From The Spokesman-Review, February 18, 2018
My life as a runner started at age 30. It took another eight or so years to begin what would become the way I now make my living – as a writer. For me, running and writing have always been entwined.
You could say that I’m a loner. Or an introvert. Or someone who is socially awkward and, as such, has no interest in being part of a group. I am not a team player, a tour-bus traveler, a card-carrying member.
Yet, even as an introverted loner, I discovered I loved the attention of having my name listed in race results, especially, I will confess, when it was nearer the top than the bottom. I loved that other people paid attention to my times and commented when I did well.
I did not know then that I wanted to write. I had been an editor, a publisher of scholarly books. My job was to help others bring their words to the printed page. I was content to remain behind my desk, unseen, rarely recognized except in the gratitude of the authors whose books I chose to publish. It was all about them.
When I started running, I turned the focus onto myself in an unfamiliar way. Writing was a way to understand new experiences, to make sense of things. I joined a track club and began to write for its newsletter. I assumed my work would be rejected. I didn’t realize that newsletter editors struggle to find material, and how, at times, you could submit a grocery list and it would be snapped up and used to plump the page count.
I worked hard to make my race reports entertaining. Because I never liked hearing the minute details of someone else’s race (at mile three I got a cramp; at mile 12 I fell; at mile 23 I was passed by an octogenarian), I tried not to do that. I didn’t always succeed, but I never felt I had a captive audience; I knew that writing is easy, but writing well is hard.
Again, it was the attention and applause that kept me going, fed my ravenous, needy ego in ways I’d never previously encountered. I longed for responses and tried to impress. A new magazine called Trail Runner published an essay I wrote about having to poop in the woods, and to my surprise, I found my name on its masthead. I wrote a piece for Running Times about the three little words that caused me to wilt – “Did you win?” – and that led to a 15-year gig until the magazine folded. My column got me recognized at races, usually on mornings when I hadn’t brushed my hair, wore ratty, unflattering clothes or was jittery with nervous energy. I made friends with readers and fellow writers and scored trips to marathons all over the world.
As a writer, I rarely profiled elite runners. Instead, I looked to the 65-year-old woman who started jogging when her husband left her at age 57 and qualified for the Boston Marathon. Or the CEO who quit to stay home and care for his three kids, the woman who had lost more than half her body weight and was faster than me. Or the veteran, back from the Middle East, who ran because it helped him remember that it’s good to be alive. I’m not much interested in people who run for a living; I care about those who lives are made better and richer because they run.
Now, a quarter of century after I started running, I am the older woman that fast youngsters glance at and think, “Oh good for you for being out here,” never bothering to learn my name. I thought that way too, 20 years ago, when I didn’t know that those older women had been badasses in their day. It turns out, sadly, that none of us can outrun biology.
Recently, during a long trail run with friends two and three decades younger than me, we stopped so that one of them could go number two. A man came trotting out from behind the bathroom and Helen, my dog, thought she knew him. I understood why: he looked like the guys we run with – tall, lean, fit. His shirt was a version of one I had at home, though marked with a different date.
We chatted about other races and people we both knew, as my younger friends stood patiently by. We were six miles into our run; he was 18 into his. We parted, and then spied him again on the far side of the river, powering up the pavement.
My friend Matt turned to me and said, “Him? No wedding ring.”
I knew what he was asking.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s my type.”
That man was a part of my tribe, someone I immediately recognized as one of my people, a member of the club.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.