31 Years and 13 Miles

Posted: May 2, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Everyone has a personal answer to what makes a birthday special.

For some, it’s going to dinner with family. For others, it’s taking a vacation or getting the perfect present. Or maybe it’s a raucous party followed by waking up next to a stranger and a stack of inappropriate Polaroid pictures, leading you to ask one very important question: “Where did I find a Polaroid camera?”

Sunday, May 5 is my 31st birthday, and I have something different planned.

Normally, my birthday and I don’t get along much. It all started with the trauma of my 8th birthday when my parents bought me a cassette stereo instead of a TurboGrafx-16. I’ve had recurring 16-bit nightmares ever since.

See that smiling boy on the box? That wasn't me. I was denied the chance to enjoy the TurboGrafx-16's limited catalog of awful games.

See that smiling boy on the box? That wasn’t me. I was denied the chance to enjoy the TurboGrafx-16’s limited catalog of awful games.

Truly, though, I do have too many bad birthday memories. I now approach the day with caution rather than excitement, and I consider it a rousing success if I make it through my entire birthday without feeling utterly depressed. Consequently, I now react to birthday candles the same way Frankenstein does to torches.

Therefore, I made a proactive decision to make my birthday fun, challenging, and memorable this year by running the First Midwest Bank Half-Marathon.

I’ve run plenty of races, but never a half-marathon, because 13.1 miles is a long way. Put it in perspective: if the nearest grocery store to your house was 13.1 miles away, you’d either move or start a farm.

I’ve been thinking about this race for a while. So, a month ago, I decided to test myself to see if I could run this distance. I went to the gym, jumped on a treadmill, pumped up my Running playlist, and I took off…and pulled up short at 6.5 miles. I tried again a week later, pushing myself to 10 miles. A vast improvement, but still more than three miles short.

I thought that was the end of the discussion.

But a few Sundays ago while watching Celebrity Apprentice and eating Cocoa Puffs, I reexamined the race’s website with my birthday in mind. I weighed the pros and cons of running this race:

1. It will be a great accomplishment.
2. It’s something I want to do.
3. It will make for a special birthday.
4. Women will be impressed by a half-marathon. (Because a full marathon is just showy and self-important).

1. I may collapse in exhaustion short of the finish line and neighborhood children will run out of their homes to point and laugh while their parents take video with their iPhones to post on Facebook. And I will cry, but I’ll be too dehydrated to form tears (ie: ocular dry heaves). The footage will go viral, I’ll be on Tosh.0, and David Letterman will invite me to do a Top 10 List of “Why ‘Big Guys’ Shouldn’t Run.”

Despite the cons and the lack of evidence that I could legitimately run an entire half-marathon, I also considered that not signing up would result in spending my entire birthday depressed about this failed opportunity. Thus, another crappy birthday.

So, I signed up.

And then I sent nervous, whiny texts to everyone I know. Everyone said, “You’ll do great!” but I know what they were really thinking.

The next morning, fueled by one part determination and one part paranoia, I decided I had to prove I could run this distance.

Can you spot the deer, the Bigfoot, or the Blair Witch in this picture?

Can you spot the deer, the Bigfoot, or the Blair Witch in this picture?

I headed outside in beautiful weather and ran, and ran, and ran. Given the rural-ish setting of my home, I ran past farm fields, past horses, past cows and chickens, past wild wandering pheasants (all of whom were very unimpressed with me – pheasants are jerks), past a deer I tried to take a picture of, past Bigfoot, and possibly past the Blair Witch. And 2 hours and 19 minutes later, I ran an entire 13.1 miles. (That would put me in the top 68% of runners based on last year’s finishing times. Yes, I’m that obsessively competitive.)

Now, with only days to go, I have a new attitude, a new confidence, and a new pair of shiny red running shoes.

...if only I were running the race on a yellow brick road.

…if only I were running the race on a yellow brick road.

Some people may think it’s insane to want to wake up at 5:30am on my birthday in order to go through hours of self-inflicted physical torture. (For others, torture might be your thing. Whatever floats your boat.)

This brings me to both my original idea and a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reference. There is a great episode in which Will tries to make Geoffrey’s birthday special by getting him a date and taking him to a club. When it all goes poorly, Geoffrey explains to Will, “For you, birthdays are a time to paint the town red, but for me, it’s a time of reflection.”

Just as we all have different tastes and perspectives, we all have different outlooks on what will make our own birthday special. Birthdays are sold as “our day” when we can do and have whatever we want. However, we’ve all at some point had to spend our birthdays pleasing others or letting them down, because people too often want us to celebrate our birthday the way they would want to celebrate their own. (I know am I am guilty of having done that to others, and it’s wrong.)

So, it is up to us to determine what will make our birthday special, and we must also respect the wishes of our friends and loved ones on their birthdays so they can have their own special day. And after a lot of hand-wringing, cocoa puffs, and Celebrity Apprentice, I decided 13.1 miles would make my 31st special.

  1. Jane Ungari says:

    Good for you. Oh, happy day. Jane Ungari

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