on His Birthday, Thoughts about van Gogh
Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Thoughts on Running a Marathon, Or Why the Cheetah is My Spirit Animal

Kendell and I were joking yesterday about how, when we’re out hiking, I only have to run faster than him if we come across a hungry bear. This is a longstanding joke of ours, built upon our mutual knowledge of each other’s weaknesses, fears, and skills. Kendell pointed out that if we were in rocky terrain he’d still be able to outrun me on a sprint, given my history of spraining my ankle on flat ground. (All of this is done with laughter…maybe you have to be married for a long, long time to understand this joke?)

When we stopped laughing, I started thinking about how the cheetah is my spirit animal. This isn’t because our running styles are anything alike. Cheetahs are super-fast over short distances; I am fairly slow but I can go forever. More, it is the cheetah’s need for solitude and freedom that clicks with me. I had A Moment with a cheetah once at a zoo. The cat enclosures were being remodeled, so they were in temporary spots. On this day, the cheetah was in a fenced-in space enclosed with chain link fence, shaped like  a long, narrow rectangle, and she was pacing all along the fence, back and forth. I stopped and held perfectly still (there weren’t many people around at that moment or I’m certain this wouldn’t have happened), and eventually she stopped her pacing and looked me right in the eye. Her body language, those tear marking on her face, and just the look in her eye: I recognized that feeling. She wanted to run, without any fences or restrictions; she wanted to move her body in the strong, fast way it was made to move. (When you stop for even a second to think about it, zoos are really terrible places, aren’t they?)

Cheetah at the san diego wap

(Not the cheetah in the little cage at the zoo...I didn't take a picture of her, because that moment—really, that cheetah—wasn't about photography. This is a photo of a cheetah at the San Diego Wild Animal Park that I took years before my Cheetah Moment.)

I understood what her body was saying. She must’ve looked right at me for at least 15 seconds, until a large crowd came up the walkway and she resumed her pacing. But in that moment, I didn’t just understand the cheetah; I felt like she (or maybe The Universe, or whatever) understood me, too.

I’ve never been caught in a cage. At least, not literally. But a lot of times in life, I feel caught. By expectations, by other people’s needs, by my responsibilities. By relationships that require work; by the difference between what I thought my life would be and the life I actually made. And when I feel that feeling, I need to move. Not like a cheetah, because that’s not how my body was made, but long and slow, outside, with the mountains I love behind or before me. That need to move freely: that is why the cheetah is my spirit animal. And it’s also one of the things that keeps me running, that makes me want to run until the day I die.

But I also need goals to keep me going.

IMG_0432 amy layton marathon 4x6

(Just before I finished my marathon in 2011.)

The past few years, I haven’t run as many races as usual. Partly this is because the team I ran Ragnar with dissolved, so the goal that kept me training in the spring is gone. Partly it’s because of injuries: several ankle sprains and my double popliteus tear last summer. But I love running races, because it keeps my motivation for running high.

I’ve been talking about running a marathon this year since last fall. It feels appropriate to run 26.2 miles during the year that Kendell and I are celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary. And I’ve been wanting to run the San Francisco marathon for a couple of years, ever since some random Googling brought it to my attention. You get to run over the Golden Gate Bridge AND through the park AND around the city. I’ve never run a large city race like this one—the half marathon I did last fall in New York was in its inaugural year and had something like 600 runners—but I’ve wanted to. And a race in the summer in California means a trip to California in the summer. And all of those hills! (I love running hills.)

So yesterday, after having a serious talk with Kendell about what we need to accomplish this summer, what the kids’ schedules are, and if he even wanted to visit San Francisco, I decided yes on the marathon, and I signed up.

And now I’m a little bit freaked out.

What if I get injured again?

What if my lingering capsulitis flares up and becomes unmanageable?

What if something else comes up with Kendell’s heart?

What if I haven’t given myself enough time to train?

What if I’m too old for marathons?

What if I’m just not strong enough?

This morning I am plotting out my training plan. Not just so I have a training plan, but so I can calm my nerves. And I’m thinking about the cheetah—about not being caged. About how cool it will be to run across the bridge, to run through the park, to go up and down those hills. I am trying to ask myself positive questions, too:

What if I lose a little bit of weight?

What if my body gets stronger?

What if I grow in confidence?

What if I do it, and finish—wouldn’t that feel amazing?

Deep breath. It’s time to start training!


Jenna Smith

Whenever the question is posed, "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?" my answer is to run a marathon. I think you'll be great!!

Linda Signal

Just start training. It will all come together. As you move along in the training, you can adjust.


Congratulations on signing up for the Marathon. No you are not too old, and you will grow stronger as you train - make sure you cross train please - and you will finish. Even if you walk the some of the middle bits. And enjoy the training and the race itself. Also - I love reading all your posts. You make me feel not alone as I have to adapt to my baby growing up and getting married: she's thirty this year.Thank you for everything you put into writing and allow me to read, and feel better - or at least, not the only one - which makes it 'normal' for us at least. thank you. And I look forward to hearing about the training and the race itself.

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