A few months ago, I was passed by another walker on University Hill. He came up on my left shoulder and blew past me like I was standing still. In runner-speak, we’d call this “breaking”: passing someone so convincingly and with such ease, the victim loses all hope, robbed of the determination that had been pushing him along. When you’re passed like this, it makes you want to disappear into the ground. There’s just no coming back from it.
For me, getting passed is like a trigger. The context doesn’t matter—it happens to me in cars, hallways, and on airport runways. When my plane stops to let another plane pass, I dig my nails into my palms and I close my eyes. On freeways, I clench and unclench my fingers on the steering wheel. Just let them go, I think, but I can’t stop looking down at the speedometer, then back up at the road, all the vehicles boxing me in.
Whenever I get passed, I see the tall upperclassmen lapping me with ease in a two-mile race my freshman year of high school, wrecking my confidence when I thought I was finally getting good. I see the girl who blew past me during the last half-mile of a preseason 5K, and the big, stocky half-miler who stole third place at the Macomb Area Conference Championships my senior year, taking me by surprise on the backstretch and beating me for the first time.
I get angry. I want my fucking lead back.
It’s been nearly seven years since I quit running, and most of the habits have faded. I no longer heap scrambled eggs on r amen noodles as an appetizer for the medium pizza I devour—alone—between a nine-mile tempo run and an hour at the gym. I don't plan my eating and sleeping schedules around my running schedule anymore. I don’t wake from midday naps starving, sweaty and confused, aching from my morning workout and already dreading my evening recovery run. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt what John L. Parker, author of the cult-classic novel Once a Runner , calls “The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials,” a long time since I’ve silenced my muscles’ rebellion by stepping into a pair of thin nylon shorts, lacing up my Asics, and beating the pain out of my body on the road.
This is all to say: I’m often happy to live without the consequences of a seventy-mile-per-week running regimen, even if I do miss it every day.
It’s a habit that makes me shake my arms and legs in the habit of a glazed miler when I’m nervous, as if ridding my limbs of lactic acid will somehow prepare me for an interview or an exam. It’s why, even though I’ve lost the fitness of a long-distance runner—the lean muscle, the lung capacity, the low resting heart rate—I still get mad at people who make a mockery of the sport. I’m critical of “hobby joggers,” the weekend warriors who sport Nike calf sleeves and belts holding Gatorade energy gels for their three-mile jog around the neighborhood. I want to lean out my car window and berate joggers for squinting at the sun, or for crossing their bodies with their arms. Are they trying to waste energy? It makes me angry enough to forget that, these days, I break form less than a half-mile into the pathetic hobble I call a jog.
Occasionally I jog, but mostly I've been walking. There are two hills on my daily commute: one is long and gradual, and the other, University Hill, has a steep incline, the peak of which marks the start of the University of South Carolina campus. Sometimes this walk is the most physically taxing thing I do all day. It’s nothing compared to blazing a ten-mile tempo in under sixty minutes, or tearing through a set of twelve 600-meter repeats with only a 300-meter jog in between, but at least I make it to campus feeling like I’ve done something to account for the pain missing in my life, the gaping hole running left behind.
When I was a runner, uphill was where I did my breaking. When I was passed on University Hill, I hesitated. I watched in horror as the walker continued to pull ahead, taking the hill in long, powerful strides. I decided I would not be broken. He never even turned his head when I adjusted my bag and doubled the length of my own stride, slingshotting around him on the steepest part of the hill. I put twenty meters between myself and my clueless opponent by the time we reached campus. Panting, I stopped and stood at the peak of the incline, hinged over my hip, sweat bleeding through my T-shirt. The traffic light showed a bright red hand, but I checked for cars and boldly walked across the street. It didn’t occur to me until much later, after I walked into class riding a high, flushed with unwarranted pride, that life after running is incredibly sad.
To tell the story of my high school cross - country team would be to rehash the well-worn tropes of the sports underdog movie: the rag-tag group of boys who come together for a shot at teenage greatness. We didn’t all have talent, but we taught each other to work hard, and to love the work. We were rag-tag—half of us scrawny outcasts from the soccer and football teams—but together, we revived a long-forgotten program from the depths of the conference, taking the team from laughingstock to league championship contender, even sending two runners to state finals for the first time in more than ten years.
In Once a Runner, John L. Parker compares the bond of runners to that of shipwreck survivors and hostages: “Duress,” he says, “fosters an unsentimental kind of intimacy.” Our friendship was like that, except it was sentimental—and whimsical, too. John and I once sang “Ziggy Stardust” on repeat the final two miles of our long run down Gratiot Boulevard, Eastpointe’s dreary main drag of bars, car dealerships, and funeral homes. Sam delivered the most impassioned speech of his life, convincing us to honor a moratorium on the word “boner” during a cool-down run around the city. We made a name for ourselves, literally, and “D-Squad” chants rang over southeast Michigan, from Eastpointe to Grosse Pointe to Marine City, and even across the border in Windsor, Canada. We were young, we were silly, and we had been waiting a long time for people like us to bring the best out of each other.
Each of us was defined by the style of our stride. Paul, the effortlessly talented runner who never mentioned the sport outside of practice, had limp hands and hopped like a rabbit. Sam was six-foot-four and leggy, a basketball player who only felt at home on the track, where his limbs didn’t pump so much as they unfurled. Josh O. barreled down the home stretch, all shoulders and elbows, a linebacker in a wrestler’s body. John—the eccentric for whom not even running was a natural act—was the craziest of us all, arms and legs pumping tall like a comic imitation of someone running, tongue outstretched, head bobbing side to side.
Mike and I were technical runners. We kept our elbows tucked close to our sides, our strides long, arms pumping breast to waist, face and hands relaxed. We both had flaws—me bowlegged, Mike stiff-armed—but we were always conscious of form, mirroring each other’s attempt at perfection. Mike and I—hero and sidekick, sidekick and hero—were the leaders who breathed the sport, the ones who would always think back to old races and find it hardest to put the losses behind them. The ones addicted to running, ruined without it.
We ran tempo runs and “milers,” fartlek runs and hills. We woke early and stayed up late, mapping our city in triangles—small, medium, large—blazing routes for our future teammates to follow. If one of us suffered an injury, we weren’t out for long — we could only stomach a few days’ inactivity before forcing ourselves back on the road, fueled by adrenaline and a refusal to quit. We were stupid kids: hurdling snow drifts, jumping between train cars, and slapping the backsides of vehicles that pulled up too far in side-street intersections. We trespassed, taunted, and thought we were immortal.
Mike and I loved each other like brothers, which is to say we loved each other despite living different lives. He had a pair of close friends I’d met only once, and together they roamed the city on their bikes or hung out in Mike’s basement, or they drove out to Lake Saint Clair and spent the day on the water. I played basketball or video games with my own friends, or I read in my bedroom, alone.
We didn’t know exactly how the other spent his weekend, but we knew hard training was involved. I admired Mike for his talent and toughness, envied him for being known throughout the school as an indisputably nice guy, not nerdy or strange, despite his shyness. Mike respected me for my direction and my relative smarts—the fact that I knew, however vaguely, what I wanted to study in college, and that I had the grades to do it. And of course we recognized something familiar in each other: the potential for absolute obsession that made us whisper about league standings in art class. If there was any warning sign for what would happen to Mike, it was only that he, like me, was too dependent on the sport we shared—its highs and lows, the confidence that came from being part of a great team community. Or it was that he, like me, was too hard on himself, prone to depressive funks and isolation in response to failure.
Eighteen months after high school, I learned of my stress fractures and meniscus tears. I first felt the sharp stab in my knee a mile into a run around Eastpointe after my sophomore year. It was towards the beginning of my summer training, and I was angry to have to cut that day’s mileage short. A few days later, I tried to run again, but the pain was still there. A week after that, a local doctor confirmed the injury was as real as it felt. It was supposed to heal in three months, but instead my knee never felt the same. Two years later, I discovered my extreme bowleggedness, the scoliosis that warped my left leg longer than my right. Slowly, my body’s failures were revealed. The small deformities forced me away from the sport, and transformed me into the B-list version of the athlete I used to be.
Mike and I stayed close after I graduated and walked onto the team at Saginaw Valley State, and we were close still when he graduated a year later and earned a roster spot at Oakland, thirty miles up I-75 from Eastpointe. We were close as long as the two of us were running. But as I struggled with injuries that would eventually force me from the sport, Mike was losing interest. Like me, he had made his team as a walk-on, but with the promise of a scholarship if his times improved. Instead, Mike dropped out after his freshman cross country season and took a job bussing tables in Eastpointe.
I heard rumors he was hanging with a bad crowd, drinking too much, doing drugs. Occasionally he would call or text, drunk or stoned, to reminisce about the old days. At the time, I didn’t see it as a plea for help. I never even asked how he was. I resented him too much for quitting running. I thought he was weak. When he died of a drug overdose in his basement in August 2012—four years after our last year of high school together, long after he’d quit his Trial of Miles—I hadn’t talked to him in months, maybe a year. There was no way to know for sure—I’d deleted his last texts and voicemails in frustration and disgust.
I wonder the same things every time I slingshot around someone on University Hill: why Mike was always better than me, why I didn’t hate him for it, why, even though we shared leadership, I never thought I could beat him. Mike and I were once a duo, fit and strong, inseparable. It seems there’s some missing thing that might explain what happened, how the arcs of two lives turned out so different when they once seemed the same.
I remember meeting up with him at an Eastpointe diner on a Sunday morning, the winter after my injury, before I drove back up to college. I was angry about something petty—a rumor that one of his friends called the cops to break up a party I’d been caught at—and Mike said he didn’t want to hear it. He told me that, since my injury, I hadn’t been myself. I’d been doing too much drinking and partying and visiting home, when I needed to focus on my recovery instead.
Mike was right. I recovered, mentally, from the loss of running in part, because I stopped coming back to drink it away with my high school friends. Eastpointe was where I’d learned to love running, and where it was taken away from me. Coming home was punishment, and eventually I had enough. I never found a replacement for running; I know I never will. I always undersell how powerful that realization is. Without it—without all of us—Mike must have felt abandoned. Though he never told me so directly, I know part of why he quit was because Oakland wasn’t the D-Squad. Nothing could compare to those years, that group of friends that learned to love running together, that team that loved each other like family. Mike was sharp, but he was never a great student—maybe in part because he never really knew what he wanted to do—and so without running, there wasn’t much for him in college.
In February 2012, Mike’s father died, and after that, Mike lived alone. I didn’t think about it then, but I think about it now: how it must have seemed like everything good had left him and was never coming back. It started the downward spiral, which he struggled, and eventually failed, to overcome. I know Mike’s friends and family tried to help him, but their words didn’t make it through. It seems foolish to think I could have done any better, but Mike and I had forged a trust that came from knowing how to push each other, knowing how far we could be pushed. We both knew something about recovery. If someone else would have said the same thing Mike told me in that diner, I’m unsure it would have had the same impact. I can’t help thinking I could have said something to make him realize this wasn’t rock bottom—that he and I taught each other to push harder whenever things seemed to be at their worst.
The last race of my high school career was the Macomb County Track & Field Championships. Because I hadn’t qualified in any individual events, my only job was to run the 4x800-meter relay, the first race of the day. I ran well enough to help us medal, then I spent the rest of the day lounging around the bleachers in street clothes, eating junk food and laughing with the sprinters. The idea of a summer without running didn’t scare me then. After the season I’d just finished, a break without an endpoint sounded like freedom.
Toward the end of the day, a sprinter from our league-championship-defending 4x400-meter relay team came running over to tell me their lead runner had disappeared.
“Greg left?” I asked. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t fathom how he could pass up a chance at a championship.
“Coach said to get you,” he said. “To fill in.”
I was the obvious choice—if you can run a fast half-mile, you can run a fast quarter, too—but I hadn’t planned for the opportunity. I put a hand to my stomach, where junk food weighed heavy. I was always meticulous in managing my meals before races—planning hours and even days ahead—but now that I thought I was finished with running, I’d already let myself go.
“I can’t,” I said, still stunned and confused. The loudspeaker announced second call for the last race of the day.
“OK,” he said, dismissing me and turning to Mike instead. “Coach said if he couldn’t do it, to get you instead.”
“Me?” Mike asked. He’d run an hour ago and was leaning coolly against the fence in his sweats, drinking water. The picture-perfect miler. “I don’t run the quarter,” he said.
“Coach said to get you,” the sprinter repeated.
Mike and I exchanged looks. If we could have exchanged bodies, I would have done that, too.
Of course I was faster than Mike over short distances. Of course I could have run. But before I could rethink my no , Mike was jogging over to the start line. This, another difference between us I’ll never fully understand: for all the strength we had in common, Mike didn’t share my streak of cowardice. I was already thinking ahead to a life without running—a life I thought I wanted—and even after he was supposed to be done for the season, running was still the only thing on his mind.
The relay team faltered, even going fastest to slowest, trying to build a big enough advantage to hide Mike in the anchor slot. My friend, strained to his limit, could only watch as three sprinters swung around him on the final turn. I used to replay this over and over in my mind, this race I never ran, but with me in the hero’s place, holding strong on that anchor leg. The cheers, the trophy: that version of glory, real as any other. What sticks with me now is just an image, frozen in time: Mike, wide-eyed, pushing down that backstretch, holding form as long as possible, willing his body to find another gear, not yet knowing that what he had wouldn’t be enough to hold off the rest of the field behind him, their hungry eyes locked on his back, ready to gun him down.
When I was a runner, I was a madman among lunatics. I rejected the idea of jogging entirely. Now, it’s all I have—a few miles two or three times per week. Friends who don’t know any better tell me I’m lucky to still have jogging, a substitute for running that’s no better than an urn of ashes in lieu of a lost loved one. “Sure,” I say, and grind my teeth into a smile. I thought the pull would fade, but I still find myself fighting it, year after year. Fall is for cross-country, winter is for making yourself tough. Springtime is inseparable from the rubbery waft of track, hard on your knees as you stretch for the season’s first workout, hot and soft beneath you during a championship run.
When I run for fitness, I run without creativity, without ambition, without love to balance the hate. Steve Prefontaine, an American running idol who died at twenty-four, once said, “ Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.”
He wanted to make art from pain, exhibiting himself to the multitudes. Prefontaine was a front runner, stubborn and brash, who punished himself and his opponents start to finish. “It’s more than just a race, it’s a style,” he said. “It’s doing something better than anyone else.”
Gritty toughness as art—it makes sense. I was addicted to the incredible cry of my muscles when I willed them to do the impossible. Once a hurt like that is gone, there’s nothing than can take its place, nothing to supplant the simple act of putting on a pair of flats and beating the ground raw. The more you hurt, the more you think your pain is unique, that you might be able to do things no one else has done. To turn that pain—and yourself—into something beautiful. It’s a dangerous beauty, a fragile pursuit.
There was a time I thought running made me elite. I looked down on hobby joggers and weekend warriors because they couldn’t understand running like I did. They weren’t real runners. But now I’m no better—nor more fit—than any marathon stroller mom or sorority girl shaping up for beach season, or the high school football players we used to mock during hell week. At cross-country meets, the quote you see on team T-shirts is, “Our sport is your sport’s punishment.” Once a kind of sustenance, running is only punishment for me now—for myself, my ego and my knees.
I tell my friends, my girlfriend, anyone who will listen, “I’m getting fat.” They roll their eyes. I say, “No, listen, I’m serious.” I worry about it. What will I do? How will I lose weight when my knees are built like birds’ nests?
And there is a difference, enough for me to notice. A small paunch has appeared, evenly rounding my torso, reminding me of its presence with each step. It’s slight, but it’s there: an added weight, a flaw that knocks uneven my once-smooth stride.
Wings on my back, wings on my back , wings on my back : this used to be my mantra for taking hills. I read an article in a running magazine about positive visualization in sports—if you imagined big wings sprouting from your shoulders, and if you really believed it, the thought would somehow ease the strain of your burning quads. The hill would flatten out before you.
At the beginning of cross country season my senior year, on the bus ride to our first meet, I passed out eight copies of that article to my teammates and our coach. Some guys laughed it off, making dumb jokes about fairy wings as they crumpled the copies into their bags, but Mike liked the article. He was a year younger and always seemed to be searching for reasons to look up to me, urging me to give speeches even though my speeches always failed.
At regionals, I gathered the team around me and put on my most serious face. “This,” I said, slowly and dramatically, “could be our last chance . . . at greatness.”
Before I could look up to see the eye-rolling, Mike cut in to save me. “Listen,” he said. “No matter what happens today, it’s not like we’re never going to see each other again. No matter what happens, we’ll remember this team for the rest of our lives.”
Inevitably, I can’t go for a jog without thinking of my friend. I think of how powerful those drugs must have been to stop a heart so strong from miles of trials, trials of miles. When Mike died, he had been hurting for a long time, a hurt much deeper than anything physical we’d endured together. I think of how it must have been an unbearable burden for him, one I’ll never truly understand. It’s impossible to imagine him at my side now, slow as I go. I can only visualize him a half-mile ahead, sturdy and straight, arms stiff, occasionally turning to spit on the sidewalk.
All roads from my apartment lead up or down hills. I test my knees on them a little more each month. They voice their concern, creaking and popping, fighting my stubborn insistence to jog, to do this thing they weren’t made to do. The added weight on my body makes each step unfamiliar, even dangerous, and I feel a bubble starting to form around my left kneecap a minute or two into all of my runs. The area numbs, aches, and glows red as I stop to check it. Eventually the pain in my knees becomes no different than the pain in my back or neck or feet. It’s not a replacement, not fulfillment, not a sign, not a familiar friend or new enemy, not something to embrace or reject. It doesn’t make me better or worse, strong or weak. It’s just pain.