It began as a story assignment.  It turned into a passion.  It started out with 30 seconds gasping for air.  It became an hour of mind-clearing devotion.  Her story began with a pledge to run just three miles (a marathon to many of

At 6 a.m., it’s cold out — even in March.

I know this even though I am not outside yet; this is knowledge borne by experience.

Inside, where it’s warm, I pull on running tights and layer performance-wear tops. Gloves, hat, running watch. I smear Vaseline on my feet where I tend to get hot spots. I curse a bit while lacing up my Nikes. I thread them a special way to keep my heels from slipping, but it’s a pain to secure them correctly.

Another cup of coffee — it’s a training aid, you understand — while I stretch in my dark living room. Then OK, one more time, I’m out the door.

I was right. It is cold.

It’s also quiet out here. One foot and then the other slaps against the slightly wet street. The lights come on inside the houses along my route, and occasionally I say hello to someone outside fetching the newspaper.

This first couple of miles, the part of the run you’d think might be easiest, isn’t. I struggle to find a rhythm, chide myself for starting out too fast, remind myself to relax my neck and shoulders.

Finally, distinctly uncomfortable all over my body, I decide this was a bad idea.

This sucks. Don’t have it in me today. I think I’ll go short, try to get back out here later. I’ll just cut my losses, head home. Just don’t have it today.

By the time I’ve had several similar internal conversations — decided to quit, talked myself out of it — I’ve gone nearly two miles, and I am, indeed, beginning to relax a bit. My body has realized that, no matter what my head says, I am going to run five miles this morning because that’s what today’s little square says on my training calendar. No gold star without five miles.

So I quietly resign myself to the rest of the run: just about three miles to go. I begin to lose myself in the steady rhythm of my footfalls, and I take comfort in the warmth my body is generating. I spot another runner up ahead, and silently, I applaud his commitment. He’s getting it out of the way early, too.

I wonder if he struggles during his runs the way I do. Probably not, I decide. He probably knows what he’s doing. He’s probably a real runner, just putting in his miles. As we pass each other, we don’t waste breath on words. Silently, though, a short conversation passes between us.

What the hell are we doing out here? Are we out of our minds?
Yeah, probably, isn’t it great?

I quickly realized I’d lost my mind about 18 months ago, when I agreed to a magazine assignment that asked me to train for a 5K race (3.1 miles). At the time, I thought it might be good for me. And, after all, how hard could it be?

I found out almost immediately when I raced out the door for a test “run.” It lasted about 30 seconds before my lungs, constricted like the laces on my shoes, gave out just beyond the end of my driveway.

But I took the assignment, so I found a coach, bought running shoes and forged ahead.

I began to see runners everywhere, and they were not collapsing in a big heap on the side of the road. They looked comfortable and relaxed. I wondered why they did it every day. There must be something there for them.

For Jean Toth, that something has been there for 28 years. After raising five kids, she decided to “do something” about herself.

“The kids were gone, and I was sitting around watching soap operas all day,” recalls Jean, who has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. So she started walking the block with a neighbor. Those walks turned into jogs, and then the block wasn’t quite long enough. She started driving to parks to run.

On a cold, windy morning run together, Jean’s face remained peaceful and happy, in stark contrast to mine set in grim determination to keep up with her. Her body automatically did what it has for three decades, mine railed against my best intentions of hanging with her, even for a few minutes.

But our respective paths have brought us to the same place: We’ve fallen in love with running.
She looks at me and sees herself at my age, just a few years into her new passion. I see in her what I hope to be 23 years hence.

This month, Jean will celebrate her 70th birthday by running her 40th marathon: 26.2 miles. On the same day, May 21, in the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon, I will run my first half marathon — and I will have her with me, whether she’s beside me or not.

When this started, Johanna Bajc, my coach and an accomplished runner 17 years my junior, was excited about the project.

Even through my constant complaining, she stayed positive. She encouraged me to enjoy the process, relax and listen to my body. “Smile when you run,” she said, smiling. “It makes it easier.”

She must be kidding. I can’t form a smile right now.

“I need to stop,” I gasped.

“Are you going to throw up?”

“Um, no. I just need to stop. I can’t breathe. My legs hurt.”

I complained a lot in the beginning. I was lazy, too, and always looking for a way to do the bare minimum. To me, that meant lacing up my new running shoes, taking a few steps, breathing heavy, drinking lots of water, getting back in my car.

Johanna, though, was on to me. She knew I wasn’t hurt or sick. She also knew I had a predilection for comfort. Trotting beside me, not even remotely winded, she looked over at me gasping. “Look at you, you’re doing great,” she said, smiling sweetly. “Let’s keep going, just a little farther. No reason to stop unless you have to throw up.”

This seemed to make perfect sense to her. Sensing my wild disagreement, she added gently, “But if you do have to throw up, it’s OK. Runners do it all the time. You just throw up and then you keep going.”

I learned this was true while watching the 2005 ING New York City Marathon on television. Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei vomited and didn’t even break stride. She just turned her head, let fly over her shoulder and kept going, eventually finishing second. No one even noticed.

I haven’t had this particular experience yet, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can call myself a real runner. I’ll just puke and then take another step.

Keep going, just a little farther.

Now, entering the third mile of my early morning run, I’m wondering if I could be as patient with a new runner as Johanna was with me. I send up a prayer of gratitude for her tutelage and kindness.

After 18 months of training, one torn knee ligament and five months of rest and rehab, my race résumé is brief but growing: a 5K and a 10K last year, a five-miler and a 10-miler this spring, accomplished during training for this half marathon.

Almost a year after the original assignment, I ran that first 5K so slowly that Johanna, who gamely stayed beside me the whole way, confessed later, “It’s hard for me to run that slow.”

But as soon as we finished, she said excitedly, “There’s a 10K in a couple weeks. You’ll love that one.”

“A 10K?” I moaned. “That’s twice as far as this one. Um, I don’t know … you think?”

“You’ll love it,” she said. “I promise.”

“Oh,” I said, because it’s the only sound I could make at that moment.

Two weeks later, I staggered through 6.2 miles, resisting the urge to cut my legs off at about five-and-a-half. Johanna had finished considerably ahead of me, but eventually started running back through the course and met me about a half mile from the finish line. She trotted alongside me until I triumphantly crossed the finish line to cheers from a group of friends who were there waiting for me.

Later, Johanna explained that she’d heard ambulance sirens in the area and just wanted to be sure I was OK. I loved her for this … it made perfect sense to me.

A half marathon in a year-and-a-half … pretty good, I think. It feels good to acknowledge my goal. I gain an extra burst of energy when I realize why I’m here this early, pounding the pavement.

I feel a swell of compassion for my former self, the runner who first took to the road. Look at me now, I’m breathing and running at the same time.

I chuckle as I remember reactions to the announcement of my half-marathon goal. My friends and family were supportive: “Of course you can do this. I’ll be there when you do.” My old drinking buddies were incredulous: “You’re doing what? Are you serious? You’re running how far? Oh my god, why?”

My mind wanders to sprite and diminutive Jean, 70 years old and a former competitive bodybuilder — something she began even after she picked up running, and at which she became fairly successful. Jean’s race log fills several composition books and folders — hundreds of race results written in neat, block printing on every two lines. (The second line is where she records things like “Won my age group,” a phrase she writes with amazing regularity.)

Jean has dedicated an entire room to her trophies and plaques. “Eight-hundred-fifty-six,” she says proudly. And counting.

This is a woman who once finished fourth overall in the women’s division of a 50-mile race. Fifty miles in nine hours and 28 minutes. Her personal-best, half marathon time of 1:42 makes me want to puke just hearing it.

I want to be like her, I think. But 40 marathons? Do I even want to run one marathon?

Relax, Jeannie, I tell myself, train for this half marathon, finish it and then think about what’s next. One step at a time. Finish this run first.

I will not break the tape at the Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon this month — that’s reserved for those who finish first. I won’t win my age group (45 to 49) and it’s likely that my time might not be good enough to win Jean’s age group (70 and over).

But I will win anyway. I will have set my goal and accomplished it: 13.1 miles from where I started. And I’ll try to be smiling when I get there.

The race will take me by Edgewater Park, past the West Side Market, in front of Jacobs Field, through Ohio City. While I’m running, I’ll think about Jean and Johanna, both born Clevelanders, running double my distance on this day.

I’ve lived in Cleveland only four years, and 13.1 miles is a sufficient challenge to offer to my new city. I realize, though, when I finish the Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon, this city will feel more mine, for I will have left sweat and tears — and maybe even some blood and guts — along its streets.

My friend Molly, who’s trying to break two hours in the half marathon this year, sometimes counts her steps when she runs. “I can do anything for another 100 steps,” she says. She just does it over and over, a hundred steps at a time ... about 800 steps to every mile, she says.

Thirteen miles will undoubtedly be uncomfortable, but my threshold for discomfort has greatly increased. Also, my ability to relax and problem-solve while I run has been a pleasant surprise. My “quit” voice has diminished, and my “ahhhh” voice has appeared.

I’ve learned that “more than the minimum” is not dangerous territory. I can push my boundaries and still live to tell the story.

A few weeks into my training for the half marathon, Johanna asked how it was going.

My immediate response surprised even me. “I could run it tomorrow if I had to,” I blurted out, even though the race was still nearly three months away.

“I’m so happy to hear you say that,” she said. “Because it shows that you’ve taken responsibility for the race. You own it now.”

Yeah, I guess I do. Wow. Who knew?

When I first started this journey, 13 miles might just as well have been a million. By the time I finish running these 13, it might feel like I’ve just run those million miles. But for all the screaming my muscles might be doing when I finish, my heart will be singing even louder.

For all along this path, while I have nursed sore muscles, achy joints and that pesky torn knee ligament, running has nursed my heart. Running has connected me with a part of myself I’ve long ignored. Running has shown me a way to listen to myself, too, and to really pay attention to what I’m hearing.

What I’m hearing is this: I’m worthy of this challenge and worthy of conquering it.

Half mile to go, I’m almost home.

Good job. Another day of training in the books.

I’m loose, ready for my workday. My head is clear, I feel good. The Vaseline’s working, my knee feels strong. This has been a great workout.

Wow, I feel happy.

Happy was a gradual discovery, slow in coming but steady and sure. I’ve become comfortable with it, and I’ve learned to locate it even when things are not going my way. Running has nurtured my spiritual self and helped me to take my regular meditation practice to the roads. My healthier, happier self is more able to see roadblocks not only as temporary but as opportunities for spiritual practice.

The knee problem — hastened by initially wearing an improper type of running shoes — was a resurrection of an old college basketball injury. When the pain was at its worst, when I could barely make it up the stairs in my home, I sometimes cried myself to sleep. Oh, man, this could be bad. I really messed up this time. And for what? A stupid magazine story. God, this hurts.

But while I rested and then rehabbed the knee, I discovered that somewhere in the midst of all that pain, running had become a comfortable old friend. I missed it. I wanted my friend back, and not just because that would mean my knee had healed.

When I couldn’t run, I thought about running. I went to races and watched other people run, handed them water. I read running magazines, and I even watched running on TV. I couldn’t wait to get back out there.

It wasn’t just about testing my knee. It was about courage, persistence, desire. Running reveals me to me, and finally, I’m beginning to like what I see.

“People ask me why I’m still doing this,” Jean says, “and here’s the reason I can’t quit: So many of the kids out there, they come up to me and say, ‘You’re my idol. I can’t believe you’re out here doing this at your age. I want to be just like you.’ And I tell them, ‘You just keep on doing it, and you will be someday.’

“So I can’t quit just yet. Someday the body will tell me I’m done, and when it does, I’ll listen to it. Right now, it still wants to run.”

And so do I. On the early morning roads, on the forested trails or on a marked-off race course, I’m constantly finding a better me.

I run so that my real self will be revealed, a mile at a time. I don’t yet know who I will be when I cross the finish line after 13.1 miles on May 21, but I’m looking forward to meeting her.

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