Chasing a peak experience on Mount Desert Island
All my feelings about running in one place.
I guess I ended up taking a longer vacation from this newsletter than I intended!
In honor of the New York City marathon tomorrow, I’m sending out this (long, long) essay about running my first marathon last month. I don’t think there’s anything particularly special or unique about my experience, but it was immensely cathartic to write, as someone who has too many feelings about running.
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Is this essay for people who love running? Who hate running? Who have run a marathon, and who would never run a marathon? Yes.
If you signed up for Pinch of Dirt for the intersection of climate/environment/outdoor adventure news and writing, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming soon, now that I’ve exorcised this particular demon. There’s so much to catch up on.
But for now…
Standing in the bathroom line, I noticed the woman in front of me looking around, like she wanted to make friends. She was older, shorter, and wiry. She caught my eye and looked like she was about to speak, lips parted, but something in my expression dissuaded her. Maybe I looked like I might vomit if I opened my mouth. Or she noticed my green bib, which marked me as a first-timer. Instead, she struck up a conversation with the woman in front of her, who had traveled to Maine from Indiana as part of her quest to run a marathon in all 50 states. While I shifted nervously from foot to foot, they swapped stories about racing in New Hampshire, where the Indiana woman had run the Manchester marathon after the 2012 New York City marathon was cancelled after Hurricane Sandy.
The line had disappeared by the time I was out of the stall. My mom was waiting for me outside, and we hurried across the park to Main Street, where more than 600 other runners were already lined up for the Mount Desert Island marathon: elite runners in the front, walkers in the back, and everyone else somewhere in between. I looked around for my boyfriend, a little frantically. We weren’t planning on starting together, but I wanted to see him one last time. I climbed up on the curb and raked my eyes across the crowd, like looking for Waldo, only Waldo looks like everyone else. Finally my mom spotted his sun-bleached cap, at the center of a mass of runners standing shoulder to shoulder. But the race organizers were already playing the opening bars of ‘Thunderstruck’ and telling us to get ready. I didn’t have time to wish him good luck, or hear words of encouragement back. At least I knew he was up there.
I peeled off my mom’s jacket and found my own place behind the starting line. Then the cannon went off.
Was it Tolstoy who said, happy runners are all alike, but every unhappy runner is unhappy in their own way?
My own particular tale of running woe began, as so many surely do, with the mile run in middle school. Is it possible to design a test of fitness more likely to turn children off of an activity? It’s not like they taught us how to run for fun beforehand.
After a lap or two around the track, I had to stop and walk, out of breath and cramping. While I was hardly the only person to struggle, I still felt embarrassed and inadequate. “I am not a runner,” I told myself. “I don’t like running.” The feeling was so powerful that being bad at running became an accepted fact about myself, part of my identity.
The first time I tried to recast myself as someone who ran, even if she didn’t like it, was when I tried out for the crew team in high school. St. Paul’s was the kind of place where physical prowess is valued almost as highly as academic achievement, and the best students excelled in the classroom as well as on the athletic fields. While I had happily rowed on the club team for two years, I felt there was something a bit shameful about being on club again, as other club rowers graduated into junior varsity boats. I also liked rowing, and wanted to improve. But, in addition to a timed 2k on the rowing machine, the tryouts included a 4.2 mile run, which loomed in my imagination like an insurmountable gauntlet.
I trained over our three-week spring break. Every day for a week, I ran down a half-mile gravel road near our house, banging on the yellow metal traffic sign at the T-intersection before turning back. These miles were slow, laborious, and painful. I increased the length of the runs to two miles the following week. At the end of the three weeks my mom drove me out three miles from home and dropped me off. It wasn’t pretty—it wasn’t fun—but I managed to run back. I bent over and retched at the end, tears streaming down my face, but pleased with myself all the same.
Back at school, the 4.2-mile route was shaped like a backwards “L,” or two out-and-backs, which gave me ample opportunities to compare myself to, well, everyone else. I fell behind the crowd on the way out to the crew docks, and soon everyone was running back in my direction. By the time I turned onto the second leg of the race, the fastest runners were already pelting back towards the finish line. Turning around at the end of Silk Farm Road, I saw there was only one girl behind me, a fellow club rower who had started to walk—looking, I might add, completely unconcerned about it.
I came in second to last, after everyone else had finished and headed back to the dorms or to the gym to shower. The angular girls varsity coach was there to record the results. I imagined he looked a bit bemused at my bloated time, wondering, perhaps, what I was even doing there.
I had gone from running naught at all, to running—however slowly—4.2 miles, and in just a month. What should have been a huge accomplishment was instead one of the more mortifying experiences of my young life, and further confirmed my long-held conviction that I was irredeemably bad at running.
I did not make fourth boat.
* * *
It was a foggy morning. From driving the course in the rental car the previous day, I knew Cadillac Mountain loomed ahead, but it was completely shrouded in cloud.
The first mile out of Bar Harbor was downhill. It was an immense relief to be moving, to be doing the thing, after two weeks of tapering—gradually cutting back on mileage to give our muscles time to recover before our final and longest run. The night before I had been sick with pent-up, nervous anxiety, and regaled my mom and boyfriend with a litany of my symptoms, convinced I had Covid.
Once I started running, all of that went away. I felt fine: relaxed, strong, focused.
There was a little awkwardness navigating the crowds at first. I eavesdropped on the runners around me. A man was saying he had a tendency to go out too fast and then boink at the 20-mile mark. A woman replied that shouldn’t be a problem, as they were currently at an easy 10-minute per mile pace.
I should slow down, I thought. I was supposed to be running at a pace I could sustain forever, and a 10-minute mile wasn’t it. I can run like this forever, I practiced telling myself during our last few training miles. I channeled that energy again: I can run like this forever.
We passed a marshy wetland called The Tarn on our right, just as the fog was starting to lift. The sun hit in just such a way to give the entire vista an ethereal, golden glow, lit up like a painting from the Hudson River School. My chest swelled. I felt so lucky to be there.
* * *
Aside from a few abortive attempts to try jogging for my mental and physical health in college and my early twenties, I did not start running again for over a decade.
In the intervening years, I got the backpacking bug and went on a month-long thru-hike. It’s a slippery slope from long-distance hiking to long-distance running. At the highest ‘levels’ of backpacking, where people compete for Fastest Known Time, long-distance hiking is just extremely long-distance running. But I digress.
I downloaded a Couch to 5K app in November 2017. In part, I was looking for a way to stay in backpacking shape when I wasn’t really hiking all that often. But maybe subconsciously I was starting to question that thing I had come to take for granted: Am I a bad runner?
Couch to 5K is an immensely popular training program created to help novice runners work up to running 3.1 miles. It starts with short intervals of running interspersed with walking. Over the course of the program the walking intervals become shorter and the running intervals longer.
I would start the easy weeks, get discouraged or caught up in other things, and then lose all my progress, only to start over again a couple months later. In one big push, I worked all the way up to running 28 minutes at a time. When I failed to run for 30 minutes straight the following week, on an unusually warm and beautiful spring day, I went home and cried. I was just two minutes away from my goal, but so discouraged by that setback it took me another eight months to finish the program.
The app promised results in just nine weeks.
It took me 99.
* * *
We turned off the main thoroughfare onto a narrow street that had been closed to traffic, and were enveloped by trees in peak autumnal splendor. The tunnel opened up at a series of overlooks onto the ocean. Some of the marathoners stopped to take photos, even though the fog was still heavy over the water. I have no time for that, I thought.
It’s a hilly course, with over 1,500 feet of elevation gain. I had prepared for that, to the best of my ability, but it was a steep downhill in the first six or seven miles that took me by surprise. I didn’t want to waste momentum so I slammed down the slope, feeling the shocks reverberate through my legs.
One woman was saying her only goal was to not get picked up by the “straggler’s bus” that sweeps up slow and injured runners who can’t finish before the cut-off time, which I hadn’t known was even a thing. New fear unlocked, I thought.
At some point, three women came up behind me playing music through a speaker. The first song was “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers, which felt like fate. This is fine, I thought, apprehensively. The next song was something worse. This is horrible, I thought, irritated. I was convinced the race organizers had said not to play music aloud while running. (They hadn’t, although they did specify to not let your keys jingle because it can be annoying to others, and isn’t music even more egregious?)
I sped up to put space between myself and the tinny speaker, concerned I was eating into a valuable store of energy I should be saving for later in the race, but also wanting to enjoy the scenery, my thoughts, and the serenity I was trying to cultivate.
After finishing the Couch to 5K program, I began to run, for the first time in my life, on my own terms: when I wanted, for as long (or short) as I wanted, at whatever pace felt right. I especially liked going on runs when we traveled, because I could see more on a run than on a walk of the same length. I resolved to run 366 miles in 2020, one for every day of the year. I fell short by 180 miles, but re-resolved to do the same thing in 2021, and succeeded!
It wasn’t always easy; there were days I fell short of what I wanted to do, or thought I should be able to do, which made me weep and moan and wail. I cried because of offhand remarks made by friends on more than one occasion.But things were improving; I was improving.
I started 2022 without any big running goals at all. Maybe I’d run 365 miles again, maybe not. I was running irregularly, but regularly-irregularly. Then, my boyfriend brought home The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, which he found on someone’s stoop.
My response might have been to scoff or laugh, at one time. If someone is convinced that they either can’t run or don’t like to run, it’s safe to say they would never run a marathon, would never even want to run a marathon. But I wasn’t that person anymore. Somehow, whether over weeks spent backpacking, or the months of slow, incremental, two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress in a beginner running program, or maybe the days spent walking extraordinarily long distances just because, I had come to appreciate—to relish, even savor—the sensation, the discomfort, of pushing myself to my own personal limits.
* * *
“You’re doing great—there’s lots of people behind you,” one woman said as I climbed a hill. It was one of the best cheers I heard from the spectators scattered along the route, one that spoke to the competitive little bad-runner inside. That, and “let’s go first-timer!” I liked seeing clusters of families waiting to greet their runners, saying things like, “Look, Mommy’s coming!”
I knew where to find my mom, halfway between miles 11 and 12. I had given her a bright orange cap to wear or to hold and wave so I wouldn’t miss her, but I didn’t need it, I could tell it was her. She was standing on the far side of the road and I waved to get her to cross over.
“Do you need anything?” she asked. “How are you doing?” I shook my head but slowed down to eat my two energy gummies with her—having skipped that part at the last water stop—and tried to complain about the girls with the speakers, but I don’t think she could understand me. “Ethan’s doing great!” she called to my retreating back.
In the first few miles of the race I saw runners waiting in line to use the bathroom, or darting into the woods on the side of the road, or jogging back out of the woods, adjusting their ties and waist bands. I was glad to have gone minutes before the start. But jogging through the village of Northeast Harbor, approaching the halfway point, I saw someone leave a portable toilet right in front of me, and darted inside, thinking I might not come across an opportunity this convenient again.
The seat was splattered with pee and there was no toilet paper. My legs trembled in the squat. I shook off as best as I could and got out of there.
Crossing the halfway point, right over the starting line for the half-marathon runners, I glanced up at the giant stopwatch: less than two and a half hours had elapsed since the gun went off. Not bad! My only official goal was to finish before the cut-off at six and a half hours, but the expected finish time I gave the organizers had been six hours. My real goal was just to not be last.
* * *
The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer was written by two professors at the University of Northern Iowabased on a class they co-taught in which the final (and only) exam was running a marathon at the end of the term. The third author was one of their former students from that class.
The book appealed to me for two reasons.
First, it spoke to my younger self, the part of me that maybe still thought I was a bad runner. This was the non-runner’s guide! It was for me! Of the 200 of students who had finished the marathon class when the book was published, all but one had finished a marathon.If they could do it, so could I, the book insisted—and I believed it.
The book also appealed to my vanity. The authors wrote:
Each of us has a completely unique set of life experiences, yet as humans we share the desire to test our personal limits in search of how far we can go. The avenue of testing is limited only by one’s imagination, fear threshold, and financial resources. Some people dive out of airplanes, others climb mountains, still others explore the depths of the sea. But for most of us, the arenas of challenge are less grandiose and a lot closer to home: how long can I work in the yard before having to go in and rest, or how far can I walk before turning for home, or how much longer can I tolerate this job before it drives me crazy?
The authors referenced something called “peak experiences,” a concept coined in 1964 by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who described these as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.”
Through exploring one’s personal limits, especially as self-identified “non-runners,” the book made the case that running the marathon distance was a way to basically manufacture a peak experience for oneself.
“Some people actively seek peak experiences, but most of us rarely get beyond, weddings, births, and the occasional vacation,” they write. “Running a marathon is a peak experience available to anyone that will take you to the brink of what you thought were your personal limits and beyond.”
I wanted that. If there were two types of people in the world, those who sought out peak experiences and those who didn’t, I wanted to be in the first group.
* * *
The route followed the coastline along the length of Somes Sound, the only true fjord, or glacier-carved inlet, on the Atlantic. The mists of the morning had entirely burned off by now, and the water glinted in the sunlight. The sky was bluebird-clear. We were approaching the iconic tree from the marathon logo, a sparse, twisty evergreen perched on the curving edge of the rocky shore.
I spotted one of the race photographers and asked him if I looked like I was having fun. “Nope,” he said, deadpan. I laughed.
I actually was feeling pretty good, but starting to suspect that one bar and a couple swallows of Gatorade hadn’t been enough breakfast. I was hungry. I had eaten two energy gummies and drank the proffered cups of Gatorade every two miles, and still had a stroopwafel in my literal back pocket. But I could tell I was slowing down, because I could hear once more the tinny, whining drone of the speakers, and turned around to see the three women gaining on me. I didn’t think I had the energy to outrun them anymore.
From the pocket of my sports bra, I pulled out my own phone and headphones. I opened my carefully curated playlist. The race rulebook said to only use one earbud at a time for safety reasons, but this part of the course was closed to traffic so I put both in to drown out the speakers. This was part of my strategy: to run for as long as possible—at least the first half—without headphones, and then when my energy and mental resources started to flag, to let music do some of the heavy lifting. Everything was going according to plan.
* * *
The week I began training, I came down with Covid. We canceled plans to hang out with friends upstate on July 4th, and I spent the weekend crying instead: worried I may have given Covid to people I met during a recent reporting trip; disappointed to miss a much-anticipated weekend getaway; and distraught that my marathon training was already not going the way it was supposed to.
When I did start running again, I was determined not to skip any of the workouts. I ran five times a week until I had “caught up.” I’m not sure this is advised, but in the relatively low-mileage weeks, it was manageable, physically. And psychologically, I needed to feel as though I had done everything I could—that I had followed the plan.
I did not go around telling everyone I was a “marathoner,” as the book suggested, or even that I was training for a marathon. At least, not until my weekend runs became so long and inconvenient to plan around that my closest friends had started to ask things like, “Are you training for a marathon or something?” I was trying to quell the doubts in my own head; I didn’t need to hear those of my friends, either.
I also stopped sending out my newsletter. In part, because all of my extracurricular time and energy was being eaten up by running. And in part because I couldn’t bring myself to write about anything other than running, so I didn’t write at all.
A big part of the training was focused on the mental aspects of running, like concentration and positive self-talk. I learned how to stop and walk during a run and not flagellate myself for it, but to hold my head up high, as the book instructed. I realized one bad run was not the end of the world—others would follow that were not so bad, might even be good. But these were, uh, tenuous and fragile beliefs. It was simply not the time to put my discoveries under the microscope.
* * *
Passing the 18th mile marker felt momentous: with every step, I was running further than I had ever run before. The idea gave my legs a little buoyancy, for a time. But by now, the sun was high, and I was feeling a little overheated.
Starting at mile 20, right around the point many marathoners hit the so-called “wall,” the Mount Desert Island course begins a long gradual ascent for the next five miles. “It’s just like the Prospect Park loop back home,” I told myself, channeling Luke Skywalker.
Suddenly, a big pick-up truck came up from behind and honked several times loudly in quick succession. The unexpected noise made me startle and shriek. Adrenaline flooded my body. My tear ducts prickled and my breath caught in my chest. Rattled, I ran on.
At the next fluid stop, I took a chocolate energy gel as well as a water, and choked the thick paste down. I hadn’t practiced with them because I find goos uncanny, but I needed the sugar.
In the last few miles, I actually began to pass people, a completely novel and not unpleasant feeling. Sometimes they would say something encouraging, which I tried to reciprocate: “You’ve got this” followed by my raspy, “yeah, we do.” I didn’t quite know what the etiquette was. I think I might have felt insulted if people passing me tried to buck me up, but maybe it’s rude to pass someone without cheering them on?
At this point, I recognized many of the people running just ahead or just behind me. In particular, there were two separate run-walkers who had kept close for most of the race: one of them would stop to walk, and I would pass at my slow jog, and then they would start running again and pass me, and so on.
As we neared the end, they both passed me at some point, and I never saw them again. I didn’t dwell or despair over this. All that mattered was that I was still moving. Even better, I still felt ok. I no longer felt like I could “run forever.” God, no. My body hurt. It felt bruised, all over. But I was increasingly confident I could run to the finish line.
Then the downhill started. I leaned into it—and felt my knee stutter, and nearly give out. That was close, I thought, pulling back. I very nearly faceplanted into the asphalt. Easy, girl.
The last mile went on and on and on. After passing the mile 26 marker, I picked up my legs, even though they felt leaden and battered. Then I could see the chute, and the finish line. My boyfriend was there, stepping out from the curb and waving so I wouldn’t miss him, and I saw him as though through a tunnel, and let out dry sob. I know, because my mom took a video, that the announcer was hyping me up as I closed in on the last few feet, saying I was a first-timer all the way from Brooklyn, New York, but it was garbled noise in the moment. I processed the signs ahead in a daze: half-marathoners to the right, marathoners to the left. And then I crossed the finish line.
If you’re concerned about all the crying, this was over a period of years, and cryis very cathartic, you know.
Where my aunt and uncle are also professors, so I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time in the Cedar Falls area and felt it gave me an closer connection to the book and its authors.
Only because he didn’t hydrate during the race, in case you were wondering.
Congratulations on completing the marathon! I ran my first marathon this fall too (Chicago). I've run 9 half marathons and always said no way to a full, but somewhere along a trail in Korea in 2019, on the toughest hike I've done, I said ya know what, my body can do amazing things, I'll give it a try. It did an amazing thing, and I'll happily go back to not running marathons :)
I so enjoyed reading this, Jessica. It felt very familiar, as I’ve gone through a similar running journey. The idea of completing a marathon sounds a bit like climbing Mt Everest to me, but I’m inspired by your story. :) Congrats on your finish (in such a beautiful place, too! Maine is amazing 🤩)! 👏🏼