Essay: Endurance Test

Running woman in the forest. Close-up of sneakers. Healthy lifestyle concept.

We didn’t look like runners.Well, OK, a few of the people who showed up to the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon interest meeting at DePauw University this past winter were gaunt and athletic—whippets with Fitbits, haunches pumping in their chairs—but the rest of us looked like shoppers plucked from the escalator at  Circle Centre mall. Men in Dockers and checked shirts. Plump women. Tired and kind.To open the meeting, Jennifer Soster, a trim woman in her 50s, shared her path to wellness. After her brother died of cancer, she spiraled into depression and fatty liver disease until one day she faceplanted on her kitchen tiles. Her doctor didn’t mince words: “We need to talk about what we have to do to keep you alive.” Her journey back to living began with exercise. Too heavy to run, she walked, then jogged on her treadmill where no one would see her. After four months, she flung open her front door and took off. A year later and 110 pounds lighter, she completed the Mini with a 9:20 pace.Goosebumps traveled up my forearms as I gazed round the lunchroom, my heart warming to the runners, the ones I knew, the ones I didn’t. We all want to be more than we are, I thought.To be clear, I was not marathon material. More tortoise than hare, I usually jogged two miles on Sundays while listening to “Let’s Go Running Wooo!! Party Hat Emoji,” a pop mix my college-aged daughter, Madeline, made for me, after which I gobble popovers and jam. But there was something about hitting 55, the speed limit, then 56, and taking the early retirement buyout from the college where I teach that gave the idea purchase. I wanted to see if a “first” was still possible.“If we do this, we get all our HSA points,” Jeane, a sunny geologist, leaned over to whisper at the meeting. She reminded me that with our college’s new health insurance policy, we earn co-pays by attending fitness seminars and logging sit-ups. Healthy Tigers, it’s called.“I can’t imagine running that far,” I said.“What’s the worst that happens?” Jeane said, shrugging. “You walk.”Two days later on January 30, the World Health Organization declared a “public health emergency of international concern” after 10,000 cases of coronavirus were reported in Wuhan, China. It barely registered in Greencastle, Indiana, where a group of middle-aged mall shoppers eager for self-improvement and hungry for Healthy Tiger points made an unbinding commitment to run the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon on May 2.

Week one: The math, in brief: A half-marathon is 13.1 miles. According the “novice” training chart, we can be ready in 12 weeks. Weekdays, you run short distances and cross-train, building up to Bloody Sunday, where you add a mile to your previous week’s high. Our first Sunday, we are slated to run four miles.It has been a decade since I’ve run four miles.That first Sunday morning, I jog toward Walmart on the People’s Pathway, a trail that juts out to the soccer fields at Big Walnut Park in Greencastle. The day is gray, windy, 40 degrees. Downhill, I plod past the high school’s empty parking lot, through a neighborhood of ranch houses called The Avenues, where dog turds litter the sidewalk like discarded cigar nubs, then out to a footpath along Route 213, past Taco Bell and Dollar Tree to Walmart, that bland windowless slab.When Run Tracker announces two miles, I turn, retreat. The wind howls. By high school hill, I’m dizzy, depleted, walking. I have music, but where is my party hat? “Despacitoby Luis Fonsi plays in my earbuds and I think: You got that right.  

Week two: Karen, who works in alumni relations, agrees to meet for a run at 6:15 a.m. She is fit and thin, a lapsed runner who’s game. On this dark February morn, she jogs in place outside her home, wearing a down vest and carrying a knuckle flashlight. We gasp out conversation: comparing old lady sneakers, our bunions, our husbands’ snoring. It is nice to have company, to run without “Wooo!!” We are women in Lycra. Hear us pant. Neither of us can fathom completing 13 miles.“Double digits,” Karen says, in her musical voice. “But I figure it’s now or never. I calculated it will take me three hours. That’s like driving to Chicago. That’s like watching The Irishman.”Starbucks twinkles, cozy as Christmas. I want to duck in for oatmeal, a latte. As we chug up a hill, I voice my biggest fear.“People poop in their pants during marathons,” I say. “My student wrote a piece about it.”“I don’t want to do that,” Karen says.On January 11 in Wuhan, China, the first person dies from a new virus that has sickened dozens of people. He was 61 years old.

Week three: The world is asleep when I meet Karen in the dark. Like sprightly elves, we fly through the drizzle. Mile two, I lose my fairy dust. My stomach sloshes. My head is too far away from my feet. I feel lavender and faint, back-of-the-neck woozy, beset by a plastic-bag emptiness I can’t fill or deflate.“I’m sorry,” I say. “Bad day.”“Just slow down,” Karen advises, slowing down. But slowing down prolongs the agony.A new worry supplants my fear about the number, placement, and availability of porta potties. What if May 2 is a bad day? What if, after months of training, the worst possible version of me shows up at the starting line? Karen’s head is in another place as we huff down Anderson Street, the entryway to campus. Lanterns cast shimmering light on the wet pavement like scattered jewels.“This is how I picture the finish line,” Karen says. “Let’s run up the hill.”The hill is a slope that feels like a mountain. Karen dashes. I stagger. She is Rocky charging up the museum steps. I am … a mollusk at low tide.Back home in our kitchen, my husband fixes cereal in his bathrobe.“You’re pushing yourself too hard,” he says as I collapse on a chair. “A marathon? That’s crazy.”“A half-marathon.”“It’s the same thing for you.”In an email, I tell Karen I’m sorry for being so pathetic. “Let’s set a rule,” she writes back. “No apologies.”It’s like Love Story with sneakers.

Then, a setback: I catch the flu. Not the flu. I am 87 percent sure it’s a normal flu, though I roll into bed feverish and headachy, scanning the headlines after naps. The coronavirus has escalated into an international panic. Italy has succumbed. The Diamond Princess cruise ship has succumbed. Mike Pence is in charge. Pray for us. Trump calls the coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax.” My muscles atrophy as I pop Advil, DayQuil, NyQuil, and Xanax, wash my hands, wait for Peter to ferry up tea. Outside, February. Snow. Rain. Instead of running, I doze, crumpled tissues scattered like origami cranes.

The U.S. has 35 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The doctor at our wellness clinic doesn’t think I have COVID-19. Neither do I. The whole idea is as remote as running a marathon. A terrible event I can’t envision will ever happened to me.

Eight days without exercise, socializing, or a drink. I lay around like an egg white no one wants to meringue. I keep up my teaching, barely, because for 21 years I have never canceled class. Finally, Tuesday afternoon of Week Four, I lace up my sneakers and head to Walmart. It’s 50 degrees, blustery with a half-hearted sun. One mile at 9:50. Not bad. Take that, virus!

When I pivot at two miles, a fierce wind blows me back. I jog, get nowhere. It’s like running on a treadmill. There is not enough Lululemon on the planet to make up for this agony. At three miles, I give up and walk, forced to acknowledge a terrible truth: After a month of training, I can run two good miles, one crappy one, and then I am toast.

In an email, Karen reports: “I barely jogged 3.5 miles around 5 p.m. and I felt like hurling the entire time.”

She is such a good friend.

The first U.S. citizen dies of coronavirus in Seattle. Global cases reached 87,000. Trump issues “do not travel” warnings to Italy and South Korea. Indiana reports its first case of COVID-19 on March 6. Gov. Holcomb declares a public health emergency.

Week five: Tuesday morning at 6:15 a.m., Karen leads me on her 4-mile run. We loop through parking lots and leap over bushes. It’s 50 degrees. Light rain speckles my glasses. It occurs to me that I am not a better runner. I have just grown accustomed to misery. Karen sprints the final slope/hill/mountain. When I catch up, we bend over, panting.“I keep thinking it’s going to get easier,” I say.Karen says: “I have been running for 10 years. It’s never fun and never easy.”Back home, I make coffee, wake my 15-year-old son, Lincoln, defrost a bagel, shower, dress, drive him to school, and on the way back I see a dark shape, a runner. It’s Karen. It is 7:53 and she is still running. This betrayal lands like a gut punch. All this time I thought we were suffering in equal measure, but no. My friend is literally running circles around me.“Lili, guess what, I still wanted to be outside so I ran our route again!” she confesses in an email. “It wasn’t too bad since I slowed down drastically.”I debate giving up.Friday the 13th lives up to its name. DePauw shuts down, moves to e-learning. Trump declares a national emergency and commits $50 billion to combat the coronavirus. The CDC bans gatherings of more than 50 people. To maintain social distance, Karen and I stop running together. I miss her.

Week six: Everything we once thought, isn’t. Everything we hadn’t imagined, is. Life becomes a blur of social distancing, e-learning, hand washing, and Purell. We cancel my husband’s birthday party, drink wine by the fire, open presents, eat cake, count our blessings. The island in Maine where my family owns a summer house bans visitors. Peter and I binge Schitt’s Creek and split a Xanax before bed. I do an apocalyptic shop of paper products and pasta. Madeline returns from college, interviews for an internship that will surely be canceled. Lincoln says, “I can’t believe the whole country is being shut down by a single-cell organism.”And we are.Schools close. Bars and restaurants close. Ohio and Louisiana close. Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York, down. Rand Paul down. Placido Domingo down. In Italy, 800 people die in a single day. The whole world shrinks to the size of my house. Inane emails cluttered my inbox: Botox Tuesday is canceled. J. Jill is concerned about its employees’ safety. Nordstrom is offering a 25 percent markdown, but I can’t imagine buying clothes. I live in sweats and a Carhartt hat. I worry about our 94-year-old piano teacher and my aunt in Connecticut who lives in a nursing home. I wonder if I actually had coronavirus weeks ago. There is no way to know. Peter makes a fire. We are almost out of wood. Scarcity is in the air. Forget cross-training. There’s no pool, no gym, no flour at Kroger, no privacy in our house, which reverberates with guitar, piano, FaceTime, phone calls, six-minute abs, Zoom yoga, bickering, someone screaming “Mooooooom” 17 times a day.And we are lucky.Karen writes: “I slogged through 10 (!) miles in the Nature Park on Sunday. It was as horrific as it sounds and I was in so much discomfort I could hardly sleep that night. Since the Mini-Marathon is likely to be canceled, I’ve lost almost all motivation and slept in this morning.”On March 16, the first Hoosier dies of the coronavirus.On March 18, the Mini-Marathon is canceled.  

Week seven: Sweet relief. No running. No cross-training. No pooping in my pants. The news arrives not a moment too soon as I believe I am supposed to run seven miles on Sunday, which is, in a word, impossible. Cleaning my desk, I glance at the training chart and do a double take. I’ve goofed. This Sunday calls for “a 5K race.” A measly three miles.With the sort of blind faith usually reserved for the pious, I realize I can trust the chart. Our president cannot be trusted. The plastic bags at Kroger cannot be trusted. But the good chart will not ask more of me than I can deliver. When I set out on my benign 5K, the first song on the playlist’s random shuffle is “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” And I understand that I do.  A few days later, I run with my husband, always a mistake. Six-foot-three and athletic, Peter doesn’t train for the summer fun run in Maine but still collects a blue ribbon. With 70 miles under my belt, I zoom out of the gate. By the end of mile one, we’re even. Mile two, Peter is soon a distant figure. He turns, runs backward, and is still faster than me.Divorce rates skyrocket during marathons and pandemics.A study is forthcoming.

Weeks eight and nine: Bloody Sunday, I lure Madeline to run with me. She has never run eight miles, but she is 20, when anything is still possible. It’s 50 degrees and gray, because, in Indiana, it’s always gray. We drive to DePauw’s Nature Park to ensure we finish with a long downhill. The first half-mile is terrible. Mile four, unspeakable.“You go ahead,” I gasp to Madeline, who is still fresh and peppy. “I may have to stop.”We circle past our house and shed our hats and gloves. Every mile mark, Madeline pumps the air. I focus on the math. The beauty of subtraction. Three more miles. Two more. And then, something incredible happens. A rush of euphoria overtakes me, like a glass of white wine, like swimming or sex, and on mile seven, I speed up. Untethered, unencumbered, I can run forever. I weigh nothing at all. I believe in magic. I believe in myself.Spring has sprung. The dog poop in The Avenues is gone. A magnolia blooms. After Sunday’s eight miles, Tuesday’s five-miler should be easy, but the Walmart wind blasts and by high school hill, I have to stop. Failure, yet again.There are bigger problems.Boris Johnson fights for his life in ICU. Some 731 people die in a single day in New York. Government scientists predict 100,000 to 240,000 U.S. residents will perish before a vaccine is discovered.Thursday night, I bring a bottle of red wine to my friend Cindy. This is the pandemic version of borrowing a cup of sugar. Dressed in black and wearing pink rubber gloves, she looks like a lobster in mourning. On her front lawn, she gives me a plastic bag filled with masks her mother has sewn. Six feet apart, we gossip under a supermoon. We tell each other we are lucky. We tell each other to hold on. Back home, I throw out the plastic bag, wash my hands, wipe down door handles, angry and full of love for the world. Both. Together. Like the two sides of a supermoon.

Week 10: My friendLiza’s father, a beloved acting teacher, dies of corona. A high school classmate who escaped 9/11 dies from COVID. A college classmate dies of cancer. Facebook has become a discordant scrapbook of cat photos and obituaries. I no longer check before bed.But the joy! Post-pasta dinner, we dance as we do dishes and I savor how lucky I am to have my two children home and healthy. We dance now because we may not later. We dance now because we can. When Stevie Wonder sings “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” for 4 minutes and 45 seconds, I take his advice.“You are the bionic woman,” Peter says after I run nine miles Saturday morning under a cold sun. “In the summer fun run, you’re dying after two.”The rest of the day, I doze on sunny couches like an overfed Labrador. Sunday, Karen emails that she was so dreading the race, she ran early. “Super relieved I’m done and can go back to running just for fun and fitness.” This time, I feel no envy. I’m glad she reached her goal, hopeful that somehow I will reach mine.

Week 11: We are chic! The whole world is running, according to news outlets. Running with masks. Running in their apartments. One guy in England ran a marathon in his backyard. Another in France on his balcony. We run to forget. We run because we cannot escape.The last Sunday before race day, the chart decrees 10 miles. I set out with Madeline, feeling like sourdough without the starter.In the past week, a dear friend lost his brother and another friend is diagnosed with cancer.“You got this,” Madeline cheers. “You’re alive!”And I think, Just barely.And I think, Where would I be without you?And I think, How in the world will I run 13 miles?

Week 12: Race day is sunny and bright, like God himself has scrubbed the planet with Windex. We rise at seven, drive to the Nature Park. I wonder which version of myself has shown up: Superwoman of the eight-mile run or the mess from the 10.  Taking Jennifer’s advice, we divide the course into segments. Five miles from Nature Park to soccer park, three miles lapping the soccer park, five miles back. In this clever mind game, you don’t have to run 13 miles. You run five plus three plus five. At each juncture, we stash blue gummies, Clif Bars, and other gastronomic atrocities. Madeline calls them Scooby Snacks.

Lili (right) and her daughter Madeline on the day of their half marathon run

Sunlight dapples the trees as we set off to the soundtrack of “Wooo!!” Such peace. Empty roads in the new light of morning. The steady plod of our sneakers in sync. I do not miss the real Mini-Marathon with rocks bands and Batman, snack tables and potties. Our humble version fits the zeitgeist. One of the rare pleasures of this crazy, miserable pandemic is the chance to spend time with Madeline, to attempt the impossible, together.

Mile two, three, four, I am beset by technical difficulties. I wore too many clothes and must stop to disrobe, which throws off Spotify and Run Tracker and my earphones stop working, forcing me to run without Bruno Mars, a man no woman should be without. Walmart appears. Then, the soccer fields. I feel like a turd on the side of the road.

To summon strength, I remember Jennifer.

Her sister died a few years after her brother in the same hospice. When someone passes, the staff shifts the butterfly that hangs on each bedroom door, a symbol the patient has flown off, soared. On race days, Jennifer wears butterfly earrings and a necklace with two butterflies to honor her siblings. “When I start feeling I want to quit, I touch my earlobes or the pendant and it’s my reminder: Who the hell am I to say this is hard? I watched my brother die in agony when cancer spread from his esophagus to the lining of his brain and lungs to the degree it almost forced an eye out of his socket. And I think this is tough? It’s not tough. This is easy. I need to get over myself, kick it into another gear, dig deep, and fight for what I want. I am on this earth. I can do this if I want to.”

I wonder if the same holds true for me.

Peter agrees to meet us at mile five with water and snacks. The promise of sugar keeps me going, but when we reach the park, no Peter. He is behind schedule with his weekly shop at Walmart.

I groan something unprintable.

We lap the fields. My head soars over the maples like a lost balloon. Lap two, Peter finally drives up in his Toyota and offers us blue gummies. We drink. We chew. With a kiss for each of us, he wishes us courage and strength and promises to be at the finish line. I am so very grateful.

On the second lap, mile-seven euphoria buoys me. I sprint past Madeline, though she soon catches up. Walmart winds blow us, but we do not break. Madeline’s legs hurt. She massages her hip. Mile eight. Mile nine. On dreaded high school hill, we flatten the curve. Dogwoods blossom. Dandelions toss back their heads. Before us, our yellow house, where a chair, a bed, and chocolate ice cream await. With two miles remaining, we settle for water.

“We need to add a little distance to reach 13.1,” Madeline says, checking her phone. “Let’s circle East College.” 

My toes burn with blisters. My hamstrings ping like cello strings. But add on we do, circling DePauw’s empty campus. I whimper. Madeline beams. She is beautiful, confident. “We’re so close!” she cheers. And we are. On Wooo!!, Alexander Hamilton vows to not throw away his shot.

The final miles, we ride gravity downhill. We have been running for more than two hours. Peter films our arrival. Lincoln smiles under his cap. Who needs the support of 30,0000 runners? We have two precious fans. Am I running? Barely. Picture an empty beer can bobbing off the bumper of a newlywed’s limo. We cross the finish line a tenth of a mile short and so have to keep going, pivot, cross the line a second time, victory arms high. We beam, hug, pose for photos, stagger into the car in our damp sports bras. High. Gonzo. Incredulous. Done.

Lili Wright and her daughter, Madeline, celebrate their mini-marathon run

“I can’t believe you ran 13 miles,” Peter says, shaking his head.

That makes two of us.

No one told us what to do after a marathon. Of course, we do everything wrong. Instead of walking, we sit. Instead of pounding water, I sip coffee. Delirious, we Healthy Tigers lounge on the sunny porch. Our feat seems impossible. Our feet are a mess. A middle-aged woman in an Indy Mini T-shirt powerwalks past. “This is hard! Two more miles.” We cheer her on. Older women are powerful, I see now. Feel it. Older women break the speed limit every day.

Like childbirth, the pain quickly fades in memory, though I will always remember the marathon and the marathon plague and the chart that held us steady. Anyone can be brought down by a single-cell organism. We are that small. Anyone can run a marathon. We are that big. Sometimes, it’s enough to put one foot in front of the other.