Runner's high

How does a jogger become a marathoner? One New Yorker gets to 26.2 miles by taking it breath by breath.

My high school coach told me I had an appetite for fitness. I was always on the move. I did cartwheels on the volleyball court, and worked on my tennis serve during high jump practice. I like my athletics as I like my meals: often, and varied according to mood. Which explains the fatigues — from a Marine Corps-based bootcamp — that are tucked away in my dresser drawer. And the yoga mat and fitness ball in my closet. And the ice skates, ping pong paddle, baseball mitt, cycling helmet, ballet slippers, jump rope and dumbbells shoved under my bed.

But it doesn’t explain the running sneakers just outside my door.

Because in an age of kettlebells and Pilates reformers, running seems kind of pedantic. Quaint. Boring, at the very least. Historically: It’s a sport for loners, elitists, and Ethiopians.

When I started, I didn’t run for running’s sake. I was in it for the high. I did sprints. I clocked minutes on the treadmill. I figured out split times and demoted myself to jogger when I couldn’t sustain a 7-minute mile. I hated the whole process. But I loved the feeling afterwards. (It was marathoner Clarence DeMar who said, “Run like hell and get the agony over with.”)

Over time I embraced the jog — mostly in between other fitness regimes, and when it was too nice to be cooped up indoors. When I burned out on Bikram or missed class at the gym, I found my sneakers waiting patiently for me to lace up and run out the door. I took long strides. I stopped for water. Hell, I walked when I was tired. The only schedule I had to rely on was my own. And I started to enjoy myself.

That’s how I got the idea to run marathons.

The only things necessary are sneakers and a decent sense of direction. Running can happen anywhere, at any time, in just about any weather condition.

And so I go. Minutes pass and miles pile up. I take my training on the road. I run from Soho to Harlem, the Arc de Triumph to the Eiffel Tower, the Embarcadero to Golden Gate Park. Each time I start out I swear I’ll stop at three miles and then six, but once I get going, my body settles into a rhythm that lets me forget about my legs and focus on my breathing. I used to be petrified to run without music. But I read somewhere that the quality of running is better when you are fully aware of what’s going on around you. I tried it out, and now I use each inhale and exhale as a bass line for whatever’s going on in my head.

Some days I don’t think about anything special. Other days, I replay conversations in my mind, make plans, reflect, think about the should-haves and would-haves. Mostly, I like to sightsee: I pass new shops under construction, morning commuters, bands of tourists, moms with strollers, bread delivery trucks, florists watering their outdoor plants. I smell fresh laundry, then hot pizza, then coffee from a shabby corner cart. I see teens kissing on a bench, pass old men playing chess. I hear a lone accordion player trying to make a buck, the dribble of basketballs, the jingling of dog tags.

And then, just when I’ve had enough, I exchange nods with a passing runner, or let out an audible sigh. Just to hear the energy, remind myself it’s mind over matter. I set markers: Just run to that tree. Now to the corner. One minute more. I think of Alice in Wonderland’s king of hearts: "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop."

That’s how I get to 26.2 miles and feel pretty good the next day. I’m not winning races. I’m just trying to be active. And every day is a chance for a comeback. I don’t mean to diminish the act of crossing the finish line. It’s awesome. It’s like floating on air. Like a perfect landing after jumping out of a plane. Elation, wonder, and appetite all rolled into one. It’s a feeling all racers have in common. We can all cross the line and say, in the words of a winning marathoner, "Thank God, it’s over."

Jeralyn Gerba is the editorial director of travel literary journal FATHOM (fathomaway.com) and a steadfast carbo-loader. She lives with her husband — and a closet full of sports equipment — in Brooklyn, New York.