In my dreams, I run marathons. The closest I’ve come in real life is reading Runner’s World from cover to cover. Then I glance through the marathon schedule in the index: Paris, London, Athens, Venice – in my dreams, I have run them all.
In real life, I ran a different marathon. Today, June 6th, I celebrated my 30th service anniversary with my employer. At new hire orientation, we learned that 30 years constituted “full retirement”. In those days, it was a phrase which meant something – certainly more than it does today. But even then, to me, the most important implication was a career completed; a check mark next to one of life’s goals; a chance to do other things.
My marathon was not unlike the race (at least, based on what I’ve read). Those early years, I ran with ease. I loped along with the speed of a gazelle and the wonder of a child. Those who hated running, the complainers, I branded as whiners and losers and slackers. I thought less of them for their crummy attitude and constant grumbling. I had my runner’s high going. I knew I would never, could never, become them.
As I got to the half way mark, I started to reconsider my race and my smug attitude. Running was hard and tiring work. The first half wasn’t bad – but could I repeat it? I started to play mind games and broke the race into pieces. If I could survive the hill, if I could make it to the next water stand, if I could cross the bridge, if I could get to the park – if I could just stay focused on one leg at a time, I would be fine. Nine years ago, in a bad mood on a bad day, I put a retirement countdown on my calendar. Each year, when June 6th rolled around, I laughed at the irreverent quip which greeted me, but I never deleted the countdown.
Marathoners described “hitting the wall.” – Generally around mile 22 or 23. The rug is pulled out from under you; your legs turn to jelly. Suddenly, you realize you might not finish (or so I have read). But, of course, you keep running. To quit now would seem foolish. After all, you are nearly done, right? You just pray that someone won’t pull you off the course. Tap you on the shoulder and say “Sorry, bud – it’s the end of the line for you – we need you to step aside.” You dread a shameful early exit, explaining what happened to your family waiting at the finish line.
Then, just when you can’t go on, you turn the corner and there’s that big, beautiful, digital clock. You realize you will make it, your knees wobble; you wipe tears from your eyes. You feel pretty good. You actually feel great. Nobody can take this race away now. You imagine a beer, a celebratory dinner, a shower, a nap. Life becomes wonderful again. You thank God you finished a marathon. Then you thank God you will never have to run another one.
You start to imagine how you’ll spend your free time – a life without early morning training runs and long run Saturdays. Maybe you’ll take up another sport. Or do some volunteer work. Backpack around the world. Live in Vietnam. Bike through Eastern Europe. Take a writing class in Paris.
What you won’t do is a victory lap. To keep running would be nuts. You have already finished the marathon. Some people do keep running. They can’t stop. You don’t understand them. There’s a train to catch, a book to write, a group of immigrants waiting to learn English. Life is waiting if you Just. Stop. Running.
I live in Hungary now. I committed to work here for two years. I’ll try to last, though frankly I’m not sure how. I’ll slow it down to a jog. Then, I’ll toss my running shoes in a trash can on my last trip home (currently, destination unknown). I’ll nap on the flight and maybe drink a beer. After we land, I’ll take a shower. I’ll think about the future and I’ll smile. After all, I will have just finished a marathon.