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Jennifer McGaha

Visualizing a Stallion

My junior year of high school, I took up running. When I started, I had two running partners, my best childhood friend, a strong and disciplined athlete, and my friend Helen. Helen ran with a lit cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Her blonde hair bouncing behind her, she sprinted the mile and half from school to downtown, all the while blowing wide puffs of white smoke, then gulping in Virginia Slim Menthols tinged with a bit of oxygen. I laughed, of course. But, secretly, I was jealous. It took her half the time it took me to run to town, and I saved my cigarette consumption for the weekends. This should have been my first clue that running was not for me, that, really, it was a sport that should be reserved for the Kenyans or at least someone with leaner legs and less of a fondness for Ben and Jerry’s.

My next clue came years later, after the birth of my three children. I was in the midst of a sort of pre-midlife crisis, and I had done a few 5 and 10K races when I decided to train for a half-marathon. Once I started running, I was driven to run, compelled against all odds and all reason. Ignoring sensible arguments and advice, I ran at any time of the day—5 a.m. or midnight, in all sorts of weather—floods and winds gusting over 40 miles per hour and ice storms and blizzards. I ran when I had a stomach bug and when I had strep and when I had the flu.

“You run SIXTY miles a week?” my rational, non-running friends would ask me as I limped around town during the peak of my training.

“Well, yes,” I would say, “but one day a week I just walk a little, maybe five or six miles.”

They would glance awkwardly at each other and shake their heads.

In the mornings leading up to the half-marathon, I ate four or five bowls of Grape Nuts and drank a few cups of coffee before taking the kids to school. Then I drove around my running route, noting the mileage and periodically pulling over to plant Gatorade bottles in the bushes along the way. Back at home, I stuffed packs of power gel into my shorts’ pockets and headed out—a five mile route, which I then completed two times, with a couple of bathroom breaks along the way.

Roughly two hours later, I arrived home, too exhausted to do anything of value for the rest of the day. In fact, during that time, my children loved to hand me breakable things—glasses full of water, for example. They watched me drink a sip. Then they timed me to see how long I could hold the glass before I simply forgot I was holding it, and the glass fell to the floor and shattered.

Hungry to fuel my new addiction, this quest for those few brief moments of euphoria that came exactly 5.3 miles into each run, I made all sorts of new like-minded running friends. They told me where to find all the best running trails, which brand of running shoes to buy, where to get the best socks, which type of moisture-wicking fabric worked best, which catalogues had free shipping for Northface running pants. One of these friends—a real runner, another high school friend with whom I became reacquainted thanks to my new habit—gave me a copy of Runner’s World’s Complete Book of Running. I followed the instructions to a tee—well, except the parts about not running with headphones and not training through an injury.

“Maybe you could try cross-training a little bit,” my doctor said when I went to him complaining of excruciating pain in my heel.

“I cannot not run!” I screeched. “You’ve got to think of something else! Can you inject my heel with steroids or something?”

I learned to “dig deep,” just like the Complete Book of Running said to do. I drank gallons of water and ate grocery carts full of oatmeal and black beans and pasta. I tried also to visualize that I was a stallion running “tirelessly, with grace, style, and strength.” However, try as I might, I could not see myself as a “wedge” cutting “effortlessly through the breeze.” The image just didn’t work for me. So instead I settled for visualizing limping across the finish line, a crowd of red-faced onlookers clapping their gloved hands and cheering wildly. Apparently, it was winter in my vision.

On the day of the race, my sons and husband drove me over the parkway in drizzling rain and dense fog to the tiny town of Bethel, North Carolina. I had brand new navy blue Nike shorts with burgundy trim that matched my running top and a pocketful of different flavored gel packs—strawberry and watermelon and vanilla. By the time we actually got to the school gym where I was to register, it was pouring rain. I probably would have backed out right then and there had it not been for my high school friend, the Complete Book of Running guy, who was there with his running group to do this race as a “warm up” for an upcoming marathon. He had done oodles of races, and he was all confidence and bulging calf muscles and smiles. So, after he gave me a bit of a pep talk and tactfully suggested that it might be a good idea to remove my hooded yellow raincoat so the judges could see the number on my shirt, I took my place at the back of the line. The starting gun sounded, and there was no turning back.

The first part of the course was straight uphill—past snarling German Shepherds and yapping Feists. Later, the rain let up a bit as we ran along the Pigeon River, where the leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn. I always feel strongest in the middle of a long run, so I was still feeling pretty good at that point. Then, at about mile ten, I crashed.

I cannot make it, I thought. I will die right here. They will have to scrape me off this pavement and drag me underneath that beautiful orange maple.

And then, in the distance, I saw a blurry figure jogging toward me. When he got closer, I could see this was none other than my Friend of the Bulging Calves. After finishing the race, having a light snack, and splashing some fresh water on his pink cheeks, he had jogged back to get me.

“Thank you,” I blubbered when he fell in pace beside me.

I thought I would cry. Or vomit. Maybe both. One after the other. Or simultaneously. I was quiet while he chatted for a couple of miles about the weather and the beautiful route. Once or twice, I nodded. Finally, at mile twelve, at the “One Mile To Go” sign, he turned to me, all Richard Simmons and Dr. Phil and Oprah rolled into one, and said, “This is it. Do you want to sprint?”

Clearly, I thought, his oxygen level is a mite low. And he doesn’t even know it.

Seeing my face, pained and aghast, he said, “Listen, it’s just a mile. You can do anything for a mile.”

Propelled by how earnest he was, how optimistic and upbeat and hopeful, I knew I had to keep going—for his sake. So although I could no longer feel my feet at all, not to mention that my real time vision was a bit blurry, I nonetheless managed to visualize the finish line, the bowl of bananas back at the school gym, my family, probably sleeping in the bleachers by now.

Digging deep, I put one numb foot in front of the other until finally I could see—through the mist—the gym, the banners by the road where we had started all those hours ago, and, at last, on the pavement, the smudged chalk arrows pointing to the finish line. I could also see that the school parking lot was empty except for the finishing judges, and I spotted my husband and two sons, three fuzzy specks huddled together by the white line across the ground, my husband holding a large Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee. When I finally dragged to the finish, I had been running for almost three hours. Later, I would discover that all the post-race snacks were put away, the awards ceremony was over, and all the other runners had gone home.

“You ran this in two hours, so and so minutes,” the finishing judge told me as he recorded my time. “That means you should run a marathon in…”

He looked at his watch, trying to make the calculation.

“Oh, nooooo,” I said. “That means I should never run a marathon!”

A few years after the Bethel race, I turned 40, and I had a revelation. Perhaps it was time to moderate my fitness routine a bit, to slow down and enjoy my life a little more. Now I jog occasionally—light romps through the forest with my Lab and brief jogs around town on spring days when the temperature is above thirty and below sixty-five and when the humidity is lower than twenty percent and when there is a bathroom available at least every third or fourth block. Sometimes, I even walk a bit.

And I do yoga. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Listen to the flute strains. Snake charming music. You’re a cat. You’re a cow. Balance on your shoulders. Touch your feet to the floor behind your head. Stand on your head. Act like a triangle. Become a turtle. Hook your index finger into your groin and throw your right leg over your left shoulder. Salute the sun. Cast your dristhi to the sky. Strength. Prana. Balance. Namaste.

©2011 by Jennifer McGaha

Jennifer McGaha lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, where she enjoys walking, hiking, running, and yoga. She writes both nonfiction and literary nonfiction with an edge, and her work has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals.

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