Why I Run

I notice the words right away. They float against the beige brick wall. I’m struck by the specificity of the phrase and the way it rolls off my tongue: “Fatigue Detection Capability.

Nineteen miles into a 23-mile run, I ducked into Industrial Engineering Building II for water. Blinking away rings of light, struggling to acclimate my eyes to the dimly lit corridor, I bend toward the drinking fountain.The cold water drips down my chin. My calves twitch, knotting into fists right below my knees. I stop drinking to reach for my toes but get my palms only halfway down my shins before I give up. I snap upright again and head toward the wooden door labeled “Ladies.”

I stand in front of the sink for a moment, looking at the mirror. My face is pallid; my lips, slightly purple. Salt speckles my forehead just below my hairline. Bloodshot veins line my retina. I pull a paper towel from the metal dispenser and wipe stinging sweat from the edges of my pupils and look up again. My eyes are even redder now, and the skin that surrounds them is puffy from the abrasive surface of the paper. I crumple the towel, tossing it in the wastebasket, and walk back out into the hallway, letting the door swing closed behind me.

There are 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments in the foot. When I began working at the New Balance store in high school, my manager, Daren, taught me about them.

He pushed a skeleton model of the foot toward me. “Can you name any of the bones?”

I leaned against the counter near the register. I ran my fingers along the tiny pieces that made up the toes, and I worked my way up the longer bones. “Metatarsals.”

“Good. Any more?”

I wove my hands through the spaces between the bones, making the foot dance on the table, then set it down and looked back at him.

He picked up the foot, pointed to the bone right above the metatarsals. “Cuboid.”

I nodded.

He moved up the foot. “Navicular, Calcanium, Talus.”

I glanced up. “It’s incredible that people don’t break bones in their feet all the time.”

He set the foot down and looked at me.

I picked it up and pointed to the phalanges. “They’re so little.”

And so I became fascinated with my own feet.

My toes are unusually flexible from barefoot runs with my brother several summers ago.
We read about the Tarahumara Indians running hundreds of miles nearly barefoot, drawing strength from the well-developed muscles in their feet. Long before Time magazine and ABC began covering the “barefoot running trend,” my brother and I finished every seven- or eight-mile run with a one- or two-mile run barefoot in the grass.We felt the wetness of the morning dew and the prickle of the grass on our naked skin.We bounced from toe to heel, aware of how our feet were hitting the ground.When I returned to school in the fall and slipped off my shoes to do strides at the end of practice, however, my cross-country coach shook his head, listing things I could step on. “We can’t have any injuries this season.”

In 11 years of running cross-country and track, I have never broken a bone in my foot.

I’ve had only one real stress fracture—in my shin during high school. It showed up,

barely, as a gray, grainy line on a bone scan and kept me on crutches and out of track practice for six weeks. Instead of running, I swam at the William Costick Activities Center, leaving my crutches stacked at the side of the pool. I treaded water every day for more than an hour, spitting up streams of chlorine and struggling to breathe as elderly woman in bathing caps floated on foam noodles around me.

When I was in middle school, before I began running competitively, my parents used to freeze the backyard for ice skating during the winter. They covered the lawn with a blue tarp and built up plywood boards to contain the water.

I liked to go outside to skate at night when my homework was finished. I would steady my ankles and knees and begin to circle.The skates skimmed over the rough patches in the ice. The cold nipped at my face, and condensation gathered around the mouth of my neck gaiter. Straightaway. Turn. Straightaway. Turn. After a while, my legs knew where to turn without my even looking.

As I orbited inside the boards, picking up speed, I thought about school: About how Trevor Flood got a better grade on a paper than I did even though he wrote it the class period before, about a joke Russell Wentworth made on the bus about how blondes with pigtails were blowjobs with handles, about the way Mr. Sutherland made us put our heads down in class then singled me out in front of everyone for being insincere about the gesture.

I thought about my great uncle dying in his bathtub and not being found for a week. I thought about my grandfather—about cancer, paper-thin skin and hands that seemed as if they would break when they touched me.

I thought until all that remained was the ice and the dark and the way my skates moved along the surface. I skated until I was broken, until my legs and my mind couldn’t do anything else.Then I would sprint across the middle of the rink and slide down onto the ice, landing on the side of my legs. I would lie on the ice, watching my breath cloud up in the cold air, looking up at the sky until the water soaked through my jeans and onto my skin.

Running is about breaking and rebuilding.

My current marathon training is divided into phases: building for three weeks and cutting back for one, tearing the body up and then letting it rest, recover, reconstruct itself. Within each week, too, my workouts are spaced out:

Monday: 11 miles with six miles at goal marathon pace.
Tuesday: six miles, easy pace.
Wednesday: 10 miles with four miles at 10,000-meter race pace around a track. Thursday: six miles, easy pace.
Friday: 22 miles with the last four miles faster than goal marathon pace. Saturday: six miles, easy pace.
Sunday: Off.

Once, I tried to cram all my hard workouts into the beginning of the week. My legs felt sluggish and heavy. I shuffled along, barely able to pick up my feet. When I got home from the second hard day, I sat with my legs stretched out on the floor and my back propped against the couch for almost an hour. My black-and-white spotted dog roused from the beige cushion where he had been sleeping to lick the salt off my legs. He nudged my shoulder with his nose, trying to coax me into movement.

In college, my cross-country coach attended to the science of running cycles. I sat cross-legged on a yellow foam wrestling mat and listened to Coach Straubel explain the purpose of each workout. He came to practice dressed in his law professor clothing—khakis, button-up shirts and vests. He passed out articles about training phases and, in a soft but confident voice, specified what each workout accomplished on a cellular level: blood lactate level, muscle fibers, capillarization.

When my legs ache after a track workout, I visualize them tearing and rebuilding. I picture the tiny muscle fibers popping like the looped surface of Velcro. I imagine them reattaching in cobwebs of connective tissue. When I get more than an hour and a half into a run, I imagine new capillaries lighting their way down my legs, like Christmas bulbs being plugged into a tree, illuminating new passageways for oxygen.

When I began running, I loved cross-country. I liked leaning over the starting line, watching my breath hang in the fall air, with my finger on my watch, waiting for the gun. I liked being one of hundreds of girls stampeding across a field.

In college, we ran workouts on a trail behind the intramural Frisbee field. My legs grew used to the uphills, the downhills, the curves. I memorized the spots where roots made the footing uneven and the places where the grass and dirt were matted down and made it possible to pick up speed. I knew the course the way I know the calluses on my feet or the freckles on my arm.

Once, when I was in high school, a doe got caught in front of the runners near the starting line at a race. The gun went off, and we ran down a hill, into the valley where she was grazing. She froze for a moment and then raised her white tail, ready to dart away. Her legs were thin and seemed unsteady as she wavered back in forth in front of the herd of bodies. She ran among us then wriggled away.

My brother, Keith, was chased by wolves while he was running up north. He saw them coming at him from a distance as he ran down Indian Trail, a dirt road that weaves between cornfields. He said they were just blurs of black against the white snow at first. Then they began to congregate and run toward him. He told me he bent down, searching for something to defend himself with, and found a gnarled branch lying on the shoulder of the road, coming out of a ditch. He picked up the stick and held it up, sprinting as fast as he could toward the highway. He didn’t look back, and he didn’t slow down, and he kept the branch raised above his head, trying to make himself look as big as possible.

Keith isn’t the only person I know who has been chased by wolves while running there. I’ve been running a road race up north every Fourth of July since I was 10. For the past 11 years, one other girl has served as my main age-group competitor. She has a long, sandy brown ponytail, which straggles down her back. Her skin is tanned from working outside, and her limbs are hearty and muscular. She runs barefoot, and thick brown calluses cover her feet. She was barefoot, running in a white cotton T-shirt on a hot summer day on the shoulder of Indian Trail, when the wolves approached her.

A wolf, as tall as her waist, came up on her left side, meeting her stride for stride. Unsure of what to do, she kept running, maintaining her pace, trying not to reveal her fear in the weight of her breath or the rhythm of her tread. Several moments later, another wolf came up on her right side. The trio ran down the road, their legs moving cohesively in the same motion—left, right, left, right, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. After about a half-mile, she said, the wolves fell off, diverging into the woods, leaving her to finish her run.

My friend Kyle, a forestry major at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, told me that wolves like to practice their pursuit, honing their hunting techniques, like children playing house. “What saved her was that she didn’t look weak, she didn’t react, she kept her stride, and eventually they lost interest.”

I think about her running beside them, and I try to imagine matching the strides of the wolves, momentarily becoming part of the pack and part of their play.

For a long time, I didn’t like track as much as cross-country. On the track, I was uncomfortably aware of my body. I struggled to keep up. I heard my breathing begin to falter and fall out of rhythm. I got claustrophobic in the pack of bodies corralled into the first two lanes. I slowed down, fell back and then sprinted to keep up, clipping the heels of the girls in front of me.

It took a long time to learn to relax the muscles in my back. It took even longer to learn how to ease my breath into a smooth pattern when it began to falter. I learned how to forget how far I was going and to focus on reeling in small checkpoints—a line, a cone, a pole. I didn’t allow myself to think about anything beyond that blurred stream of motion. Turn. Straightaway. Turn. Straightaway.

I began to love track when I learned to become almost predatory about staying focused on someone’s shoulder and not letting it go with my eyes or my body, reeling her in like one of my checkpoints. I learned to love the way I could block out everything but the chase, the rhythm of the track, the sound of my feet.

In the hallway, I search for the information about improved fatigue detection capability. My palms drag along the brick and then wander over a bulletin
board with a checkerboard of aerospace engineering posters with blue marbled backgrounds. They look like slides from a PowerPoint presentation, blown-up and laminated as wall decor. About six posters in, “Improved Fatigue Detection Capability with Vibrothermography” is written in big, orange Ariel font: Societal Need: Metal Fatigue Limits the Lives of Many Structural Components—the vibration of these components leads to heat degeneration of the cracked surface.

I imagine a metal skyscraper, its shiny skin cracking like eggshell, ready to collapse when shaken too hard. I wonder how detecting the fatigue using Vibrothermography will help engineers make structures stronger.

When life falls apart, I turn to the track. I turn to physicality. I turn to the science of recovery and the reliability of numbers. Weekly mileage, split times, personal records. A month ago, when I moved to Ames, after my parents and my brother

backed their Jeep out of the driveway, I went running. I looked for the cross-country course. The next day, I found the track.The city was strange, but the fluttering nervousness before I hit the start button on my watch, the 45-second, 200-meter checkpoint and the rush of lactic acid felt familiar.

Now I’m in the final phase of training for my first marathon—one month away from the race. I’m training for the first time without a team and without a coach. Physically, I’m broken. My legs are heavy.They lack the sharp bounciness

I equate with being race-ready. I remember the times when I’ve been unable to trust my own structural integrity and had to rely on crutches and braces. I think about the ways I’ve broken my body on purpose—with sprint repeats and long runs that segue into long naps, when I collapse after a shower into bed to recover and rebuild. I don’t know if I’ve been able to detect fully my own fatigue or if I’ve pushed too hard, blocking out the tiredness the way I learned to block out everything else on the track. In two weeks, I’ll begin cutting back, halving my mileage and stopping my speed work. I hope my body will repair the damage I’ve done.

I turn toward the door, standing for a second in the air-conditioned entryway before stepping back out into the afternoon sun. My stomach sloshes with the water I drank, and my legs are heavier from stopping. I walk a few steps forward on the sidewalk then begin to run again.

About the Author

Rachael Button

Rachael Button is a student in Iowa State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and the Environment. As an undergraduate, she ran cross-country and track for Valparaiso University in Indiana. She is currently working on a collection of essays about Michigan.

View Essays