration form if they’re offering Heed, XLR8, Powerade, or good ol’ fashioned Gatorade. What’s wrong with Gatorade? It has fruit flavors. And do they have PowerGel, Clif Shots, Hammer Gel, or Gu? I can’t remember which one I like and which one makes me want to vomit. But Heed, Heed has one flavor and one flavor only. That half-marathon I ran back in April in the middle of Wisconsin with my sister J—that was my first introduction to Heed. We were picking up our race packets. I remember that half-marathon included hooded sweatshirts instead of the regular race t-shirt, and J went to exchange her medium for a small. I roamed around then, tried to get my mind off the 13.1 miles I would begin running in 17.3 minutes. I remembered one of the first pre-race tips: try to empty your bladder before the run. This tip applies more to women; men usually just step to the side of the path and let loose. Some women have perfected the side-trail crouch, but I’m still too shy to do this. In one of the magazines, they give a step-by-step instruction on how women can execute something like a “quick and efficient standup pee.” (QESP?) I haven’t tried this, either. And anyway, it was while waiting in line to go to the bathroom in a Porta-Potti at the half-marathon in Wisconsin when I first learned about Heed. Or I first heard about Heed.

I’m the sort of person who likes to try things out for herself, because I usually assume that other people just don’t know any better or that they’re just bullshitting. So when I overheard one of the girls in line in front of me say to her friend, “Oh man, they have Heed here. Why the hell do runs still offer that nasty rat sperm?” I just chuckled and thought, Rat sperm, hey? Well, we’ll see about that.

That half-marathon in Wisconsin should have been a breeze; I probably would have set a PR (personal record) on the easy out-and-back, rail-to-trail clay course. I would have—I’m certain of it—if I hadn’t followed another long-distance running tip: hydrate early and hydrate a lot. On that marathon, when I approached mile four, I bypassed the water and went straight for the energy drink. Straight for the Heed. I went straight for the rat sperm.

And I spent miles five and six gagging and coughing up a Dixie cup full of that rodent love sauce.

The first 10 miles: you should take notice of your surroundings. The first 10 is usually easy—a stroll through the park—but this is a trail run through the woods, over rocks, roots, and branches. You should watch your footing. You should try not to fall.

Some people run with cameras—small ones that fit into the folds of their shorts. It is a beautiful route that winds through thick woods with lakes peeking through, past boulders with pink lichen, and along rivers, creeks and ravines. In the woods there are deer, foxes, perhaps black bear, bobcat, porcupines, and birds under and in the trees.  I don’t stop to notice; I pay attention to the trail. I’ve fallen once already and skinned the same knee in the same spot again. I always skin that knee. I must fall a certain way. I wonder if I have a signature fall. If, for instance, the same group of people were able to see me fall every time I fell, would they notice a uniquely Michelle fall? I think so.

I don’t remember all my signature falls, but some stand out: when I fell on the golf course during high school cross-country practice and got a concussion. The hockey player I was sweet on, and who ran cross-country in preparation for the hockey season, came to my aid. He told me that when I opened my eyes I said this to him, I said: pickles. When I fell the first time I went downhill skiing. I will never, ever do that—ski downhill—again. When I fell in Cuba, while dancing with Giovanni and drinking too much rum. I would do that again. And again, and again, and again. When, a few years ago, I fell in my apartment after being pushed, hard—by the man I had already fallen for—from the hallway to the bedroom. That’s all I choose to remember about that time, and I hope I never fall like that again.

Up to 13.1 – Arriving at the halfway point: there’s an aid station with a Porta-Potti at the halfway point. You know this. At the halfway point, you should stop, stretch, and plan. Plan your pace so you can reach the end without dying. You know this, too.

Porta-Potties are usually disgusting. Porta-Potties at trail runs and, really, any type of marathon are actually not so bad. But while out in the woods, I follow this proverb: when nature calls in Nature, the trees are usually thirsty.

Actually, I just made that up during mile 11, but I’ve already visited a tree about 15 yards off the trail. I watered it. But I won’t take up any more time at the half-way point to stretch or refuel.

Mile 13 (point one)–on my longer runs, and even the last marathon I ran, this is where the run turns personal. This is where I start to sweat demons. This is where the thinking gets difficult—where the thoughts, my thoughts, become truly difficult: If I stop, if I cool down, won’t the sweat just settle back into my pores? Won’t I just absorb it all again? The silent meltdowns, the spirited mania—will I have to absorb them all again?

So I don’t stop. I keep on trucking. Isn’t this what strong people do?

Three-fourths into it: you should always carry bug repellant during summer runs. You should just plug your nose and rub it on. You should ignore the smell; ignore what annoys you.

I’m not wearing insect repellant. I suppose I thought I wouldn’t need it. I mean, I am running. I should be able to outrun bugs. It’s nearly August and the flies are rumored to be bad, but the mosquitoes haven’t been much of a problem this year. It’s been a dry year, but it’s going to rain. Oh, yes it is. I’m wearing my make-me-look-like-a-running-rock-star blue cotton shorts and that thunder wants to bring on the rub of raindrops. And mosquitoes like rain. But I should be able to outrun mosquitoes, even though I’m so slower this year. So slow.

After I moved from Minnesota, I added over twenty pounds to my frame. Twenty. I’ve never had this much skin. I no longer have a distance runner’s chest: I am no longer innocent bra-less.  It’s true that before my move from Minnesota to Michigan I was a bit underweight, but only a bit. Hardly noticeable. But my sister’s co-worker took to calling me “Mosquito Menting” for a while. And I found this hurtful. I wasn’t trying to be thin. Maybe stress made me forget things, made it difficult to sit still? I was fidgety and moving around constantly—literally moving to a new graduate school in a more familiar state. (Maybe I spent more time worrying about the schooling, the health, the movements of another?)

But I was running, too. I did remember to run. Running helped. It mattered. Who was that woman, my sister’s co-worker, to call me a wisp of a mosquito? Would she have done the same had I become heavy? Would she have called me June Bug Menting? Probably not. It lacks alliteration. And the last time she saw me, she simply called me healthy.

Miles 17- 20:  The Wall: you should have memorized what you read about “hitting the wall.” You should know this is common for runners. After running over 17 miles, it’s likely you will have used up your glycogen reserves. Your body might feel suddenly very weak at this point. You might feel unable to keep up your regular pace, and possibly a little wobbly and light-headed. Your muscles might ache. Your long training runs were meant to teach your body to accept this change of burning glycogen to burning fat, but those 15-20-mile pre-marathon runs don’t always insure you’ll conquer the wall. Now is a good time to take in some carbohydrates.

I hit it back at mile 16, when the course veered off the wooded trail and took a dip to the beach. Along with running over boulders, up ridges, and through mud and berry bushes, they make us run in sand. Back at mile 10, there was a creek. I conquered that creek. I defeated its ripples of water, its slippery rocks and pebbles. I embarrassed that creek into a puddle.

I hit it earlier than usual. I hit the wall when I hit that sand. That sand proved to be a tougher opponent than the babbling creek, and this didn’t make sense to me. Running in sand is not unlike running in thick, wet snow. And I know how to run in thick, wet snow. But the last time I ran in snow was March when we had that late winter, early spring snowstorm.  I went out after the winds had died down and the plows had only scraped the back roads once, leaving a four-inch thick and three-foot wide path of snow along the sides. I went out dressed in layers with a water bottle strapped around my waist alongside two Clif bars . I wore gloves under windbreaker mittens. I tied my house-key to my shoelace.

That run was 18 miles long. I wasn’t training for anything. That was an 18-mile fun run. It was a run to clear my head, to tell myself everything is going to be all right; to say to myself moving—on, forward, and far—is good and right. Safe. Hard at first, sure, but it will get easier—fears fade, emotions fade, people …can people fade? It was a run to tell myself stories.

The run was an out-and-back, and once I was nine miles out, I was in the middle of nowhere—the kind of nowhere with hills and trees and ice-covered lakes. My kind of somewhere.

But my leg muscles at mile 16 didn’t remember those 18 miles of snow, and so the beach kicked my ass, or at least my thigh and calf muscles. By the time the route climbed back up over a boulder to enter the woods again, my muscles were screaming.

So now at mile 19, I rip open a packet of raspberry GU. The hell with Heed. The goo—because it is goo—has the consistency of jam, and tastes like jam, with a little salt sprinkled in the pectin. If I had spread this on my toast this morning, I would have thought, blech! salty jam!, but at mile 19 heading towards 20, this goo-jam is orgasmic.

From Mile 20 to 26.2. The Last 10k: you should find the person who wrote this on the marathon training pamphlet: The last 6.2 miles is an easy 10k. A walk through the park. A stroll through the woods. Just up over the next two boulders, along the single-track-felled-oak-tree bridge, through the bog of brambles, and up past the ravine, and you’re home!

You should find this person. And you should kick the shit out of him.

Holy forest faeries and chipmunks, if you get me through this, I promise to mail my friends letters, real letters, when they move away. I’ll send my sisters, nieces, and nephews birthday cards on their birthdays, and I’ll make them myself—draw and decorate with recycled materials like paper bags, plastic wrap, Paul and Nell Newman’s faces from packages of Newman O’s. I promise to run regularly and run long and to encourage others to run with me, even though I’ve tried so many times in the past and failed. I promise to start another running group, this time in Upper Michigan, and I promise to host the first few runs and prepare coffee with breakfast so it’s ready when we return, refreshed and hungry. I promise to remember to bring in my canvas bags to the grocery store instead of forgetting they’re in the back seat of my car. I promise to stop stealing toilet paper, even when I don’t need it—although this is a chronic habit and, oddly, satisfies undefined urges. I promise to eat less peanut butter, even though it brings me joy but is undeniably one major cause of my slowed running pace. I promise to try to wear a smile, a genuine one, even when I’m in a room with people who scare the hell out of me. I promise to quiet my exasperated sighs when I hear unattended kids screaming in the grocery store, and I promise not to throw small fruit at these screaming children, like when I threw grapes at that one loud four-year-old when his mom wasn’t looking.

I promise that these are not like those other promises, statements I should have never made those many, many months ago—the ones I clung to and hoped would make my world so much better. Promises like:  I understand your mood swings—you can’t help it, it’s part of the disease, and your anger and your temper are just parts of it, too—I get it, I understand, I promise; I know you don’t mean to say those things, to raise your voice, to raise your hand, to slam that door, to steal those things, to lie, to scream, to throw, to push; I promise, I know we’ll be a great couple—I promise, I do; I do understand that this is just a rough patch, that you are under so much pressure and stress right now, and it’s my fault—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know, I know; I promise you, I know that it will get better, everything will be better tomorrow, and I will always stay, always.

But those promises were made by another person, surely they were—stupid girl whose chalked outline resembles my own profile. Could she come back? I don’t know. I can’t make the promise that she won’t. Not yet. Not now. Not just to finish this marathon.

The Finish – 26.2 Exactly: you should always remember that bagels and cookies taste best at the end of a 26.2-mile run.  You should know sincere gratitude. You should know what relief feels like. You should remember the effect of runner’s high.

I love the finish line with its blue and white flags. I love that the earth below it is dry and mud-free. I love you, portly man placing the medal around my neck. I love you, muddy feet, ankles, oh-look-at-that muddy thighs, too. Blister on my tiny toe, larger than my tiny toe, you’re getting some lovin’ if I can ever pry my soaked socks and shoes off. Skin-chafing rock-star blue shorts, I’ll deal with you later. There are cookies I need to fondle and then put in my mouth and then fondle some more. Volunteer person handing me a bagel right now, oh love. Hey look—LPP, you made it. How did you get your gloss to stay on your lips for 26.2 miles of flies, mud, and rain? You’re amazing. I love you. Talkative man who overdid it with the bandages on your nipples and who just invited LPP, others, and me to a round of margaritas this evening? After a few margaritas, I might just love you, too. Why not? I’m totally brimming with the stuff. There’s so much. There’s too much.  And I love things that I shouldn’t love. Things I should Just. Let. Go. Maybe it’s just the endorphins brewing up that emotion, making me think these things, but what if—what if—these feelings, this thorny love, is imbedded deep—too deep to blame endorphins and too deep to be sweated out and evaporated away in just one marathon?

My muscles feel loose now. Finally loose. Practically—no, pleasantly—numb. I should remember; I should store this feeling. I should know how easy it is to get it. I should know that I can run almost anywhere at almost any time, weather permitting, and I suppose even when it’s not permitting. I just need to get up and move. And keep moving—keep going, keep thinking—through woods, through air, through words.

Michelle Menting

Michelle Menting

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Michelle Menting lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she’s pursuing her PhD at UNL. Some of her work appears or is forthcoming in failbetter, The Texas Observer, Diagram, and Pedestal Magazine, among other journals.