In 2012 I ran the Oakland Half Marathon, and went on to call the run “my love letter to Oakland” when discussing it in normal conversation. Though infused with several emotions, and mostly fueled by confusion for what it means to be human, I felt even more entwined with my city after the race. And I wanted to run the course annually, if only to incur the nostalgia of that love.
In 2013, I’d been too recently diagnosed with UPJ to run (for any physical activity was still giving me what I enduringly called “fruit punch pee”), and like many things in 2013, I put off the run and reminded myself that it was only one year of my life.
This year, I signed up months in advance, brimming with Oakland pride as I hit “Pay” on the website. When I came across a coveted Run Oakland t-shirt at Oaklandish I scooped it up, nerdily excited to represent running and Oakland during the race. I went to the run early to cheer on my friends at the 5K, and proceeded to cheer on a ton of strangers, including some of my favorite lake-running regulars who I only recognize when their faces are sweaty and their running shoes are on.
I wasn’t nervous about my race at all. I’d run this before, and even after the year of sickness and surgery in 2013, I felt ready to rock this run.
Mile one started off slow, as it will do based on getting thousands of runners in a tiny corral. Miles two and three were fine — I opted to turn on my iPod instead of eavesdrop on the runners chattering around me, as they were shrouded in silence. And then there was mile four.
At mile four, I noticed I wasn’t actually enjoying myself, and began to try and analyze why. At mile five, I gave up the analytics and tried to evoke the wisdom of The Power of Now, attempting to focus on the present, focus on the breath, and let go of the past and the future. At mile five and a half, I considered simply stopping running and walking home. Because oh my, did I want to be at home.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t run, though I admit this half marathon was probably the worst feeling half I’ve ever done. It was that I simply didn’t want to. I was simultaneously a shell of a person and overcome with heavy emotions. I was, as I later said to a friend, feeling both depressed and enlightened. Miles six and seven and eight were also spent in contemplation about stopping, my legs churning less, my mind trying to decide if the weaker action was to keep going against my own wishes or to stop.
At mile nine, I began to cry. I pulled the earbuds from my listeners and sidled up to the nearest runner next to me, a sweaty man in a green t-shirt with wild hair.
“I don’t know you,” I said to him, “but I didn’t know we’d be running down this street. And I’m not ready for it. Emotionally.”
He looked down at me and said, “I always think that everyone is either running away from something, or running toward something. Looks like today you’re running away.”
“Can we just run this street together?” I asked.
So we did. we ran the rest of mile nine together, him telling me this was his first half marathon and how he hoped this would open doors to triathlon, us discussing if it would be feasible to turn Oakland into a walking/running city, and the joy we’d feel if we could jog to work over the Bay Bridge. And then he was gone at mile 10, and I was alone again.
There was only the lake to go at that point, three miles I am intimately familiar with, and I told myself to just finish. Weak or not. This was the choice. I ran slowly. I almost walked. I simply had ceased to care. Even the bluegrass band at mile twelve didn’t help.
About one hundred yards from the finish line, there was a small incline. It’s significant in the sense that “we just ran 13 miles (or 26, for those marathon kids) and now this!” but not in the grand scheme of inclines. I began chugging up it — not typically how I would describe my running style, but this was pure chugging.
An older man in a long blue shirt came up beside me.
“Let’s do this together,” he said. “Help me up this hill.” I matched his pace, and we crested incline.
“Sprint!” he said.
“You go,” I replied. I’ve never liked sprinting at the end of the race — I’m most proud of myself when I paced so well that I am going the exact right speed.
He darted ahead, and turned around at the finish line to wait for me with a high five.
I felt horrendously relieved to be done. After running into a few friends and exchanging pleasantries, I made my way home. Was the run not fun because of where my head has been lately? Was it not fun because truly, I don’t like the competitive feeling of racing, even against myself? I still don’t know.