Ten Miles

I started running when I was eighteen years old, primarily to lose weight.  I saw fast results and was convinced of its merits.  Running was never used as something competitive back then.  It was simply a means to staying in shape, which is something I’ve had to teach myself, as I wasn’t born with the metabolism of a jackrabbit on crack.  I fight the fight, like many do.  Running helps me do that.  Since I’m not a “born” runner the path to becoming one has been arduous.  I have learned more about my physical and psychological limits by running than I have in nearly any other aspect of my life.  That may sound bold, and it is, but in running, there is truth.

I lost 55 pounds in high school by running around a large dining table in my grandparent’s basement.  I ran for a half hour, every single day.  Too embarrassed to run outside for fear of ridicule by those who would chastise someone attempting to better themselves, looking every bit the struggling whale, awash on shore, flopping and swerving to get back into the ocean, I eventually broke the surface as a new man.

The main motivation was to finally have sex with a girl, but the results eventually morphed into a lifelong goal to stay fit.  Sometimes there’s more at stake than simple cardiovascular fitness.

Joining the Army, specifically the infantry, afforded (enslaved) me the opportunity to run even more.  By the time I was in Airborne school, we were running five miles at a brisk 8-minute-mile pace about 2-3 times a week.  Fresh out of basic training I was fit as a fiddle, but each run left a wake of heaving souls behind me, their eyes bulging out like a bad dream in “Total Recall,” their elbows resting on their knees, praying to the ground beneath them.  I continued to run, never faltering, never giving in to my burning lungs or pleading brain, which screamed “stop, stop, stop!”

My leadership told me that our squad would be running 14 miles on the first morning I arrived to my unit in Alaska.  I was agape in shock.  I visited another Soldier in my squad later that night.  He was sitting on his bed, staring at the ground in complete silence.  I asked him what was wrong and he looked to me with disbelieving eyes. “Fourteen miles, man?  Fuuuuuuck.”  The next morning it ended up being only about six miles, which I was able to handle easily.  But, that was just a taste of things to come.

My running uniform for a solid seven years.

Airborne units are very traditional about running.  I’m sure there is a deep, significant meaning to it, but I’ve never come to any other conclusion other than it exists merely to test paratroopers to their very limits.  Anyone who has seen “Band of Brothers” will recall David Schwimmer’s portrayal of Captain Sobel, the torturous drill instructor who tormented his men into becoming the like-a-rock paratroopers of Easy Company.  Modern Airborne physical training, specifically running, is reminiscent of Captain Sobel’s harrow.

Unfortunately, the Army began to sway my love of running into a deep-seated hatred.  My first squad leader was like Captain Sobel’s distant offspring, a running “Terminator,” sent from the past to agonize me into a steely-eyed killer and requisite speed demon.  It was pain.  It was searing hot pain injected into my soul and it ripped me apart, broke me down, and served me up on a platter to the running Gods.  And my squad leader loved it.  He loved the pain, reveled in the sight of it.  Soldiers throwing up, tripping, falling, sliding, screaming, crying out for it all to stop was the fuel to his fire.  He was the antichrist in Nikes to my dog meat in New Balance.  On more than one occasion I prayed for his death.

As time wore on, the pain became common.  That doesn’t mean it was easier.  No, it never got easy.  It never got better.  It was always hard, dreadful, and draining, no matter how long or short each run was.  When we deployed to Afghanistan, my squad was the only one to be found at the butt crack of dawn, shuffling around the FOB (Forward Operating Base) in PT’s, forced to carry a weapon, any weapon, as we trudged through the homegrown anguish on foreign soil.

When I finally left the squad, I found that I would never again be forced to run to the lengths of which I’d endured with my former squad leader.  Although there were future physical challenges, I was free at last of the pure, unadulterated punishment that being in that squad brought.  I was a bird in flight, having escaped my captor and survived, the scars still remaining on my psyche (and rickety knees).

Once free of my cycle of pain, I found that there were very few challenges to push me.  It felt as if I’d been training for the Olympics and stepped down to a high school athletics club.  For many, it would be enough to survive such an ordeal.  For me, it was a badge of honor, but there was room on the wall for more badges.  I just didn’t know where to go to earn them.

I’ve fought my body for as long as my memories go back and continue to wage war with it.  I can achieve or exceed just about any reasonable fitness challenge (let’s not get carried away…I’m not gonna be pole vaulting or any such shit).  However, the fight to maintain a specific visage is a challenge.  I’m okay with that.  The way I see it, as long as I feel confidant enough to survive a Roland Emmerich movie then I am good to go.  If I don’t have a six-pack while doing it, that’s all right.

Seconds after crossing the finish line of the 2010 Skinny Raven Half Marathon.

Still, I hunger for challenges, and two years ago I decided to take a jaunt into running events.  My active duty military days were behind me and the challenges were now left to me.  Once again, I was in charge of my fate, running around my grandparent’s dining table in the basement with no one to direct, torture, or restrain me.

One of the most-revered running events in Alaska is the Big Wild Life Runs, which takes place every August in downtown Anchorage.  Not quite prepared, physically or mentally, for a full marathon, I jumped on the Skinny Raven Half Marathon.  I threw myself into training, maintaining a consistent and gradual schedule, which led me straight into the event.  I completed the run and it was a treasure trove of pain.  13.1 miles is no small feat.  So, naturally, I chose to do it again the next year.  I amped my training schedule, running no less than 6 miles anytime my feet met the road.  The result was a significant improvement in my time and pace, which supplemented my desire to run again the next year and best my results.

In 1985, the U.S. Army began the Army Ten Miler, consisting of a ten-mile course around the Pentagon area.  The inaugural run consisted of only 1,600 runners, but set in motion a word-of-mouth that has turned the run into an annual event, created mainly to promote fitness, espirit de corps, and improve community relations.  Oh, and to make people suffer a ten-mile run.  The event now draws more than 30,000 runners and is sponsored by numerous businesses and organizations.  It is largely an esteemed tradition, looked upon as a badge of honor for those that would take part.

Upon my own wall of honorary badges, I put the Army Ten Miler within my sights.  Now, let’s be honest here; I’m not a serious competitor.  I’m the Adam Richman (Man vs. Food for the unadvised) of running events.  I run them largely to see if I can; just to be a part of the process, to experience it.  I’m not out to break records.  But, I absolutely love being able to say I’ve done it.  One day I’ll be bones in the earth and I don’t want those bones to be a picture of someone who lived gently.  I want them to be dug up and studied and brought to the scientific conclusion that “this muthafucka LIVED!”

I stumbled upon the opportunity to do the Army Ten Miler when tryout dates were announced at my Army Reserve unit.  In between making power point slides and playing pocket pool, the Reserves somehow found a meaningful task of which I could employ myself.  Although not at the top of my game during tryouts, I made the cut and a few months later was informed that I was on the team for Alaska.  I didn’t really know about the whole team aspect and neither did my Reserve leadership, so I figured it was just a term used to lump all the qualifiers into one group.

A month before the event details began to pour in.  I was none too impressed.  For whatever reason, the Reserve leadership decided to have everyone arrive on a Wednesday and fly out on the following Monday (the race being on Sunday).  For me, that meant I had to take precious leave days from my civilian job in order to take part in the event.  I felt that the Reserves were being a tad obtuse in realizing the situation of its Citizen Soldiers, so it peeved me that I had to do this.  And since I was doing it, I decided that the best course of action would be to bring my family as well, since I was spending vacation days on a simple running event.

The next blow came when the Reserve leadership sent out an e-mail that outlined an entire day-by-day agenda while we were there.  I’m talking about early morning and late afternoon formations, safety briefings, and training events.  All in the name of “team.”  Since I hail from Washington D.C. and much of my family still lives there, I had no intention of meeting any of those military obligations, especially since they weren’t even paying me.

The Course.

I made my intentions clear to my leadership, explaining that I would be staying with family and not at the hotel and that they could count on me NOT being there for any formations.  I wasn’t trying to be difficult or special, just firm.  There is a definitive line between Active Duty and Reserve Army.  I know this all too well.  In the current standing of things, I would simply blow off the Reserves, while still being respectful and cordial.  I didn’t want to piss in their Cheerios, nor did I want to eat a bowl of their piss-filled Cheerios, so I just made the decision to eat pancakes at my brother’s house, rather than play by their rules.

The day prior to the event I went to visit an old Army buddy who had recently been injured in Afghanistan.  He lost his leg below the knee and suffered additional injuries to his arm, as well as some internal injuries after stepping on an IED.  Driving to Walter Reed was a somber and draining journey, especially since it’s smack dab in the middle of the ghetto.  The hospital seemed nice enough, but one visit doesn’t tell you enough to gain any kind of perspective.

My friend was drugged up, but lucid enough to joke around, tell some stories, and share some time, of which I am forever grateful.  My 17-month-old son was his usual rambunctious self and ended up tearing down the hallways, which were filled with amputees, starved for attention and reminders of the real world.  It was good that they were able to laugh at the antics of my offspring and it made me wish that these men would get home quickly.  My throat clogged at the pride and sympathy I felt for all the men and women there, especially my friend, who is resolved to continue to serve in the Army, despite his injuries.

The irony is that one of the memories I have of this friend is of him running in Afghanistan, motivating another Soldier who was struggling to stay in formation.  I had shared many runs with my friend, but never in a million years would have thought he’d be in the position he was now in.  I’m sure he didn’t either, although the thought is persistent in any combat vets mind while tour tripping in the Middle East.  In twenty-four hours I’d be running in the nation’s capitol and my friend would be lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by reminders of his plight.  It weighed heavily on me.

I had been fighting a cold for about a week and it felt like it had morphed into walking pneumonia by the time I set foot in Virginia.  I planned on resting and letting nature take it’s course, hoping it would be enough to prepare me for race day, but by Friday I was at my worst with no hope on the horizon.  My wife called in a Z-pack for me and I prayed it would be enough.

The psychological effects of being sick are far worse than the physical ones (but not by much), and I have always felt that it was a true test of an individual to see how much they can accomplish in a debilitating state.  As bad as I felt, there was no way I was going to drop out of the race, even if it killed me.  My brother had secured a race bib and would be running with me, so we did a short, 4-mile run on Saturday, which took me right back to my long-suffering infantry days.  It settled my mind into the cold, early morning formations, where Soldiers stood shivering in their PT gear, half awake, half dead, some drunk, most dog-ass tired and dreading whatever physical training awaited.  Yet we did it every morning, rain, snow, or shine.  And here I was, a lowly civilian, suffering from a respiratory infection, trying to finish a measly four miles, heaving for air, sucking for strength.  This was not going to be pretty.

On race day we gathered at the Pentagon, hung out at the Alaska tent, took some photos and soaked in the atmosphere of more than 30,000 warm bodies zig-zagging the grounds, about to conduct a jaunt through the city that had become a national tradition.  The weather was expected to be in the low 70’s and sunny, but since the race started at 0800, we would be able to soak in the early morning coolness.

Many of the units had tents set up and numerous support organizations were on hand to promote the event.  It was a smorgasbord circus to be sure and through all the anticipation and build up, all I wanted to do was finish the run without dying.  I ran into a few familiar faces, one of them being my old Sergeant Major from Afghanistan, who had commanded to some capacity in nearly every unit I moved onto since then.  It was a fitting presence.

As my time in the Reserves winds down and my decision to close the book on my military career draws close, the Army Ten-Miler was to be my last “hoo-rah” for the Army, for better or worse.  There was no fanfare to this and there will be no fanfare when I sign my final walking papers, but my internal intention to leave it all behind left a lingering feeling of sentimental closure to the event.

Prior to the race start, my brother and me decided that we had to accomplish one final task before getting in line; we needed to pee.  There were more porta johns stationed around the Pentagon than you could possibly imagine and the lines for all were unbelievably long.  We waited in line as we heard the loudspeaker announced that the first wave was on the move.

A “bathroom” motivator in Army PT’s showed up with a bullhorn and began yelling at everyone waiting in line.  “You all realize this isn’t the line for the race right?  So, puuuuuussssshhhhhh!!!!”  It was a welcome laugh to tension-filled moment.  He continued his tirade to entice everyone to move along their “processes” even as we walked towards the starting line.

My Timer.

When we finally made it to the road and squished in with everyone else waiting at a standstill for the accordion of people to push forward and start kicking their legs.  The beginning of the run, like most events of this nature, was like sand in an hourglass, everyone trying to get to the point where they can break free.

Arlington National Cemetery was just off to the left of us as we pushed toward the bridge.  My brother and me were perfectly adjusted to each other’s running patterns and had no trouble staying together.  He is the only person I’ve ever been able to run in synchronicity with.  Careening toward the bridge, I noticed people bolting in droves to the side of the road to pee in the bushes.  Stripped off long-sleeve shirts were scattered along the road as many runners realized too late that it was too damn hot to wear for ten miles.  Good Will could’ve had a field day.

Every kind of person imaginable was on the course, although it was predominantly military-aged individuals.  I saw old women, old men, younger kids, and every race and nationality.  It was a non-discriminating event.

I felt the pangs of my ailing condition, but the Z-pack had put me back on course without feeling like an escaped pneumonia patient.  Our pace was decent and we stayed on course, passing the golden statues that lead you toward the Lincoln memorial.  I had seen the statues numerous times before, but it was the first time I noticed how perky the female’s nipples were.  Capitol porn.  Gotta love it.

Passing the various sites, from The Lincoln Memorial, The Kennedy Center, and onto Independence Avenue was a thrilling feeling.  Thousands of us, all trekking like lemmings to the cliff, united in a common goal; Survive. This. Race.

Survival was not the goal for those who left a fire trail like the Delorean from “Back to the Future,” but for everyone else it was not a simple skip in the woods.  Some people ran in groups, making small talk about their weekend, telling bullshit stories, and remarking on the weather, while others gasped for air and squinted through the pain of every slap their foot made on the concrete.

We stayed steady and just past the Washington Monument and onto the Capitol building, my brother and me juiced up with gel packs and sport beans.  I felt surprisingly good, but definitely challenged, and pushed on with relative ease.  When pain starts to set in and you know that it will persist for an extended period of time, your mind typically goes to its most base level.  With that, it was easy to distract myself with the numerous sights around me, including the various women in tight clothing, their humps and bumps bouncing before my eyes.  While some will regard this in eye-rolling annoyance, I can only wonder if they run an event like this with a blindfold on.  One of the few coping tactics to pushing through a rough patch in a run is to distract your mind and nothing distracts the mind better than members of the opposite sex in skintight clothing.

What nearly stopped me in my tracks was the sight of a double amputee running the race.  And then I saw more of them.  They all had a constant cheering section and every time a runner passed them, claps and cheers were sent their way.  To see these men and women, afflicted with a serious disability as a result of their service, champion above their affliction and actually run an entire ten-mile event is more than just a dramatic pause; it’s an epic statement.

It made me think of my friend, sitting in Walter Reed, just beginning his journey of recovery, and I felt like there was hope, that despite his predicament this was a possibility for him.  When you think of what your life would be like without a limb (or two) probably the last thing you think about is whether or not you’d be able to run the Army Ten-Miler.  And here they were, America’s finest, right alongside everyone else, still in the fight.  Now, that may come across as cheesy and overly patriotic, but I don’t give a shit.  If bearing witness to that doesn’t rile your soul and stir your allegiance, then you’re probably in Al Qaeda.

By mile nine we were fatigued, but still steady.  The final trek across the bridge and back into the Pentagon was met with cheers and last minute sprints to the finish.  There was a group of people handing out cups of beer for the last mile, which at first I didn’t believe until I smelled the stale scent of spilled alcohol on the pavement.  Fucking amazing.

We stretched our legs for the last quarter mile and finished like ragdolls, our legs made of jelly and our lungs sighing with praise.  Soaked in sweat and pain, we congratulated each other and slowly let our minds swim in relief.  It was a short corral walk back to the unit tents.  They handed out water and finisher coins as we made our way out.  By the time I got out of the corral I was on my second bottle of water.  It wasn’t the hardest run I’d ever done, but it wasn’t easy either.

As expected there was no real fanfare.  There was the internal accomplishment, my final contribution to the Army as a member of it.  It wasn’t anything cool or sexy, really, but it was something.  It was more than a lazy speech in a near vacant formation with Soldiers hoping you’ll keep it short so they can go home.  And maybe it’s best that it stays that way.  In a few short months it’ll all wind down and I’ll be part of the dirty nasty, but it felt good to take on one last run with all my collective brothers and sisters.

Like all the runs before, it was another badge to be added to my personal running resume.  Nostalgia coursed through my veins and I thought of the journey I’d made up to that point; late nights in my grandparent’s basement, early mornings in the Alaskan cold with my satanic squad leader, the virginal trek of my first half marathon in Anchorage and everything in between.  It was all significant.

I will never be in the history books as a great runner.  Hell, I probably won’t ever be known as a good one, but the fact is I did it.  I ran.  I ran, despite everything in my bodymind telling me not to, telling me I wasn’t made for it, wasn’t good enough. And if I ever start to feel that I just can’t do it anymore, I can thank the Army Ten Miler for showing me a double amputee finishing the whole damn thing.   Now whatcha got? I’ll ask myself.

I won’t have a good enough answer, just lame enough excuses.  I’ll run and I’ll run some more, whether it is 2 miles, 8, 10, 13, or more.  It won’t be special, it won’t be pretty, but I’ll keep at it.  In the end, my bones will turn to dust with pride, soaked in the truth that is existence, satisfied that they were used and abused to their full extent, one mile at a time.

9 Responses to Ten Miles

  1. Jenny November 7, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    This is great Paul! I really enjoyed it!

    • Paul Shirey November 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

      Thanks, Jenny! Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Scott Shirey November 7, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    That was an awesome story. I can picture every bit of it in my mind. From the basement and smell of our grandparents basement to the cold air of the Pentagon parking lot. We will run again sir…we will run again.

    • Paul Shirey November 8, 2010 at 12:12 am #

      It was an honor to run it with you, bro. Maybe again next year? Need more badges…

      • Scott Shirey November 9, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

        Yes sir, I think we need to do a marathon together someday, and then onto a triathalon as well. I want more badges and be able to say ” I did it “!!!

  3. Mr. Brian I. Patton, Esq. November 8, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    The Army life is like pancakes. All exciting at first, and then you just get fucking sick of them.

    All right.

    • Paul Shirey November 8, 2010 at 7:31 am #

      Imagine if the headless horseman had a headless horse…that would be fuckin’ chaos!!

      All right.

  4. Phillip Retay November 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    Great post! I remember your grandparents’ basement. Late nights drawing comics and listening to Hendrix. Did you keep track of how many times you ran around that table?

    I used to run a lot when I was younger, but my chiropractor recommended that I try something with less impact to my lower back. I started doing the Stair Climber in my gym. In the last six months I have estimated that I have climbed 1,500 flights of stairs. I miss running though.

    Do you keep a daily journal? Your posts always have an extraordinary amount of detail and clarity. Just wondering how recollect these events.

    • Paul Shirey November 8, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

      A LOT of memories in my grandparent’s basement. I could easily write a blog about those experience alone. I never kept track of how many time around I went, but I it was probably the most committed I’ve ever been, as I ran for a half hour every single day, without fail, no matter how late it was when I got home. I remember running it at 3 a.m. before. The motivation to get laid is unparalleled to anything else in the world.

      I’ve kept a journal since 1993. I think it is essential. It is my confidant, my counselor, my punching bag, and ultimately my legacy to leave behind. It’s mind therapy to my running as physical therapy. I am taking a short break from distance running after the Ten Miler, but will be back to training hard once the snow melts in April. I try to mix it up throughout the year. I’ll be focusing on short, fast runs/sprints, and the elliptical for cardio, as well as some P90X and yoga. P90X has its merits, but I can’t ever get over what a goof ass Tony Horton is. Totally distracting.

      Thanks for the feedback, bub!

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