Darryl Bollinger, Author

Why I Run

I turn sixty-one next month and just finished my first marathon, the Disney, two days ago. I’ve run most of my life, but never that kind of distance. Immediately after the race, I swore I’d never do another, but now, I find myself thinking about maybe one more. Why?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot the last couple of days. What is it about running? It’s hard, not sure how anyone can say it’s fun, certainly doesn’t seem to fit most peoples’ definition of fun.

The more I think about it, the more I think it revolves around the fact that it is such a personal challenge. I think about all the people I saw on the course, all sizes and shapes. You hear people say, “She looks like a runner,” or “He’s got a runner’s build.” After starting that race with 27,000 people, I’m here to tell you there is no profile. There were people who passed me, if I saw them at the mall, I would swear they couldn’t run around the block. And I passed others who in a million years, I would never predict I could outrun.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you can’t pay someone to take the steps for you. It’s just you and the pavement. No fancy equipment, no shortcuts, you have to pick ‘em up and put ‘em down for 26.2 miles, not a yard less. Everything in you screams “enough” and “stop this madness.” You argue with your body, trying to convince it to keep moving, just get you to the finish.

It’s amazing how emotional you can become. Just past mile 13 in the Animal Kingdom, someone was holding up a sign that said simply, “One day, you won’t be able to do this – today is not that day.” Tears formed in my eyes as I slogged past. I found myself repeating that for the next 13 miles, over and over and over again. I honestly believe that sign helped me finish the race.

After the race, when I went to describe it to my wife, who had patiently waited in the hot Florida sun for three hours, I choked up repeating the words out loud. Why? I think it was a reminder of why I did the race. A few months ago, after I had signed up for the race and gone public with my intentions, I told someone that my knees and legs were holding up pretty good, but if I wanted to run a marathon, I should probably go ahead while I could.

I’ve always heard people talk about hitting the “wall,” and wondered about that. I’d never had that happen. A few weeks ago, on one of my long training runs, I was up to about 17 miles at that point, I found out what it was like. At about mile 15, I cratered. As much as I commanded my legs to move, my body would not run, period. It was as if someone else was pulling the strings. I pleaded, begged, cursed, and screamed, but my body refused to cooperate. I limped the rest of the way, running for a few seconds, then walking for a few minutes. I got home, totally disgusted. If I hadn’t told everyone I was running the marathon, I would’ve bailed at that point, no doubt about it. I would’ve slinked off to the corner, curled up in the fetal position, licked my wounds and quit, right then and there.

My wife told some of her friends, accomplished runners, at the gym about it, and they laughed! Everyone hits the wall sooner or later, they said. Tell him to suck it up and keep at it. Improve your hydration and nutrition, deal with it.

When she told me, I was angry, then hurt. They didn’t understand. I was older. This was my first one. I can’t do this. I shouldn’t have signed up for this. It was my first real challenge. I nursed my wounded pride, and thought about it. For the first time, I had doubts about being able to finish. I was scared. Up until that point, I had breezed through my training with no hitches. But I had run smack into the wall of reality, and it hurt.

I did the rest of my runs that week, but the entire time, the next long run was waiting for me, waiting to devour me. That next Sunday, I set out to do my long run, 17 miles again. I prepared, brought more water, more sports drink, more things to replenish my body, but I was so scared. What if I couldn’t make it? I did my run, no wall. OK, I thought, but the specter of it was haunting me. Maybe it was lying in the shadows, waiting to pounce again?

I never hit the wall again, even in the race. Sure, I got tired, very tired. Around mile 22, I had to walk a little, run a little, walk some more. But my legs cooperated and making the turn at mile 23, I started running again. Popping out in Hollywood Studios, I looked up and saw my niece and her husband on the sidewalk, cheering and screaming and waving. I couldn’t help but grin and wave back.

Passing mile 24, once again, I had to walk a little. I looked up and saw we were coming into Epcot. The finish. One day, I told myself, I won’t be able to do this, but today is not that day. I started running again, and we came into Epcot next to the United Kingdom and mile 25. One mile to go. I didn’t stop running again until I crossed the finish line. That was the longest mile I’ve ever run in my life.

That sign was a reminder of our mortality and hit at the core of why I run. One day, I won’t be able to do this. Thankfully, today is not that day.