Newsletter 77: The Mid-Life Crisis That Is the Half-Marathon

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This newsletter is from October 2017. It was right before last year’s AthHalf, the half-marathon I run every year. I’m doing it again this year — on Sunday, actually — but I haven’t had any time to train for at all. This is not going to go well.

I’m running a half-marathon tomorrow. This is my fifth half-marathon, the AthHalf here in Athens. It’s the third time I’ve run the AthHalf; I’ve also run the Chick-fil-A half-marathon, also here in Athens, and the Soldier Half-Marathon at Fort Benning. The last one is my favorite because it is a flat course — Athens is unspeakably hilly; it’s like a little dash of West Virginia right here in northeast Georgia — and because when you start to slow down, an actual drill sergeant will yell at you to speed up. (Not surprisingly, this will cause you to speed up.)

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It’s flabbergasting to me that I’ve run that many half-marathons. I started running a little about a decade ago, but I wasn’t organized or all that driven about it; it was mostly just the type of thing you do as an impotent first strike when you’ve just turned 30 and your hangovers last a little longer and you need a little more sleep and there’s a stray extra pound or two every time you get on the scale. Put it this way: I was still smoking when I first started running, and you’re a smoker, suffice it to say, you’re not much of a runner. (I used to have a cigarette as soon as I returned from a run, assuring it maximized lung damage in as compact a time period as possible.)

It wasn’t until I quit smoking, when my wife got pregnant with young William, that I finally started getting serious about running. I could breathe better, I could run faster, I could last longer. I had known runners before, dated runners, but I’d never quite glommed onto it as a dedicated activity. Frankly, I found it too dull. My favorite exercise remains playing basketball, because you are too busy playing basketball to even remember that you are exercising. Running was too much time alone with my own thoughts. I keep so busy precisely so I don’t have to do that.

But around this time, I started listening to podcasts obsessively, and that made all the difference. I could listen to a full Slate Political Podcast and barely even notice I’d been running the whole time. Next thing you knew, I’d just run five miles and I was smarter. Once I connected my podcast listening to my running, I was hooked. I found regular routes I enjoyed; my favorite was running across the Manhattan Bridge, which is less populated than the Brooklyn Bridge, has a side dedicated to pedestrians (no bikes allowed, because cyclists ruin all pedestrian bridges) and has the best view of NYC anyway. I began looking forward to work trips so I could explore new cityscapes by running around and through them. (Best running cities: San Francisco, Cincinnati, New York, San Diego, Chicago. Worst: Phoenix, Seattle, Philadelphia.) I started to build up my endurance and my speed, though I’ve always been more concerned with the former than the latter. After a couple of years of this, my wife, who got me into running in the first place, brought up the idea: Why don’t you try a half-marathon?

And now I’m on my fifth one. I do listen to music, usually driving, upbeat, intense music, rather than podcasts for half-marathons, if just because I want to run them a little faster. This is generally a mistake, though. Here’s my typical brainpath on each of the four I’ve run so far:

  • Miles 1–5. I’m doing great. I am so in shape! I am awesome. Look at all these nice people who have come out to cheer us on. I am just a super fantastic human being for doing this. I rule. And so fast! I am so fast!
  • Miles 6–8. OK, so maybe I didn’t need to run so hard at the beginning. Let’s try to pace ourselves a bit. Also, what’s that little twinge in my ankle? Was that there at mile five? Should I be concerned?
  • Miles 9–10. I am so slow. Why am I so fat and out of shape? I am too old for this. Oh, look at all these smiling people out there, thinking they’re so “supportive” by cheering us all on. Sure, it’s soooo easy for you to just crawl out of bed and wave. You should be SO PROUD OF YOURSELF. Wait … did that guy just pass me? YOU MONSTER. I will pull out your skull through your neck and grind it into dust.
  • Miles 11–12. Why did I do this? Why did I think this was a good idea? What exactly am I trying to prove? Everybody hates you already, Will. This is a pointless exercise. You are a failure. Oh, you probably want to stop and walk, don’t you? DON’T YOU?!! Well, a useless sack of crap like yourself of course wants to stop and walk. Go ahead and do it. All these people will see how stupid and weak you are. And they will laugh. And you deserve every bit of their scorn.
  • Mile 13: This is the longest mile of my life. Are miles always this long? They must have mapped this one out wrong. None of the other miles were this long. This isn’t that hard. How can they screw up the last mile?
  • Mile 13.1-finish. I’m doing great. I am so in shape! I am awesome. Look at all these nice people who have come out to cheer us on. I am just a super fantastic human being for doing this. I rule. And so fast! I am so fast!

So you can probably see why I’ve never done a full marathon. It is quite enough to go through that cycle ONCE, let alone twice.

I wonder if this will be my last half-marathon. I’m 42 years old now, and the benefits I got from not starting to run until I was in my 30s (intact knees, still-connected spine) are starting to wear off. I’m a lot achier after runs, and I have to take more days off than I used to. Weather can completely wreck my run in a way it used to not be able to. I’m more nervous about this one than I was the last four. I’m just getting older. If it ends at five, that’s not a terrible number to finish on. Just be happy I’m not asking you to donate any money for each mile of my run. I put enough pressure on myself already.

Also, I have a flight to Los Angeles the morning after the race. I’m not going to be able to walk all week. Will it be worth it? Ask me at the beginning of the race, and at the end. But definitely not in the middle.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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