A marathon is a ridiculous event. Kids dressed as tacos hand out marshmallow gel packets — the precise color and consistency of sperm — to thousands of bib-wearing, Lycra-clad humans hobble-running way farther than their middle-class working-professional bodies want to allow. People vomit and cry and stumble. People shout “YOU’VE GOT THIS BUDDY!” at other people vomiting and crying and stumbling. Spectators clang cowbells and hoist the pixelated faces of their loved ones on sticks. A marathon is a painful enactment of the absurdity of contemporary life, our alienation from physical labor, our hunger for meaning and purpose and community. It is also an excuse to lie flat on one’s back wrapped in a blankie like an infant, weeping in public.
I’ve run four of these. I’ve quit one.
The one I quit was just like any of the others. No 97-degree weather. No rain. No stomach flu or hip injury. It was a perfect fall day. The course was ridiculously flat. There were fireworks at the start and ample and enthusiastic spectators. I’d trained adequately and taken it easy during my last week. I’d mowed down three consecutive dinners of spaghetti. I’d woken up at 5am to choke down a Clif Bar. I’d done everything right.
But I think the idea of quitting must have been in place from the start: not as such, as quitting, but as a why-am-I-still-doing-this philosophical musing. As a repeat conversation with myself: what does it mean to keep doing something difficult and time-consuming when you no longer particularly want to put in the time and energy to improve, when you might not improve at all no matter how hard you work, when it’s clear you’re not going to be exceptional or even that good? What does it mean to end up in the middle of the pack, anonymous, plugging away, just another of Type X? What to do when the shimmering goalposts of yore are now just another line you’ll limp-stumble across saying “YES!” in an unabashedly orgasmic way in public, before getting in your car and driving quietly three hours back home?
I’ve been running since I was eighteen. I started in college, for the fun of it. I loved feeling so in control of my body, so fluid and independent and strong. I loved feeling tough around men, just as capable of tackling physical feats or more so. I loved that running took place outside, usually on a trail, and that it was solitary and all about my own effort and persistence. I ran a 5k, then a 10k, and then I won a 5k and a 10k, all flukes where the hard-core, real runners must’ve been sick or taken out by injuries. Nothing spectacular, nothing mind-blowing, no records broken, just enough to make me think I was good at this. This was mine, something I could claim. I’m a runner. Everywhere I went, I ran. On a mountaintop in Mexico. On a beach in the South Indian Sea. Through an empty park in Nagoya, Japan at 5 o’clock in the morning.
During the years I lived in Oaxaca, I came in 3rd or 4th among women in almost every road race. The three serious, elite Mexican runner ladies who ran everything in the states of Oaxaca, México, and Puebla, earning their living this way, would clean up, and I’d follow shortly after. Sometimes I’d manage to squeak past one of them for a prize. One time I won an enormous bag of black beans. One time I showed up late for a 5k that was raising funds for an animal welfare organization and I still beat the third-place man, who complained and had me kicked out. He smiled triumphantly on the stage beside a jumbo bag of dog food. One time, I won a DVD player that I lugged through the streets of Oaxaca at 8 a.m. to me and my husband’s apartment. Most of our friends thought I was nuts.
One time I won an enormous bag of black beans.
My first marathon was 2004, in Chicago. I did a few long runs, with the longest still not too far at 17 miles, and I soared through the race on pure adrenaline. My second marathon was Madison, in 2006, and in spite of 93-degree weather and a harrowing two-minute trip to the port-o-potty, I almost qualified for Boston. I went on to run Columbus in 2011 and Pittsburgh in 2017; the former was mildly painful, the latter awful, but I told myself I’d just started way too fast.
Sometime after my daughter was born in 2014, I began to grow disillusioned with races. After running my fastest 10k ever, at under a 6:30 pace per mile, I realized I wasn’t going to win anything anymore. That 10k featured more than 10,000 runners in Pittsburgh, and the female winners were coming in at a five-minute-mile pace. I began to understand, as so many of us do in our early thirties, my place. Unless I was to put in hours and hours of training, and perhaps not even then, I’d be in the middle–the top 200, maybe, if I was on my game and lucky, but ultimately in the middle. Maybe quitting entered the horizon then.
It is strange to do something anonymously, just for fun, that one used to do in the hopes of earning recognition. I was never a professional runner. Not even close. But I always had, or believed I had, a chance at winning. Not in the marathons–there I simply hoped to finish at a decent time with minimal suffering–but in everything else. That chance made all the difference. Once not-winning superseded winning as the most likely possibility, I not only psyched myself out, I began to wonder about the worthwhileness of the enterprise at all.
American culture does not have much tolerance for quitting. Quitters are almost akin to haters, loathsome and pathetic types who’ve succumbed to their worst impulses. The U.S. is in the throes of a cultural obsession with grit: our particularly ruthless incarnation of capitalism and our increasingly perverse myth of “meritocracy” have squeezed the middle class so hard that most of us are doomed to fail and/or flounder, but we still manage to live in the delusion that if we cobble together 18 adjunct positions and write our novels at night, Netflix will purchase the rights to our work down the line because of our sheer freaking grit. No one hears the stories of the people who tried and tried and tried again and then quit what they once loved because you know what, it just wasn’t working, or it wasn’t worth it, or it was okay but no longer enough, or it had morphed or been grossly corrupted from what they once imagined. Instead we hear the story of the person who woke up at five every day for 15 years until voila, he published a bestseller, or the person who trained after her long hours as a nurse and then ta-da, came in second in the Boston Marathon! It’s easy to fit “Never give up” or “The only way out is through” on a magnet. It’s a lot harder to fit “Maybe quit if this thing you love is no longer bringing you real pleasure or your achievements no longer feel satisfying or this is weighing you down more than lifting you up or you’re tired and bored and want to open up a new identity-space.”
American culture does not have much tolerance for quitting. Quitters are almost akin to haters, loathsome and pathetic types who’ve succumbed to their worst impulses.
Quitting feels shameful. Even if it’s personally an enormous relief or necessary transition, it still comes with social shame. For the first ten miles of that marathon I had my Instagram post in my head. 3:30! The caption read. I can’t believe it! Never mind that I’d never run a 3:30 and hadn’t trained for it. Never mind that I already felt moderately shitty and hesitant. I had that Instagram caption locked down and it was sure as heck not getting modified to 3:48 or 3:56. Precisely no one other than myself really cared when I finished or hell, even that I was running a marathon. None of the spectators were saying, “Wow, that’s a nice 8:15 pace she’s running at mile 14!” or “Oh, darn, looks like she might come in closer to 4 hours.” Many were bundled in five coats, eating donuts, laughing at the ridiculous notion that anyone would want to spend a Sunday morning in this agony. But my ego was hooked on the notion that any time above 3:45 would be pathetic. This is the kind of distorted thinking into which it is easy to sink after you’ve been doing something for long enough — the idea that if I don’t publish in this place, if I don’t obtain this level of fame, this marker of success, then it all means nothing. Then it’s worthless. Then I’m not really X, \when in reality, 75 percent of Americans probably don’t know who Toni Morrison is. Who cares? This is the question quitting engenders. Who cares. If you really care enough, you do it because you want to do it — you let the status slide away. You let it be a beautiful fall morning in which you are absurdly running through the streets of an entire city with a bunch of random people, neighborhood after neighborhood, watching the light rise, living fully in your body, taking it to its limits, to collapse afterward in painful awe. You let that be it. Enough. If you can’t do that, why do it? If you can’t do that, you quit. At 22 miles, I keeled over into my sister’s waiting arms, walked off the course, and sat down on the sidewalk in the sun. I quit.
No one cared. Not the spectators, not the runners, not the people in their cars. The stakes were mine and mine alone. Quitting makes this real: you do the thing, ultimately, for yourself, and if you aren’t doing it for that, then maybe it’s no longer worth doing. Shear off all the dopaminic pleasures of accolades and admiration and titles — pretty much what most of us live by most of the time — and if there’s anything left, that’s what to agonize over quitting. That’s what to preserve.
I kept trying to tell myself in the days after the race that quitting wasn’t the easier choice. But there was no denying that it was much, much more comfortable to walk off the course at mile 22 than to struggle on, suffering, hurting, demoralized, and finish at a disappointing time.
What I came to understand later is that the courage involved in quitting does not lie in the decision or the act itself but in the moral reckoning it engenders. This is belated, slow, and oftentimes much more painful than simply slogging it out would have been. I think I could have limped through the last four miles with less heart-rending baggage than I had in the days after quitting, when I was forced to reconsider my entire relationship to running. Herein lies the subtle, bittersweet beauty of quitting: it radically destabilizes a part of your identity. It asks you to begin again. Whatever you quit is still there, but in some new form you did not anticipate. Sometimes, it resurges as ambition you didn’t realize you still or ever possessed. Sometimes it manifests in the pursuit of an interest or talent distinct from but tangential to what you quit. Sometimes it simply leaves a new, empty space.
My little brother, a jazz musician who’s been at it for nearly fifteen years, told me recently that he realized he wanted to quit while playing a dream gig in Sweden, where he now lives. The audience was super into the music, he was playing songs he loved, his bandmates were awesome, and he thought, this is everything I have wanted and I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be doing this. He quit. He decided to go back to school to become a therapist. I’m not sure whether he’ll actually do this or not, whether he’ll really be able to put music on the back burner for the first time in his adult life. But he created that mental space. He walked off the course at mile 22 and sat blinking in the sun. Soon he’ll enter into the reckoning, because I know he will never be able to get away from music. It will always grip him, probably always slightly torment him. But making this decision to quit, for now, might free him up to see it again: to recognize what he loves about it and why it matters to him, to rediscover if and how and where it fits into his life.
Quitting, when something truly matters to you and when you’ve done it hard and long enough — I’m not talking here about a first-time runner bailing on a 5k, or someone trying to write a short story and giving up after two pages — is about a shifting relationship status. It emerges as a possibility in or after periods of stagnancy, struggle, doubt, pain. It asks the quitter to go back to square one: what matters and why. It is not just about the thing quit — it is about the whole scope of a life. It is a chance to step back and see who we’ve become, to reach out and shake, hug, laugh at, reckon with ourselves.
Quitting reveals the lag time — often a really, really long lag time — in which our dearly held self-conceptions are struggling to catch up to our actual, current selves. Quitting asks us to pay attention to that gap between “I run marathons,” and “I had a hellacious time in a marathon and hated almost every second and actually tried to distract myself with a New York Times podcast about impeachment.”
The day after the marathon I watched an older man jog up the bike lane in our neighborhood. He was sixtyish, sweaty, with a vague grimace; he wasn’t like those packs of Carnegie Mellon runners who sail by like flocks of whippets. Still, I envied him. I felt as if he possessed something I’d lost, as if I was no longer a runner. It seemed I’d forfeited that belonging. Walking through the park with my daughter, I longed to be running — to lose myself on the trails that trace the ravine, light-stepping through the pageant of fall color. I felt newly denied this, like I’d fallen from some sort of innocence in which running could be mine, unequivocally.
Quitting leaves the door open — it creates the perpetual possibility of this thing no longer being a part of one’s life. In that grief, there is renewed attention. How much I love running, especially first thing in the morning, in the park, by myself. How grateful I am to fit in a run in a strange city. How I love feeling my whole body sing afterward in the shower. All basic experiences it is so easy to forget trying to get 14 miles, 16 miles, 26.2 miles.
Three days after quitting, when my gut was finally able to process solid food and I no longer took ten minutes to get down the stairs, my husband, Jorge, mentioned he was thinking about running a marathon. Jorge has been running three miles a day for about a year. When I was in the process of quitting I’d called him and he’d said, “Yeah, go ahead, I would’ve quit at mile three!” Now he was pensive over a beer. “Might be fun,” he said.
And did I say, “You might not be able to walk for a week afterward? You might battle with unforeseen and haunting parts of yourself? You might feel like your brain has been smothered in fog as you sit foggy, dazed, clutching a banana, wrapped in a metal blanket while nineties rock blasts at full volume from enormous speakers?”
No. I said, “Do it!” I said, “All you have to do is get in the long runs.” I said, “It’s really not that hard.” I said, “I’ll run it with you.”
Yet when I finally got back out on the trail, about five days after the marathon, I was immediately transported back to the race morning and filled with dread. I remembered the intense pressure; the oppressive dismay at the possibility of failure; the way I tuned out the morning and the spectators and everything that’s supposed to make the marathon fun and instead drowned under the endless refrain how much longer. I had a visceral antipathy to the thought of ever doing a marathon again.
Once I shoved the race from my mind, however, I thrilled at being back out for a run. I felt so grateful, like running was a food I hadn’t eaten in years, a luscious and rare delicacy whose buttery depths I’d forgotten and rediscovered. I felt glorious afterward at my desk, with my foot propped at an awkward angle under a Target bag full of ice.
Who cares? What’s left? Only the act itself, the body in motion. No goals or protocols or purpose or pressure. Only the barest new awareness of the very first run, alongside a lake in Madison, Wisconsin: the feeling of, oh my goodness, I love this thing. This could be mine.