How to Become a Runner

Margaret Miller

Start with no athletic ability and an extreme aversion to sports. Be an artist. Be a gamer. If your family is generally bad at sports, this is a bonus. There will be no way to compare your ability against your mother’s excellent running performances in 1967. Avoid comparisons at all costs. Pick a sport your friends have no interest in so you don’t have to compete with their athletic abilities. Don’t be friends with your teammates. Pick friends who don’t like sports. Decide not to have friends at all. Be so bad that nobody wants to be your friend.

Start in middle school, when everyone else has already been doing a sport since elementary school and at least three people on the team have the physique of burgeoning college athletes. Pick a sport where you won’t have to touch anyone. You’re a hazard to yourself, and this way you won’t be a hazard to others. Pick running. In track and field, you’ll get to stay in your own lane. This is the safest option. Hang back just in case other runners start throwing elbows at each other over the lines. Be so bad that hanging back happens naturally.

Try the short stuff, the 100-meter dash, because it hurts the least when you make it to the finish line. You’ll finish the race feeling like your lungs might crack through your ribs, but at least you can still feel your legs. If they ask you to, you’ll try 200 meters. Your lungs will feel the same, but now your legs will wobble. If you like Jello, this could be the race for you. Your legs will be Jello for five to fifteen minutes afterward. If you look pathetic enough, someone might bring you water and a banana. Avoid the 400 meters if you can. During the 400, your lungs will catch fire. Your legs will disappear from under you, and you’ll spend the rest of the day wondering what happened between the first half of the race and the second because all you remember is feeling like you might pee on yourself. Don’t pee on yourself.

Start off by coming in last. When you reach the end of the season, you can come in second to last and your coach will say, look how far you’ve come. If you can, bomb a race or two. Make critical mistakes like leaning forward while you sprint. Fall down halfway through your race. Fall down just before the finish line. Fall down twice in the same race. The small gathering of embarrassed family members and a school official who couldn’t get out of his required attendance will gasp and cluck their tongues. One varsity athlete will pick you up at the finish line with a couple of Band-Aids and say, Hey, at least you finished. Walk tall off the track. You’ll look tough, even if you’re a tremendous fuck-up.

Leave middle school track and field telling yourself you should find something else to do during high school. Sign up for marching band. Go back to not doing sports. When your mom says you better find something to do, a spring sport or a job, go back to running. She wants more extracurricular activity on your resume, and you’ve done this before. Four more years will only hurt most of the time.

Find a new coach who almost thinks you might be able to win a race or two, if you work hard enough. If you have a family member who also ran, you’ve already made a terrible mistake (see page one), but maybe their coach will take pity on you. Your sister’s coach will look you over, shake his head, and call you the wrong name for the rest of the year. At least he’ll let you run the race you want, the 100 meters if you come to every practice. No one is asking you to run the 400.

Sprint until your shins hurt. Run until the shin pain starts to concentrate on one particular spot on your lower leg and finishing a race makes you cry. Don’t let your coach see you cry. Go to a doctor without telling him and show up to practice in a cast. He will look you over, shake his head, not say your name for the rest of the year. Consider not going back to track. Remember: run or get a job. Brace yourself to run again.

Never train during the off season. Show up out of shape and cast-free. You’ll already be off to a better start than where you ended last year. This year, you learn that you can keep your shins from hurting if you cover them in ice every night. It hurts but not quite so bad. What hurts is the day your coach asks you to run the 400m relay, the one where you’ll go all the way around the track and probably throw up, but now you’ll have to do it for three other teammates who are all counting on you not to die before handing off the baton.

When they hand you the baton, remember to breathe. Try not to think. Listen for the sound of the starting gun, start running, don’t drop the baton. All you have to do is make it around. And not drop the baton. Don’t you dare drop that baton. Make it around the track, wobbling, and let your teammate worry now about not dropping the baton. Fall down in the grass. Wonder what happened to your body. It will probably never feel the same again. After a few heaving minutes and a cup of water, it will feel almost normal. Your coach will decide that maybe you’re not such a lost cause after all, if he can keep you out of a cast. He’ll cover you in ice after every race, just to be sure.

Finish your season surprisingly well, promising to train over the summer and during the fall so that you don’t lose all the muscle you built this spring. Don’t train until you realize it’s January and you haven’t run in six months.

Disappoint everyone. Disappoint the coach who wanted you to come back in shape. Disappoint your teammates who worked out all year and have to put up with your slow ass. Disappoint the team by working hard but not hard enough because you can’t make up for the months you missed. Go to your state competition as the weakest link on your relay team. You won’t get to run, but you’ll get to watch them lose because your replacement drops the baton.

Quit all other activities in a fit of rage. State your intentions to dedicate yourself to running so you can have a stellar senior year. Train during the summer. In the fall, reconsider your decision to quit other clubs. Run after band practice. You’ll need a cast for a few weeks in November because your body isn’t as strong as your determination, but you’ll have the senior season you want until your coach abruptly quits, leaving you alone with an inexperienced substitute and your unfulfilled potential.

Apply for college running programs. You can atone for all the mistakes you made in high school with four more years of punishment. Train during the off season.

Spend four good years at a Division III school with a body that is changing so much that you can’t keep it together. You’ll recover, be fast, but not fast enough. Make friends on your college team. These friends will forgive you when your body is telling you your sprinting days are numbered. Run the 60m, the 100m, 200m, the 400m, and all three relays, trying to find out which one will accommodate your various injuries. Run on painkillers and adrenaline. Win your conference title. Lose your conference title. Smile when you miss the cut-off for nationals by a quarter of a second. Your team will slap you on the back, and you’ll grab for their hands.

Finish your running career with dramatic flair. A series of unfortunate accidents and questionable race times. An injury. Pull your hamstring again, small tears over eight weeks. Pretend it’s still okay to run because you know you’ll miss it when you graduate. Don’t tell your coaches the extent of the pain so they won’t feel too bad. Hobble off the track with your third-place medal around your neck and a smile on your face. Embrace the hollow satisfaction of having done as much as you could.

Spend the rest of your life telling people you love running, even though you only run when you feel guilty about your body. Run a few community races. Ignore your atrocious 5k time. Say you do it for charitable causes as if you enjoy running three miles and spending fifty bucks to complete them. Say you want to challenge yourself, then go home and eat a box of animal crackers.

Author Portrait

Margaret Miller is a Managing Editor at TINGE Magazine and a graduate of writing programs at Oberlin College and Temple University. A begrudging fitness fanatic and chronic genre-dabbler, she has recently relocated to Colorado in an endless game of cat-and-mouse with her Army-bound husband. This is her first published story.