By Alex Bonus
Photo by Nate Hill
I’ve crossed the finish line, but this crowd is unfamiliar. My surroundings, unexpected. Until now, it was a place I’d only dreamt about, and this is not what I predicted.
My cross-country season is over. Practices have ceased. My races are done. Like so many other senior athletes — and like generations of athletes who have come before me — my status as a student-athlete has effectively come to an end.
I’ve wondered about this day for years. How I would feel? How I would cope? It’s the evitable finish to a 4-year race that, before today, was obscure and insubstantial, existing only in my mind as a quietly ignored but perpetually imminent mystery.
As I toed the starting line of my final race I felt an odd mix of dread and joy. My thoughts gushed turbulently, taking one moment to close my awareness and focus only on the race ahead, then taking the next to open my mind and soak in every last detail of the gorgeous scenery, the scent of the trail and the beauty of my final run.
Orchestrating it all was Adele’s “Chasing Pavements,” which had invariably shuffled its way onto my morning playlist twice (once as a studio recording and again as a live recording), and thrust itself on replay in the back of my mind for the rest of the day.
“Should I give up or should I just keep chasing pavements
Even if it leads nowhere?
Or would it be a waste even if I knew my place
Should I leave it there?
Should I give up or should I just keep chasing pavements
Even if it leads nowhere?”
— Adele, “Chasing Pavements”
Adele’s soothing voice and relaxed rhythms didn’t really make for the most motivating pre-race jam, but I couldn’t help but welcome the appropriate irony of the song, which deals with Adele’s indecision over whether or not to pursue a difficult lover. Never have I struggled with more indecision over anything in my life — nor shared a more tumultuous relationship — than I have with the sport of running.
For me, it’s been a 7-year affair.
We met in tenth grade — me and Running. I didn’t like her much back then, but for whatever reason I could never get her out of my head. I made fun of her a lot. Called her stupid. Useless. Annoying. Looking back, I guess I should admit that I was pretty verbally abusive, but no more than any run-of-the-mill-kindergartner is toward his first crush.
After all, it’s a confusing time for anyone — experiencing love.
So we tried each other out. There were a lot of times I didn’t think it was going to work. What I dished out in verbal abuse, she returned in physical. Throughout high school, I would experience sore legs, pulled muscles, calf strains and stress fractures, while the most Running ever got from me was an expletive-laden tongue-lashing.
I’d call that pretty unbalanced and absolutely unhealthy.
But despite our issues, we stuck together. And when it came time for me to apply to college, I selected schools based only on where I thought I’d be able to run (Running, as it turns outs, was pretty clingy, and she didn’t like to be ignored or forgotten, at least without making my life unbearable in the process.)
So she followed me, and over the next four years our relationship transformed into something more dynamic. We were more reliant on each other than ever before. She demanded more from me, and, in turn, I reaped more rewards.
At the best times, I would feel fulfilled. Complete. Accomplished. Even when it meant waking up at 5 a.m. to tend to Running’s needs, I’d discover some nugget of internal wisdom that made the whole experience worthwhile. After all, there’s really nothing more romantic than jogging along the ocean at sunrise, simultaneously enjoying both the silence of the world and the overwhelming charm of a love as spellbinding as Running.
But at the same time, things became terrible. Running was more fickle than ever. On one day it could seem like everything was fine between us, but if I made any minor mistakes — if I ignored one of her mild pains and refused an ice bath — she would severely punish me with an injured muscle or debilitating pain. Even times where I felt I was doing everything right, Running seemed to haphazardly decide to carry out revenge for some enduring grudge that I had long forgotten or overlooked.
Such characterized our relationship this past season, where, despite my greatest efforts, my race times and performances were not up to par with the times when things between me and Running were at their best last year.
Understand me — I’m not bitter. Relationships are hard, especially when they carry over into the long-term. Your interactions have to change. You have to look at things more maturely. You have to take each other’s best interests to heart.
However, Running’s unbearable temper over the last few months has transformed this current crossroads into a meaningful, bittersweet juncture — do we break up, or do I keep chasing pavements?
I could decide to never run again — to never put on another pair of running shoes or step onto another trail. I could call it quits and never look back.
If I were feeling truly supercilious I could pick up a new love and drop Running for something more traditional, like soccer or basketball. People who love those sports are always so much better understood. Why should I continue this abuse with Running when it typically just results in blank stares from others when I tell them how long we’ve been dating?
Running can’t do anything about it now. She doesn’t have the same power over me as she once did. Typically, she could guilt me for ignoring her for even one or two days. Now, she can’t haunt my future because the future doesn’t place her in the same context as it has for the past 7 years.
These pavements now don’t lead to more races or more practices or to some far-off, obscure status of fame. Yes, I could try to impute new meaning on the thousands of days ahead sure to include mindless runs through town and road races against other sad athletes just as jaded by their love of the sport. But I’ll always compare it to the past 7 years. And in that context, these pavements will lead me nowhere.
My question now — how do I make this O.K.? How can I justify sticking by Running when what she has to offer no longer interests me?
I’m struggling with this decision, more than any other point in my rocky relationship with the sport. But despite all the bad times, it takes a lot of effort for me to put them ahead of the good.
Because when things were good, things were great.
Ignoring race times and competition and finishing places and all the numbers that have previously diagnosed the health of our relationship, there’s been something beneath all this abuse — something that has clung to my core, something that has meant more to me than anything I could ever put into words.
Over the last 7 years, I’ve done more than just become a faster, more efficient athlete. I’ve made lasting friendships. I’ve built self-confidence and passion. I’ve developed a sense of adventure that one can harness only after deciding on a 14-mile run to explore an unknown trail “just a little longer — the finish can’t be too far away!”
But most of all I’ve learned how to overcome hardships. How to work through barriers keeping me from my goals. To defeat mental blocks and physical setbacks. To empower myself.
And at it’s core, isn’t that all this crossroads is — another obstacle? It might look different. It might feel different. But it’s all the same.
The way I see it is that my career as a student-athlete was the start of lifelong race. I’ve made it through one portion if it, and this new section is entirely unknown. The course is less defined. The competition, less clear. But the finish line is still there. Somewhere on the horizon. Years away. Waiting. Tempting.
These pavements may not look the same, but that’s because the race has changed. If I were to give up because of one more obstacle, then I’d be throwing away seven years of lessons that have taught me every day to act otherwise.
Maybe I don’t like these pavements right now, but I think they’ve got a somewhere on the other side.
So, Running — this is to you. To all your pain and confusion. To all your difficulty and uncertainty.
I’m in it for the long haul, babe. I hope you’ll be there with me.