I’ve been taking the off-label, psychoactive drug LSD for most of my life. Not the trippy, psychedelic one but the boring one known as long slow distance to those of us in the running world. I guess you could say it’s my drug of choice although a lot of days I grapple with the choosing part.
I’m talking about the long slow runs that help build endurance and stamina. The longer miles that you tack onto your shorter everyday workouts to ensure that when the time comes you’ll have the necessary stamina to complete the race. Most people hate them because they’re hard, you have to dig deep.
Not surprisingly, my life has always been about LSD. Most of my runs are long and slow and on a good day they might even have distance.
Back in high school I ran the 2 mile event at the George Washington High School track meets. Or maybe it was the 5 mile, I can’t remember. I don’t think they even have that distance anymore, it sure wasn’t wildly popular.
My younger sister ran too, but she competed in the state and won actual medals. Me, I never made it to the championship at Laidley Field. But I showed up every day for practice after school. And I was consistently one of the last girls around the track, way behind the others, my feet barely lifting and looking sort of dazed. I’m sure Coach Hindle had no idea what to do with my talent.
But I learned a lot at track practice. I learned that sprinting and interval training would give me speed and quickness. And that long runs would make me tough.
But I loathed the sprinting. The competitive jostling and elbowing just felt too raw and mean. Of course I always came up short. I didn’t have the fast twitch muscles, the drive or the fierce ambition that propelled the other girls. I hated their thin bodies, whipping ponytails and lean, confident strides. I only felt comfortable around the distance girls, they were meatier and rugged, somehow more loyal, less flighty.
In a world full of sprinters and hurdlers and pole vaulters, I was the overweight long distance one loping around the track, looking kind of like the animal that’s been shot with the tranquilizer gun in the seemingly endless moments it staggers around before it drops.
And on the trail and on the shoulders of the roads in my hometown, I was heavy footed and sluggish, just counting out the steps. People in cars probably looked away, embarrassed.
I was just hoping to be done. Just do it. Just finish.
I’m not entirely clear why I joined the track team, since I never did team sports and I hated clubs. But when I was 13, one day I took a run all by myself as a way to feel better and get out of my head.
And I wasn’t embarrassed at all. I was completely oblivious in that self-protective way that kids sometimes are. My sister told me other kids teased me but I have no recollection. I wore the blinders, looked straight ahead and stayed in my lane. It helped me to just get by and get out.
And later, filling out college applications, it never occurred to me to mention that I lettered in track. There was no blank to fill in any answer to the question of what did you do to survive?
Running was just something I did and then kept doing. Like the hamster wheel. But I never got any better or faster or prettier at it.
In track I also learned that running would always be a lonely sport, even when accompanied by others. Because eventually time would tick by and it would be a solitary thing. You, your shoes, and some kind of eternally adolescent voice egging you on.
What I know now is that aerobic activity can lift the dopamine and get the endorphins humming. It can be a mild anti-depressant. Unfortunately the effect wears off pretty quick. You work really hard for trace amounts of chemical joy.
Of course nobody talked about endorphins or the chemistry of the brain back in high school. The truth is, it’s been a radical discovery to learn that mood is not about character and self-will and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. But understanding that has been a true game changer for me.
Back then people were running blind when it came to understanding depression and anxiety. I only knew that going outside and jogging around the hilly neighborhood in Charleston made me feel better, at least temporarily.
But while running has been personally gratifying, the public part is never that easy. Out in public you can’t avoid feeling judged by how you look, how much effort you put in, how much heart you show.
And it’s not fair, but mostly it’s about performance.
Spectators don’t see how much of it is mental. To run when you have tears in your eyes because it hurts, not in your muscles or in your lungs, but in your mind. When you fight the depressive fog to drag yourself through a mile just to say you did something to take care of yourself that day.
How on the off days it seems like the thin membrane of your psyche is exposed. When it seems glaringly obvious that you’re fighting the static in your head or quieting nervous anxiety. When it feels like your hurt and shame are highlighted like the silvery strips reflecting on your running gear.
Yes, running can be meditative, reflective, challenging but more often than not it’s bone-jarringly dull. And often the onus in on you alone to find the delight in any of it.
But then there’s the freshness, the waft of creamy magnolia, the dog wagging its tail from behind the fence. The feeling of being attached to the sidewalk like a magnet, like I belong there skimming along with the squirrels and the skateboarders and the pecan tree husks blowing across my way.
The world looks so different viewed from the feet up. Unseemly items pop up – bloated worms stretched across the pavement, dead stuff and dirty syringes, lost keys and condoms. But there’s treasure too: a twenty dollar bill and brand new Ray Bans that a student dropped carelessly coming home from a party. A tiny bunny. And the best: a smeary love message on a yellow sticky note: it’s all good Stacy.
Yes, the trail is so good and full of things I might miss if I were going faster. The cats huddled under porches, the scrawled words the children are writing as they hunch over their chalk on the sidewalk. The others out there walking, doing tai-chi and training their dogs. People finding the juicy moments just like me.
Unfortunately I’m also hyper-focused on the horizon of my original start place. It’s framed in the distance, always so impossibly far away, yet faithfully pulling me home, like a taut string coiling back into a yo-yo.
But going slowly these days is getting harder to do since we’re so addicted to the sprinting pace of the internet and keeping busy just to stay busy. And the image is more important than the substance or the experience itself.
And so the LSD is even more critical for me. I need to remember to take time to notice stuff and to focus. It’s not the only way, but it’s one of the few that I know where I can be a participant and witness in the very same moment.
It’s geeky, but every now and then I break into a huge involuntary smile near the end of a run and I can’t stop. For no reason at all, it’s so weird. It’s not an ecstatic grin, it’s more like a Buddha smile. My head full of nothing, no thoughts at all, just a reflexive kind of goofy joy inside me that stretches my face muscles without my control. I take it as a reward.
But even so, it’s still a serious game even if it’s just the neighbors watching, It could be the Olympics for all it means to me.
And so I continue to boost my mood, circulate the chemicals, and wait for the delayed release of that well-being that some people have in their systems in larger amounts than I do.
Except if nothing else, running has also taught me that you never really know what is in someone else’s brain. You can’t ever judge. What looks like struggle can be simply effort, what looks fast and easy can just as easily hide a jagged pain. The bodies we carry around reflect as much as they reveal.
And these days when I circle the trail around Duke’s East Campus I often see young women who look like I used to – red and sweaty, overweight and awkward, expending a lot of energy, appearing sheepish, apologetic.
But what I really see is that they are robust and healthy, they’re trying. And it makes me feel proud and happy for them and humbled.
Because I know what it feels like to put yourself out there where others are watching. Into the arena of life where your looks and your body can be summed up by strangers passing by in cars. Where men can leer or shout profanities at you. Where competition screams every time a gorgeous body passes by. Where perfection appears to be the end game.
Where we risk being seen as too fat, too old, too uncoordinated, too slow, too whatever, to be real runners. To be a real anythings.
But for me it is my last-ditch chance to be real and whole and together. It is everyday personal, like the prescriptions on my kitchen shelf. And while it works even faster than those drugs, it wears off a whole lot faster too. Unfortunately it has hardly any half-life at all.
So I take the medicine while I can, while my joints and spine allow because when they go, then what?
Life is a mental game. Like tennis and jigsaw puzzles, working on a car or writing in a journal, our everyday rituals and pastimes challenge us and define us.
And I think it’s kind of brave to keep doing them. Even when we can’t compete seriously or don’t look so great, when we feel stupid, untalented and average. When other people’s opinions make us want to stay home. Especially when our own mood thwarts us.
And still we do them anyway because they spark something in our insides that charges the battery that keeps us alive.
And sometimes I tell myself that no matter what, that just going out, just trying, is enough.
But on good days, I seize the trophy, grab the glory at the finish, and I visualize my personal moment of fame like a professional soccer player celebrating a goal. I raise my arms, look skyward and pump the air and wonder if anyone’s watching.
And those days I don’t even care if they are.