It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a…

In a little under two months I will run my second marathon.

Before I go any further, let me state unhesitatingly and emphatically that I hate running.  I really, really, REALLY hate it.  But as anyone who has experienced marriage, or a domestic partnership, or a long-term relationship of any kind knows, there are some decisions that are simply not yours to make.

Running began in this family when Meredeth won the oboe/English horn audition for the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own.”  She was advised at the audition that in addition to everything else that is required of a classical musician going through basic training (including—but not limited to—crawling under a barbed-wire fence while bullets fly overhead, lobbing a live hand grenade, and jumping off a moving truck with a loaded rifle), she was going to have to RUN.  Two miles.  TWO MILES!!!

And of course, if she had to do it, I had to do it.  So the next day we went to the famed Huntington Avenue YMCA, just around the corner from our apartment in Boston.  Inside the YMCA are these strange machines called treadmills, which apparently are the large-scale versions of hamster wheels.  We had agreed that we would build up to the two miles gradually, starting with a very modest run of half a mile. HALF A MILE!

Perhaps never in the history of the YMCA has there ever been a more pathetic sight.  We huffed, we puffed, we panted, we sweated, we turned bright red, we sobbed, we drooled, we may have vomited just a little bit, and we fell off the treadmill violently, in a steaming burst of fluids, tumbling onto the putrid floor just as we made the incredible journey of 0.5 miles.  And as we slowly, painfully, carefully pulled each other off of the ground, holding onto each other for dear life as we stumbled towards the glass exit door, people stared, open-mouthed.  We had been at the gym for a total of six minutes.

But it turns out that the human body is surprisingly resilient.  The half a mile eventually became a mile, which eventually became two miles, which eventually became fast enough for minimum Army standards.  And then, of course, it was only a matter of time before she decided that we had to run a half marathon.  I believe it happened like this: “I just saw ___________.  She said she and ___________ were running a half marathon.  Well, if THEY can do it, WE can do it, [long string of expletives deleted].”

And once you’ve done something called a “half” marathon, there’s no getting around the thought that you need to do the “whole” marathon.  Now a whole marathon is 26.2 miles, and if that seems like a lot of miles when you’re reading about them, I assure you it’s even worse when you’re actually training to do them.  And I say training because you really do need to train, which is a euphemism for “run a lot.”  There are many, many different training plans, but since they all involve a ridiculous amount of running, it doesn’t seem to matter which one you use.  We went with the one Kara Goucher outlines in her book Running for Women.  Meredeth liked the fact that it only made you run three times a week; I liked…well, I like Kara Goucher.   (And yes, there are photographs in the book.)

But here is the remarkable part of the story, and the real reason why I’m writing about this in what is ostensibly a journal about composing an opera.  In all of the books, articles, websites, conversations with friends, and entire issues of this bizarre publication called Runner’s World that seems to show up every two days in my mailbox despite its being a monthly magazine, a great deal of emphasis is placed on mental preparation, and mental training.  Long discussions on motivation.  Goals.  Maintaining focus.  Inspiration.  “Sticking to it.”  And tricks, gimmicks, and mantras designed to take your mind off of how miserable you are and fool it into continuing to run and train appropriately for the marathon.  Because running a marathon has nothing to do with talent, skill, or physical ability—believe me, if it did, I wouldn’t have had a chance in the world.  It has everything to do with persistence, determination, grit, and mental toughness.  And we were shocked to discover that, as musicians, we had all of these things.

If Kara Goucher said we had to run five miles, we ran five miles.  If she said we had to run twelve miles, we ran twelve miles.  If she said we had to run sixteen miles, we ran sixteen miles.  Of COURSE we did.  If it was too hot, we slowed down and drank extra water.  If it was too cold, we wore long sleeves and sweat pants.  If it was raining, we got wet.  (Special thanks to my friend and longtime marathoner Heather Laurel who reminded me, “What are you going to do if it rains on the day of the marathon?  NOT do it, just because it’s raining?”)  We had been assured that if we followed the training plan religiously, we would be able to make it through the marathon in one piece.  And having told all of our friends and family that we were going to do it, we most assuredly WERE going to do it.

As a musician, you know you have to practice.  All the time.  Regardless of whether or not you feel like it.  If you’re tired, you practice.  If you’re sick, you practice.  If you feel like you have no reason to live and you’re a complete and utter failure as a human being, you practice a little more.  Then you have a cup of coffee and start practicing again.  If you have rehearsal on Tuesday, you learn your music by Tuesday.  Period.  If you have to be at the concert hall at 5:45, you make sure you can be there by 4:45, then wait around for an hour going over your music.  All professional musicians know this; they also know that if they slip up once or twice, they will be replaced.  Permanently.  So they tend not to slip up.  It’s perhaps the most important part of your education, aside from learning how to read music and play your instrument.  We have a reputation for being flighty (especially sopranos and flutists), but really, a classical musician is just about the most dependable, focused, and detail-oriented person you’ll ever meet.

As a composer, it’s pretty much the same thing.  If the singer needs her music by Thursday, you get her the music by Thursday.  If the orchestra needs their parts by the end of the month, you get them their parts by the end of the month.  Error free.  Sometimes the writing goes well, sometimes it goes badly, and sometimes it doesn’t go at all, but you trust that it if you plug away at it day by day, eventually it will get done, and in the back of your mind you know that you WILL make a deadline.  The same way you WILL run those 26.2 miles.  As Nike says, you just do it.

So, after four months of training?  Aside from the godawful running itself, I have to say that our first marathon was actually a great experience.  We ran the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, in honor of our friends Nick and Rachel Ciraldo and their heroic two-year-old son Luca, who was being treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at the time.  We didn’t break any speed records (for my age group, I finished 246 out of 257), but we did raise over a thousand dollars for the hospital.  We ran past Sun Studios.  We ran past a huge group of patients at St. Jude, smiling, waving, and holding up signs.  We ran past a group of young girls belly dancing.  We ran past the NICEST MAN IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, who gave me a doughnut.  (Whoever you are, good sir, I shall never forget thee or thy kindness.)  And of course after five hours and forty-six minutes, we ran across the finish line.

And now it seems we are doing this again.

And I still hate running.



P.S.  If you want to know more about Meredeth’s experience with basic training, please check out her interview with NPR’s Michele Siegel on Studio 360.  The segment is entitled “G.I. Oboe,” which pretty much says it all.