Beckley Half-Marathon: A Runner’s Report

Originally Published on Beckley Online, October 2012

When the national media covers West Virginia, the focus and facts revealed are often dire. A third of the state’s population is obese, half of adults have lost all their teeth by the age of 65, and the average life-expectancy is, in defiance of continuing advances in medical science, actually going down in some counties. However, despite an overarching crisis in health, opportunities to pursue, and even exec,l in physical fitness are still widely available. At Beckley Online, we plan to make fitness and outdoor recreation part of our regular coverage. What follows is hopefully the first of many articles that will help encourage our readers to enjoy the sort of opportunities to be healthier and feel better that the area provides.

This past Saturday, I ran the Beckley Half Marathon, which celebrated it’s 15th anniversary this year. It was my first half marathon, so I was somewhat worried I wouldn’t even finish. However, I’d successfully done 11 miles the past weekend and had enough of a lid on my injuries and enough gas in the tank after that that I figured that I could probably finish. The race began at MSU, followed Kanawha Street to the new East Beckley bypass out to the soccer field, where we ran 2 laps, then to Woodrow Wilson High School and back through downtown to finish where we started back at MSU. For those who weren’t quite up for the full 13.1 mile run, there was also a 5k (3.1 miles, for the non metric-inclined) starting at the same time with the option to walk or run it.

The gun went off at 8:00, following an introduction featuring noted author and Rocket Man Homer “Sonny” Hickam. I lit out with the first mile in 7:40, followed by the next mile in ten or so followed by a hideous lactic acid burn that took up everything from the middle of my thighs through my ankles. It eventually evened out as I locked into the rhythm of the bypass sidewalk. The soccer field was nice enough, intermittent rain, but a decent chance to re-up (thanks, volunteers with Hydrive!). Next, we ran further up the bypass to Woodrow and I was feeling relatively good. The second lap around the soccer field makes 5, so my inner monologue is something like, “OK, no injuries are resurgent yet, burn is dissipated, hydration is good… I can do two more of this.”

Most people’s answer for what they’d do if time travel was invented is either kill Hitler or destroy the device so it can’t create a paradox that will kill everyone. My answer is different. I want to go to myself ten years ago, when I was in my senior year at Woodrow and applying to colleges all over the country. I want to intercept my younger self coming out of Art Club and into the back parking lot and say to him, “You will be in this same parking lot 10 years from now and you will be participating in an athletic competition, let that sink in.” I would not have believed me. Yet, here I was, 7 miles in and my right knee, which I’d hyperextended tripping over a footprint in some concrete nearly a month ago, was finally starting to creak and throw random sparks of pain like a lighter with a half-stuck wheel. At first, it was when I landed a certain way. By the time I stopped in the back parking lot of my Alma Mater, there were few ways I could land on that leg that didn’t’ hurt.

So I stretched it out, velcroed the neoprene sleeve up tight around the aggravated joint, jumped up and started running again. The way the body compensates is fascinating. I don’t know how specific this is to running in vibram five fingers (those shoes with individual toes, for those who don’t know the brand name), but I have a sore spot between my right heel and the foot bones that lead up to my little toe from working that joint more heavily to moderate impacts that my knee couldn’t take the full force of, which leads me to another fascinating aspect of getting in shape for this thing: Running is ostensibly a legs thing, but it’s also a core thing, an arms thing, a posture thing, a psychological game of pain management, effort vs reward, focusing one’s attention while also being alert enough to evade dogs and cars.

So, I’m reassembled and I run out of Woodrow, plans to toy with my past self safely hip-pocketed, and am soon back on the bypass. It’s a stretch of road that seems beautiful and indistinct to me at this point I find it funny that it’s now the first part of Beckley many people see when they get off the highway while simultaneously still being freshly annexed frontier as far as my mental map of the town I’ve spent 20 of my 27 years in is concerned. I also like that the sidewalk is literally wide enough for a person in a mobility scooter to take a Rotweiler for a walk. When you’re running this kind of distance, removing the variables of terrain and traffic for a substantial stretch is certainly welcome. Plus, the view from the bridge was breathtaking, and the way that running strips some of your inhibitions and tightens your perceptual acuity made it even more so. However, there’s a strange rush of familiarity when I see the Go-Mart and Captain D’s signs in the mist as we come back up the bypass. I pick up the pace. I can envision the finish now.

Around mile 11, a volunteer tells me I’m the happiest runner he’s seen today. Since I don’t feel particularly competitive, it’s assumed to be fun (or at least rewarding) to simply keep going because I’m going. The machinery is now assured by the increasing familiarity of the landmarks. I’m matching things up to themselves before I ran the race as I run the loop through downtown. I’m really the only thing that’s different, but everything seems novel in some ineffable way. I’m euphoric as my dad cheers for me in front of the Raleigh playhouse. My knee could blink out of existence and I’d still finish at this point because, as I pass our offices on Main, it feels like everything in the race is now known and only has to be done.

My mom is waiting at the finish line when I finish with my time of 2:11:19. I’m in 64th place out of 76 runners, yet I still feel a decent sense of accomplishment. Some of it is by dint of feeling assured that actually doing the race in the first place wasn’t a stupid move (I played out a lot of version of getting lost or injured in my head before I did this.), but what’s even more significant is that this feels like a commitment that’s going to continue to pay dividends. If you look at the results, one of the top finishers is literally twice my age and he finished in under a an hour and a half. When I consider how much better I feel after running with some degree of seriousness for a 18 months and then extrapolate it another 27 years, it makes me feel a certain optimism about my continued health. Our culture values youth above almost everything that isn’t money and I think that this mentality ends up denying people that continued optimism because they write themselves and their own abilities off at a relatively young age. Jack Kirk, a long-distance runner, had this to say of the sport, but I think it applies as a nice general maxim for staying active in general, “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” He lived to be a hundred.