I was born in 1967. A couple of months after I was born, Kathryn Switzer ran the Boston Marathon. She registered as K. Switzer and was issued a number. Clearly the assumption was that K. Switzer was a guy, because women weren't allowed to run the marathon. Her boyfriend and her coach ran along side of her, and at some point during the race the press realized that this runner, K. Switzer, was in fact not a guy. K. Switzer was a woman, and the head of the race committee jumped from the car he was riding in and grabbed her from behind to physically pull her from the race. He wasn't successful, she finished the race, and while I was drinking my bottle and napping in my crib in Iowa, a running revolution was underway.
Seventeen years later I was sitting on the floor in front of the television. I'm glued to the television. The 1984 summer Olympics are taking place in L.A., and it's the first time the women's marathon is an event in the Olympics. I had been running for one year, and I was all in. It was hot and humid in southern Minnesota where I now lived, and it was hot and humid in Los Angeles. I liked it; I felt like I could feel what they were feeling. The cameras were focused on the entrance to the stadium that the runners would come through. We knew that the American, Joan Benoit, was in first place, but even so there was anticipation waiting to see if she would actually be the first one who would come through that opening. Anything could happen...where was she? And then out from the tunnel she appeared and the crowd went wild! I go wild! I had no ability to understand at that point in my life what a monumental, historical moment I was witnessing. I just knew that it made me feel powerful. I probably felt proud, but I didn't have any kind of relationship to that word yet. I know that it made me want to go run and run and run.
I continued to watch the runners come into the stadium. I don't know how long it was, but eventually a Swiss runner came in. We now know that she was severely dehydrated from the heat, but watching it in real time in 1984 with limited knowledge, I had no idea what was happening to her. She was stumbling all over the track. Her legs were noodles. How was she going forward and keeping herself upright? It took her 5 minutes and 44 seconds to cover 400 meters while she waived away offers of help so she wouldn't be disqualified. I was absolutely mesmerized. What was happening? She was upright and moving, but clearly she wasn't okay. But the officials didn't jump in to help when she waived them away--so, was she okay? She collapsed at the finish and they rushed her off on a stretcher, but she finished the race.
I remember wanting to be like Joan Benoit, but the Swiss runner really stuck with me. What makes a person able to finish when they are completely and utterly physically depleted? Even back then I knew there had to be more to all of this than just what our bodies can do, because her body was done before the race was over, but she still finished the race. I wanted that thing, whatever it was.
I recently watched the documentary Free to Run about the history of running in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, Kathryn Switzer's story was a part of this, and Joan Benoit and the Swiss runner in the 1984 marathon, and, last but not least, Steve Prefontaine. What made them push the way they did? What made them go so far outside of comfort?
I've also been doing some reading and listening to podcasts on research that's been done on emotional inheritance, the idea that we inherit more than physiology from our ancestors. It boils down to this for me: my father died of an abdominal aeortic anyeurism and I get ultra sounds every few years to see if mine is normal, because that can be inherited. My father was born during the depression, served in the military during the Korean war, and lost both of his parents by the time he was 20 years old, and it seems as if it might serve me well to get an emotional ultrasound because I might have inherited that too--not by nurture, but by nature. This is endlessly fascinating to me.
All of this nature and nurture has been swirling in my head. There were direct messages from my culture and my family about what I could and could not do. There were genetics that I got (grindy, slogger, plod-on-and-on genetics), and genetics I did not get (you can trace a couple of my family lines clearly back to the 1500's and I could almost guarantee there is not a fast twitch muscle fiber to be found anywhere in the last 500 years). And now I'm learning that I may have genetically inherited this gritty high that I chase? This part of me I can't explain, the part of me that played adventurer as a kid and then succombed to culture, only to surface again at 49 years old insisting on being played out before it was too late, that part? As it turns out, reaching outside that comfort zone may just be in my genes. Those ancestral roots I referred to--those people came over on the Mayflower. The Mayflower. I have to assume they had some gritty, risk taking, shoot-for-the-moon qualities.
Sometimes when I get caught up in needing to know why I do this, why I run, and when I just don't understand how it makes any sense, I feel like I get this exasperated sigh from god, or from the gods she put in charge of running, or from the universe, that translates to "Oh, Diane, because I said so. Because it's in you. Just go do it. Just trust it--trust what is in you. Maybe even have some fun with it! But please stop thinking so much."
In the end, all I know is that I'm supposed to run, and I probably already have what it takes.