Running Into Yourself

FEATURE-April 2011
By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by Mark Yaggie

What has a runner got that I haven’t got? I thought about the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion from The Wizard of Oz. I thought about mind, heart, and courage. And then, finally, I started running.



In 1983 my dad fell off a thirty-foot roof at O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham. From inside the building, Royce O’Donal saw him pass a second-story window as he tumbled head first to the parking lot below. Horrified, O’Donal ran outside, where he found that my dad had landed straight up on one leg like the Karate Kid. Although Dad felt like lightning had burst from his hip through his foot, he worked through the day and didn’t call my mom until that afternoon to say he might have to go to a hospital. In an orthopedic exam room, the doctor tried to match the X-ray to the story. “It’s amazing that you haven’t broken your heel bone…You’re a runner, aren’t you?” he  asked.

Runners have always seemed a bit mystical to me, probably because I thought only cats came out of such free falls unscathed. But regular pounding of the pavement, like purring in cats, increases bone density. My father’s years of running were the only explanation for the lack of fractures.

Growing up, my parents always ran, often together. My brother and I looked forward to those evening runs, not because we went with them, but because it was the perfect time to sneak in an episode of Saved by the Bell. In grade school and high school, I played sports but dreaded running. As I got older, hard-core cross-country slogans—My sport is your sport’s punishment. Pain is temporary; pride is forever—only served to remind me I’d never hack it in basic training. And yet, on the edge of Route 88 in Falmouth, on the Back Cove Trail in Portland, and on the Androscoggin River Path in Brunswick, someone was always chugging along. And I wondered who these people were.

Of course, we’re all runners—runners without memories of how we even learned to run. On the threshold of becoming an adult, I saw glimpses of what running could be: effortless, visceral, and superhuman at once. One summer night on Peaks Island, with my shoes in my hands, I ran the mile and a half from the ferry to our family cottage in two minutes. Or so it seemed. And I can vividly recall the night when my best friend and I, who should have been sleeping, popped open her basement window, scrambled outside, darted across the lawn, and then—finding ourselves alone on the streets of Cumberland—started running for the moon because we had nowhere else to go. It was exhilarating.

When I heard people talk of a “runner’s high,” I thought back to those moments. The phrase had an emotional tang. I wanted to taste it again, but I wanted to taste it privately, secretly, like I had on those nights, like I had as a kid, running down old logging trails with our family dogs near my parents’ house in North Yarmouth. I didn’t want to keep trudging along on a treadmill or waiting for lights and cars in a city. I didn’t want anyone to see me.

If you run in Maine, you run with the awareness of Joan Benoit Samuelson, who took home the gold medal at the first Women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984. She’s still running. “Joanie”—as she is affectionately known, and as her Beach to Beacon (a race she founded) bib reads each year—is a local legend. Last winter, the winter I decided to become a runner—no longer a jogger or a plodder but someone who eats what they want at Sunday brunch because they just ran through three towns—I visited the website I found routes tagged with the name Joanie all over Freeport, the town where we both live. Some were twenty-plus miles, but there was one that stood out: “Joanie’s Ocean View Run,” which looped around Wolfe’s Neck at a lucky and possibly manageable 11.11 miles. Then I found an old quote from Joanie: “When I first started running, I was so embarrassed I’d walk when cars passed me. I’d pretend I was looking at the flowers.” I told myself I could stop to look at flowers, even in winter.

There are three amazing things about becoming a runner: (1) all those amazing things you hear about that are, indeed, amazing; (2) finding the affinity runners have for each other and enjoying that camaraderie; and (3) reading about running, from inspiration to science, novel to narrative, religion to racing (see Chi Running, Once a Runner, Born to Run, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). And yet, as much as you read and run, it’s still magical. There’s always more to try to understand.

I started building up the miles slowly. Early on, I picked up Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run. Bernd is Maine’s male counterpart to Joanie. A biologist and a record-breaker in ultra-marathons (defined as any distance more than the standard marathon length of 26.2 miles, often 50 or 100 miles), Bernd connects heart with science. In the book, largely set in Maine, he explores endurance and the human-animal connection, including persistence hunting—perhaps the most intense form of running—in which humans literally run deer and antelope to death. Bernd also shares his personal journey, chasing a dream antelope, a phantom of the impulse of our ancestors. He writes, “There is nothing quite so gentle, deep, and irrational as our running—and nothing quite so savage, and so wild.”

As my runs got longer, I realized I didn’t need headphones. The whole experience changed when I ditched them. Without audio input, my thoughts were clearer, even nonexistent, and I was more present. Still, I had a soundtrack in my head, a rhythm that picked up in the open spaces when mind and feet were set free. The words to “Animal,” by Miike Snow, would form in my mind: “I change shapes just to hide in this place / but I’m still, I’m still an animal.” The song is likely about the primal urge for sex, not running, but the intended meaning mattered less to me than the mantra. I realized that what I had been craving from those elusive nighttime runs of my youth was the essence of the runner’s high: freedom. Potent, unbridled, I-am-an-animal-that-lives-for-this-moment-alone freedom. When you’re running you don’t need a mirror to know that you’re a perfect creature.

I was taking in Thoreau’s “tonic of wilderness” in a way I never had during winter. There were runs when, in the shower afterward, I would swear I had just returned from a day at the beach. I ran 12 miles with my fiancé after a snowstorm, without traffic, without people, through ice cathedrals that had appeared on the roads I grew up on, and then on to unfamiliar dirt lanes dotted with farmhouses, feeling like we were back in the 1800s before cars and computers had touched us. I was in love with him, and it felt like that love extended into everything around us. The sun was benevolent and the trees spoke. As spring came, I felt a kinship with the maples, their sweet sap overflowing. I felt I had buckets of life force and wished there were some way to share it.

Of course, there is. You go running with friends, with the people you love. You start to think of places to travel and how much you can explore by running. It brings an element of play back into adult life. Although running is often thought of in terms of exercise or competitive sport, it came to America as a game. In the 1800s, British schoolboys played “hunt the hare,” a race in which “hares” were given a running start and would scatter scraps of paper behind them, over hill and dale, as a trail for “foxes” to follow. The sport crossed the pond to American prep schools and colleges in the 1950s, where “hashers” used chalk to mark streets. The tradition is kept alive here, in Portland, by the local chapter of the Hash House Harriers, an international club that ends every run with hearty drinking. Running is ________. It’s an adlib, different for every person, often different every day. You can make it anything you want it to be, including a drinking game.

For me, I wanted an answer instead of a question. I was on the verge of buying a house and getting married, in other words, making long-term commitments. So first I committed myself to running. Then I ran a marathon. Or rather, on one bright spring day in April, with more than 20,000 other people including my father, brother, fiancé, and cousin, I made twenty-six decisions to run a mile and one decision to run one-fifth of a mile. I also visited approximately twenty-six Porta-Potties—a revenge of the nerves. I was scared of the answer, but I wasn’t scared to ask the question.

If dying is the separation of body and spirit, then running, which brings the two together, is the purest form of aliveness. It is the union of your inner and outer life. Your mind is just the mechanism, the starter. Adidas used to have a beautiful slogan: “A run begins the moment you forget you are running.” The day of the marathon, second only to my wedding, was the happiest day of my life, and perhaps the most primal. I wasn’t running; I was just being human.

I smiled the whole five hours. I smiled as a soldier in full combat gear passed me, as a portly, sweating guy dressed in a foam Sugar Daddy costume shuffled past, chafing, and as a proud pair of octogenarians showed me their backsides. I smiled as I crossed the finish line with my fiancé and we spontaneously raised our arms in the V of victory. After getting up at 5:30 a.m. and running for most of the day, that small surge of energy was the fusion of the three ways you are told to divide a race: run the first third with your head, the second with your personality, and the last with your heart.

There’s a joke about how runners make lousy Communists. Running requires you to fully embrace your individuality and confront who you are. You run on the strength of your character—not your team, not your gym, not your gear, not your wallet, not your looks, not your resume, not your past nor your future. Some days are good, some days are bad, but what remains the same is that you can run away from everything but yourself. You are the only thing that you run toward. And sometimes you find that your true self is already out there, running.

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