The Long Run

Did I feel high? No, I just felt alive. Alive in the sense of not dead. 

January 18, 2016

Jane Campbell is a Vancouver-based writer and editor. She is working on a non-fiction book about growing up fat and losing close to 100 pounds in her...

According to legend, the first person to ever run a marathon died at the finish line. Pheidippides ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, burst into the assembly, breathlessly announced that the Greeks had defeated the Persians, and then suffered a massive heart attack. Here’s my secret: I don’t run despite this story. I run because of it.

It’s not that I have a death wish. The chances of dying during a modern marathon—what with power gels and water stations and EMTs standing by—are next to non-existent. I’m not fascinated by death, but rather by the extremes of physical experience. I’m fascinated by pain.

Pain makes us present in our bodies in a way nothing us can. It activates our ancient survival instinct, our flight or fight adrenaline rush. We are never more vibrantly alive than we are when we are wounded. Most people spend their entire lives avoiding injury and discomfort, and sometimes I still feel like a guardian of secret knowledge: Pain is not always a burden, it can also be a thrill. But eventually the endorphins get used up, the high disappears, and all that’s left is the hangover, the ache.  

Mile 0

6:45 am. I am in a portapotty sobbing. Outside, dawn is burning across the enormous Western sky. “It’s shaping up to be a beautiful day for a run,” says the disembodied radio announcer voice on the PA.

In 45 minutes, I am supposed to run a marathon. My first marathon. 42.2 kilometres. 26.2 miles. It will take me approximately four and a half hours if nothing goes wrong and I don’t quit.

I want to quit. Badly. Right now. I am sure I want to quit. I am sure I have never felt so sure about anything.

I imagine calling my husband, begging him to come get me. We’ll go out for breakfast and then park the car by the lake. We’ll drink coffee and listen to football on the satellite radio.

Back then, cutting was like sex to me: I had no idea what it would actually feel like, but I still found the idea intoxicating. 

If I call my husband, I know what he’ll say: “Tough luck, babe. You’re running.”

We drove four hours through rain-soaked mountain passes to get here from our home in Vancouver. We shelled out for two nights in a hotel room—a rare luxury for us.  But all that is mostly beside the point. I would never forgive myself for coming so far and giving up right at the end. My husband knows this about me. That’s why he won’t come rescue me. I know this about him, so I won’t even bother calling.

Tough luck. You’re running.

The tears are drying. My face is still hot and raw. There’s a line of people outside.  People who probably want to, you know, actually use the bathroom.

Tough luck. You’re running.

I open the door and step into the damp morning twilight.

Mile 3.1

I am a permanent resident of Canada. I know 32 degrees is blindingly hot, not borderline freezing. I know Kraft Dinner is just mac and cheese in a box, even though the name suggests something more elaborate. I know better than to say what I really think of Tim Hortons coffee, especially when I’m in Ontario.

I know that 5K is 3.1 miles, but I refuse to track distance in kilometres. When you move away from the place where you grew up, as I did at twenty-five when I married my husband, you can’t leave everything behind. You must decorate your new home with a few schmaltzy souvenirs, cheap little artifacts only you know how to love. When I started running at twenty-two, I counted my progress in miles. At the very beginning, I couldn’t even make it to mile 1 without taking a break to hyperventilate. Mile 1. Mile 2. Mile 8. I graduated from the treadmill to the road. I ran farther and farther from home. I learned the rhythm of a 10-minute mile, a 9:30 mile, a 9:15 mile.

This race course is a double loop. Marathon runners run the half-marathon course twice. I will run down this road again, past the drab, blocky little houses in the shadow of the apple juice factory. A man stands in his front yard, smoking a cigarette, watching us go by. He looks bemused by us, by our decision to spend a bright Sunday morning travelling to the limits of human endurance. Touché, cigarette man.

Mile 6

On the drive up yesterday I told my husband that I didn’t know what would happen during the race. I just honestly didn’t know. I might have to call it quits at the halfway point or hobble to a water station and ask the volunteers for a ride to the finish line. It’s more than just first marathon jitters. I aggravated an old knee injury during training. Three weeks before the race I set out for a six-mile run and found I couldn’t even make it to the end of the block. My knee has rebounded, somewhat; the ache is now dull enough to ignore, but the injury killed my momentum. My training in the three weeks leading up to the race was scattered and disorganized. I had been so amazed by my body during the weeks I was building mileage run by run, every week going farther than I’d ever gone before. Now my body feels burdensome, untrustworthy. Last night I had a headache I couldn’t shake. I slept fitfully, driven awake every few hours by the anxious knot in my gut.

Some medical researchers speculate people who hurt themselves intentionally do so at least in part to trigger this endorphin high.

My aching knee has triggered an old sense of inadequacy. I’m the last person who should be attempting any kind of athletic feat, let alone a full marathon. As a child, I was totally hopeless at every sport I tried, even kick ball, even yoga. My younger brother, Bobby, was always the one who seemed born to run. He is built like an ultra-light kayak; every single part of him serves a purpose. My body, on the other hand, has always been ungainly and unwieldy, marred by useless bulges and folds.

Admittedly, I would be more than a little thrilled to finally beat Bobby at his own game, even though Bobby won’t care if I do; he’s infuriatingly even-keeled and non-competitive. This is another difference between us, obvious even when we were very small. He was a blissful, contented baby, like a little Easter chick with his downy blond hair. When I was a child I went on superhuman crying jags, threw tantrums, and beat the floor with my fists. I drove away nannies and babysitters. From the very start, I was wary, unsatisfied, and keenly aware of everything I didn’t have. 

Mile 8

Who would have ever thought I’d grow up to be a marathon runner? But here’s the thing: If you know me, really know me, it’s not surprising at all. In fact, it makes perfect sense.  

When I was 12 years old, I sat alone at the kitchen table on a heavy winter night and watched 90210. In the episode, Donna’s high-strung assistant slashes her forearm with a razor blade to cope with the stress of working at Donna’s fashion boutique. I remember being glad my mother was upstairs, so she couldn’t say, “What are you watching!” and tell me to change the channel. I remember knowing I was meant to be shocked by the assistant’s behavior. I was meant to pity her, just like Donna did. But I wasn’t shocked and I didn’t pity her. I remember thinking, I can’t believe I’m not the only one. I can’t believe someone else thought of it, too.

When I saw that episode of 90210, it was still only an idea. I held on to it tightly, the way an anxious child clings to a threadbare baby blanket. Sometimes when the nights felt particularly long and the days particularly empty, I imagined the blade sliding across my skin, the blood pooling at the surface. Back then, cutting was like sex to me: I had no idea what it would actually feel like, but I still found the idea intoxicating. 

Mile 12

On mile 12, we’re headed back to the beginning. Around me, some of the half-marathoners are taking off, sprinting their final mile. A few of them wish me good luck on their way.

It occurs to me that I should be jealous of them. They’re almost done. I’m not even halfway there. But I’m not ready to stop yet.

On my iPod, a new song starts. Early ‘90s country, a favorite of the radio DJs in Belleville, Ontario where I lived with my husband the year we got married. When the song plays, I am riding in my father-in-law’s pick up truck with the windows rolled down. The truck is so old it has bench seats; no center console. My husband is driving. I’m sitting right up against him. I have my hand on his thigh. Outside, the barley fields are humming and vibrating. In the summer dusk, the whole world looks like it has been dipped in a golden glaze. I feel, in the moment, totally unafraid of the future, totally sure that everything in my life is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

People sometimes talk about runner’s high as though it’s an actual high, like from an actual drug. As though you’re running along one minute, sweaty, grimy, sore, and then all of a sudden you feel like you’ve just done a line of cocaine.

Not so much. Runner’s high is something more basic, more mundane. One minute you’re running along, and all of a sudden you feel the way you did driving through the Ontario countryside in Bruce’s old truck the summer you got married. Runner’s high is the feeling you get when your favorite song comes on the radio, it’s feeling of coming home and smelling dinner cooking, of waking up in a warm bed next to a warm body.

Many scientists believe runner’s high is caused by a hormone called beta-endorphin, which the body releases in response to pain, injury, and prolonged physical stress. In addition to creating feelings of euphoria, beta-endorphin has an analgesic effect similar to that of opioid drugs. Beta-endorphin is the reason we often don’t feel any pain in the immediate aftermath of a serious injury.

Some medical researchers speculate people who hurt themselves intentionally do so at least in part to trigger this endorphin high.

I was 14 years old when I started to actually cut myself instead of just daydreaming about it. That was the year I went away to boarding school. After the first few weeks of classes, it became clear I hadn’t made a single friend, not one. This meant I was alone all the time. The dorm staff referred me to the school psychologist who put me on anti-depressants. I was optimistic at first, but they might as well have been sugar pills. By November, I felt like my situation had become sufficiently desperate. I bought an X-Acto knife from the school bookstore. The first cuts were slight, ghostly scratches. It took me a few days to actually break the skin, to see the droplets of blood well into perfect, miniature spheres at the surface.

Did I feel high? No, I just felt alive. Not alive in the sense a hang-glider or a scuba diver feels alive, as in “I just feel so alive right now!” Alive in the sense of not dead.

 I had always assumed that depressed people were in constant pain. At the beginning of the school year when I was still in the early stages of my depression, this was in fact the case. I sobbed constantly, became disconsolate over small disappointments and mistakes. Forgetting to bring a textbook to class could ruin my entire day. But as the weeks passed, I cried less and less until I stopped crying completely. I did not laugh. I spoke only when necessary. I ate a couple of times a day without enjoying it. I ate only because I grew weak and lightheaded if I didn’t.

The first time I cut myself deeply enough to bleed, I was shocked back into the world of the living. For a moment, I saw in Technicolor again. I didn’t feel pleasure or euphoria. I just felt present, like my body had an actual place and purpose in the physical world, like it wasn’t just a tether, binding me to a life that I could no longer experience, that I no longer wanted.

Mile 17

We’re back in the neighborhood where the race began. I expected to see more activity my second time through, maybe even some cheerful spectators with motivational posters, but the place is quiet. A strange sort of apocalyptic quiet because there aren’t any cars on the roads; they’ve all been rerouted because of the race.  

I turn a corner and see the road rise ahead of me. The course is almost completely flat. This is barely a hill. During training, I regularly ran from sea level to the highest point in the city of Vancouver. Yet, when I see the mini-hill, I have one thought: I cannot do this. I need to stop. I need to stop right now.

The flipside of runner’s high is hitting the wall. You hit the wall when your body depletes its calorie stores and has nothing left to burn for energy. This causes extreme fatigue, mental fogginess, feelings of despair, and in some cases, hallucinations. It’s theoretically possible to stave off the wall by carb loading before the race and eating energy gels while you run to replace the calories you’re burning. I have dutifully been choking down my gels every six miles—they are viscous and nauseatingly sweet, they taste absolutely nothing like a substance a human should be eating—and yet here I am.

I have more than nine miles left to go, and I cannot imagine running another hundred feet. I try to force myself to picture the finish line, my husband’s embrace, the long shower, the triumphant phone call to my mother on the other side of the continent. But I can’t do it. I feel like I’m stumbling drunk and trying to remember how my house keys work. My thoughts fumble and blur. All I can think is: My body is so heavy. All I can think is: My legs hurt so much. All I can think is: I have to stop. I need to stop.

The day before my fifteenth birthday, I went home from boarding school for the weekend. It was only the very beginning of April, but the weather was unusually warm and bright, a preview of better days to come. I sat alone at the kitchen table and ate Oreos. I hadn’t had a proper appetite for more than six months and I was the thinnest I’d ever been. So I thought, why not eat some Oreos. I sat there and remembered just a year before, sitting on the counter in the dim coziness of my best friend’s kitchen, dipping Oreos in milk. We were having a slumber party and we were up deliciously late. We weren’t hungry but we felt like we should eat because the pantry was stocked with junk food and no one was awake to tell us no. I couldn’t remember the joke, but I remembered laughing so hard the milk burned my nostrils and I had to put my hand over my face.

You don’t need to live forever, I told myself. Just live for one more week.

A year later, at my parent’s kitchen table, I realized I would never feel that way again. I would never go back to my best friend’s kitchen—we’d gotten into a fight over summer break and stopped talking—and even if I did, it would never be the same. I had drifted too far away from the world of the living. I had lost sight of shore.

In the beginning, I cut out of desperation. Numbness isn’t peaceful, it’s suffocating. It’s like being very bored or very hungry; it’s a gnawing sense of absence. When I just couldn’t stand it anymore, I cut. As the months passed and the days grew short and dry, I started cutting every day around 4:00 pm when I was done with class. It was a routine, a little something to look forward to. Like a coffee break.

As the days grew longer and the snow evaporated into mud, even this tiny pick-me-up began to feel stale. I kept cutting anyway, not as a way to survive, but as a means to destruction. I hated my body for waking up every morning, for drawing air into my lungs without my permission or intent. I hated my body for keeping me alive. 

In my parents’ kitchen, I caught a glimpse of the road ahead. A whole lifetime of endless afternoons, of blood stained tissues cluttering my desk. I couldn’t do it. All of a sudden I was absolutely sure: I would not live to be 16. I would kill myself first.

Mile 18

I’m still plodding along thanks to the grim inertia of suffering – deciding to slow down requires too much energy. For the time being, it’s easier to just keep shuffling forward. Still I’m sure I will not be able to run for eight more miles. This is impossible. I will have to stop and walk at some point.

The course takes a sharp turn and spits us back out on the boardwalk next to Okanagan Lake, a sparkling inland sea. Now that the half-marathoners have finished, our ranks have dwindled. The tourists are reclaiming the boardwalk and sometimes I lose sight of the runners in front of me. For a moment, I feel like I’m just out on my own for a Sunday run. There’s no finish line, no medal at the end. I can stop whenever I want.

I decide to play a game with myself. Running is boring. Very boring. If I had to put running on a continuum of boredom, I’d say that it’s less boring than data entry but more boring than housework. To combat this, sometimes I play games. These games are pretty dull in their own right, but they’re enough to make the time pass a little faster. My favorite game is called “Don’t look at your watch until you’ve listened to [X] songs.”

The rules are simple enough: I pick a number—usually more than 10 but less than 25 —and I can’t look at my watch until I’ve listened to that exact number of songs, in their entirety, on my iPod. If I look down prematurely I have to start over again. The game not only provides a distraction, it prevents me from constantly glancing at my watch, which is equipped with GPS and tells me exactly how far I’ve run. If I look at my watch too often, I start to spiral into despair—the decimal points tick by so slowly, I feel like I’ve gone so much farther than I actually have. I always hope that once all of the songs are done, I’ll look down at my watch and see that I only have one tenth of a mile to go. Amazing! The run just flew by!

So far, this has yet to actually happen.

This time I change the rules a little: I have to listen to 10 songs and then I can walk. Song number one begins. Just run until the end of this song I tell myself, forget about the race, the kilometres, the miles, just push it till the end of this song.

When I decided I was going to kill myself, I knew I wouldn’t do it right away. For one thing, I didn’t have the means. Wrist slitting is difficult and messy, carbon monoxide poisoning is all but impossible since catalytic converters became mandatory on new cars, I was too young to buy a gun. I had access to only one surefire method: my anti-depressants. Thanks to the Internet and the pharmaceutical manual I’d found in the school library, I knew it was possible to fatally overdose on my medication, especially if I combined it with alcohol.

I decided I’d save my pills in a Ziploc bag until I had one hundred. That would be enough for a fatal overdose. I had to pick up the pills once a week at the school health center, so it would take some time. That was okay. Once I was dead I would be dead forever. What did another few months matter?

But there was something else, too. I wasn’t sure, not completely, not yet. Some piece of me still clung to life, still held out hope that all my best moments weren’t in the past. Occasionally, I caught an aching glimpse of everything I’d have to leave behind: sun burning through sheets of mist on spring morning, the smell of rain in the woods, my mother’s voice on the phone, breaking open the silence of a long afternoon. Collecting the pills gave me time to think, time to be certain. It also gave me something to do. Depression is boring. Very boring.

Week by week, baby blue pills collected at the bottom of the Ziploc bag. I felt like I was locked in place, but the bag got fuller and fuller. Time was passing. Sometimes I’d pour the pills onto my bedspread and count them one by one.

You don’t need to live forever, I told myself. Just live for one more week.

Mile 23

Song number 10 ends. I’m still running. Six more songs, I tell myself, and then I’ll walk. I think I can do six more.

For the last five or six miles, I’ve been about 100 paces behind a girl in a bright pink shirt. She’s slim, tall, has a long, super-straight blonde ponytail that somehow still looks perfect on mile 23.

For the last mile or so, she has been slowing down. At one point, she started to walk and I passed her, but she roared back and got ahead again. Now she is struggling. I’m gaining on her with every step.

On long runs, I often think about a quote I read years ago on a running blog: “There’s a moment in every race where you become sure you’re going to finish, but until that point, you don’t know.”

On the last day of my first year at boarding school, I woke up when dawn broke over the soccer meadows and the deep woods beyond. My room was half-packed – I’d pulled my posters off the walls and emptied my drawers into open suitcases. My Ziploc bag of blue pills was sitting on my desk so I’d remember to hide it away in some obscure side pocket before my mother arrived. By the end of the day the room would be barren and anonymous, ready for the next school year when it would belong to someone else.

I cracked open the window. Outside, everything was bathed in pink-gold mist. The meadows were vibrant green. The air smelled like earth and growth. The world was coming back to life.

 I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My yellow hair. My skin warm in the morning light. I felt a surge of energy, a rush, a strong desire for something I couldn’t quite describe. Hope, I realized. I felt hope. 

That morning was the first time I realized that some day I would finish. I would get better at some point, somehow. I held onto the Ziploc bag. I didn’t stop cutting myself, not completely, not for many years. There were more long afternoons ahead, more weeks that passed like years, but after that morning, some part of me always remained certain that there was a finish line and that one day, I would find it.

The girl with the impossible ponytail slows and slows until she’s walking again. I run past her, and this time I know I will stay ahead. I’m not going to walk. Not in this race. 

Mile 26

When you finish a marathon, you get a medal, a bottle of water, complimentary fruit snacks. You post a picture of yourself on Facebook grinning at the finish line and people you haven’t spoken to in years call you a “bad ass” and offer their congratulations.

When you flush all the blue pills down the toilet, when you can trust yourself with a box cutter again, when you pick up your old diary, the one with bloody fingerprints dotting the pages, and your first thought is “this must have been written by somebody else,” there’s no one to tell. No Facebook posts. No photo ops.

I still have scars on my forearms. Pale, ghostly lines. No one ever mentions them. Maybe they don’t notice. More likely they don’t know what to say.

If someone did ask, I’d tell them what I know. The trick is not to run away from pain but to transform it. Mental anguish becomes a physical wound. The resolve to die becomes the courage to live. Memories bleed into words. This alchemy is difficult to master, maybe even impossible, so I practice most days. I step out into the chill of dawn and feel the asphalt grinding under my feet. I run with the sun as it rises, past the darkened homes where children are curled in warm sleep, past the deep mouth of the pacific and the endless mountains beyond. I run until I am sure I have to stop and then I keep running.

Jane Campbell is a Vancouver-based writer and editor. She is working on a non-fiction book about growing up fat and losing close to 100 pounds in her early twenties.