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First, Be a Good Animal

James O'Brien

You get sick of yourself after a while. You get tired of the sound of your own voice, the town you grew up in. Then you get sick and tired of being sick and tired. You want to jump out of your skin, test yourself, do something that makes you see things in a different way, and, more specifically, you want to know the secret behind all those stories you've heard. So you buy some shoes with bright blue and yellow stripes, and you start running.

You run around lakes, down city streets, on river and creek banks, golf courses, and walking paths. Your toenails turn black and fall off. You run with friends and relatives and talk about problems, passions, and the mundane. Mostly you run alone, to be with your thoughts, and after a while you stop trying to make bonding eye contact with other runners, because you enjoy the solitude.

Your muscles ache, your knee hurts, you sweat like you've never sweat before. But still you crave the miles. You yearn to be out there in the elements. Free. Flying. Playing. You learn to fully embrace the diktat of Emerson-by-way-of-distance-running guru George Sheehan: "First, be a good animal." You discover that all runners are philosophers to some degree and that the common conception that they are "running away from something" is an insult. What you discover for certain is that you are running toward something, something mysterious, in the same way and for the same reason you run toward great art, songs, books, spirits.

You run for months. You listen to stories from anyone who has got 'em, about how marathon running changed their life, saved their life, focused their mind and/or body. You up your daily regimen from a few shaky miles to 7 to 13 to 15 to 18 to 20. You take in all the tips. You get some shorts and wicking fabrics and learn about pacing and carbs. You start eating better, not to stay fit, but because your body is changing and demanding different fuel. You are no longer a basketball hack or a yoga dilettante. You are a runner.

You are also an "it's the journey, not the destination" guy, but now there is a destination. A finish line. So, on the first Sunday morning in October, you line up by the Metrodome with 10,000 other seekers/lunatics, listen to the national anthem, and then you're off on the 26.2-mile run that was started by the Greeks in 490 BC.

The first 15 miles are a joy of sights and sounds and the insanity of the new, but at mile 18, your body starts fighting back. You trick your mind and seek whatever inspiration you can to deflect the pain. You sing songs in your head, like the Gemma Haynes one that goes, "today I ran for miles just to see what I was made of," and the Replacements' "Will Power." You think about your buddy's father whose funeral you just attended, and the picture of him finishing a St. Patrick's Day 5K. You talk to only a few people along the way, including a middle-aged woman wearing a Steve Prefontaine shirt, an old man with a runningagainstbush.org shirt, and a young woman with, "My husband is rooting for me from Iraq" scrawled on the back of her shirt.

You suck down Powerade, water, Gu, orange slices, Jolly Ranchers, licorice, anything to keep you going. Mile 20 and the notorious runner's wall looms; it comes and goes and you feel fine, but at mile 23 you realize your right shoulder has a razor blade in it, your arm is numb, and your calves feel like they're about to pop like Mount St. Helens. Then, out of nowhere, your neighbor Michelle bursts from the crowd and forces people to chant your name. They do so, happily, and you wonder why all these strangers want you to do well. You decide that maybe the finish line is like your buddy's dad's funeral, and that everyone is looking for a chance to celebrate a grand finale.

You come up over the hill on Summit Avenue and see the giant American flag that wafts over the finish line. You say to yourself what your father's Army buddy in Korea said when they were pinned down by sniper fire and rescued by an American jeep: "I've never been so glad to see that fucking flag in my life." Still, you're not sure. You turn to the guy on your right and point at the banner half a mile away. "Is that it?" you ask. He says, "That's it, man. Great job."

You grin like an idiot. You cross the finish line and raise your hands. Someone puts a cellophane cloak around you; another person puts a medal around your neck. They give you an apple, chicken broth, and a T-shirt that says, "Finisher." Your family gives you hugs and kisses and takes your picture, and only then do you allow yourself to exchange a few knowing glances with the other finishers. You realize you've entered a secret society and that you've got a few stories of your own to tell.

Like the one that happened a couple of weeks ago. You were running around the lake you grew up near, the one that, despite all your curmudgeonly seen-it-all-isms, you never get bored with. The bugs were out, you'd almost swallowed a bee, and for one of the only times in your training, you were not craving the miles. You just wanted to get it over with before the bugs got any thicker.

Then you looked up to notice that the combination of the setting sun and rising moon was bathing the lake in an otherworldly orange. Out of nowhere, thousands of seagulls were leisurely flying in from all parts of the city, heeding the same silent call, landing in the middle of the lake. It was straight out of the rapture, or the apocalypse, or the great big secret bird bash at dusk that only you were invited to.

You had never seen anything like it before. You came out of your runner's shell and said to a few walkers, "Look at that! Look at that!" They shrugged. You didn't. You were awestruck, again. You kept looking at the birds, kept running, and almost tripped.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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