I never lost at tag in elementary school. Every recess ended with my circling the blacktop untouched, in my own world, hardly hearing the wheezing behind me. I began winning races in seventh grade, cross-country and track. I loved distance, the stuff that hurt. I was an anxious kid, afraid mostly of failure, of being rejected, of being yelled at — the usual. Maybe more acute than most. When I was running hard, the pain absorbed me fully in the present moment; fear didn't stand a chance. I remember the feeling of my body cutting through the crowd of other runners like a force of nature. I kept winning races and soon became dependent on pain and the relief of pain — an ouroboros, the snake that devours its own tail. After turning 16 in 1984, I discovered punk rock, girls, booze, and Aldous Huxley; the balance of pain and its relief tilted. The snake let go and began craving something else.
I began to quit some cross-country meets around the time I started drinking. I blamed fantasy injuries incurred under unlikely circumstances and always out of sight of spectators. Once I claimed to have been hit by a car. My knees were always good for an excuse; coaches were terrified of knee pain. Decades later I would tell people I was part of the Rockville High School cross-country team that won the Maryland state championship, which is technically true. But I never scored points for that team, even though I was among its fastest members.
Thirty minutes before one of my last high school meets, my mother woke me from sleeping off a hangover in our station wagon in the track's parking lot. During the distance relay I felt like gravity had a special hold on me as slower runners glided past. I puked at the finish line and told my teammates I had a stomach virus. A month later, at my very last meet, it occurred to me that I would probably never run competitively again. I led my race from the start and dropped a 2:04 800 meter. At the finish line, one of my teammates clapped me on the back and said, "Where the fuck did that come from?" I didn't know, but I suspected it wouldn't come back for a long time.
When I was 21, I joined the Marines, after paying for college on an ROTC scholarship. Compared to the former linebackers and bodybuilders I served with, I was fast again. I crushed our three-mile fitness tests, the Endurance Course at Quantico, and the Mud Run at Camp Pendleton. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and I tried desperately to get assigned to a unit deploying to the war, but instead I watched it unfold on General Schwarzkopf's maps from my room at Fort Sill, in Lawton, Oklahoma. I learned to shoot artillery and Jägermeister. I discovered that Dallas bartenders wouldn't let Marines pay for drinks. Over the next few years, as I rose through the rank of first lieutenant to captain, I took command of troops, deployed to Okinawa and South Korea and the South China Sea, and drank and stumbled down streets in much of the world. One night in Guam, a hooker pushed me down on the sidewalk and took my money.
I couldn't entirely give up on running — I was still a Marine — but I gave up on being fast, and a downward spiral ensued. I nearly busted up my friend's wedding in Beverly Hills by taking over the free bar and telling Carnie Wilson, one of the bride's high school classmates, that unlike the rest of the world, I didn't care that she was fat. The groom suggested I get out and get help.
After leaving the Marines, I settled in North Carolina, which meant I all but lived in a bar in Chapel Hill called the Dead Mule Club, which shared a parking lot with the newspaper where I found a job as a reporter. I met my wife, Sherri, at the bar; the best man at our wedding was the bar manager. I finagled writing assignments in places where I could drink the most unnoticed. I managed to abandon my wife and two-year-old daughter for eight months to live in New Orleans, where I wrote a story about Hurricane Katrina in a bar called Molly's, staring up at a portrait of W.B. Yeats. Until the age of four, my daughter thought I lived elsewhere; I still wonder if she sees that hobbling wretch in her dreams.
(On his way to winning a cross-country meet in eighth grade — second from left. Photograph Courtesy Duncan Murrell)
I've come to understand my behavior as a desire to arrest time, to postpone the future. Being high meant nothing had to change in the soft sweet light of the sun going down, refracted through the rows of glowing bottles across the bar. Finally, faced with the choice of sobriety or losing everything — my two young daughters and my wife, my work, my health — I reluctantly chose to quit using. I hung on by sheer will and with the help of other sober people. Reformed drunks talk about clarity being a gift, but to me it was punishing. I relapsed twice. I smoked a pack a day. I lived in a gray world mostly without pleasure or pain except for the shame of my past lives, the fading of what I had imagined I would be, and the clear knowledge of what I had become.
On Memorial Day 2014, during a visit to my parents' house in Maryland, I craved a cigarette. Sherri, a former field hockey player who finds crushing ab workouts fun, suggested we run a local four-mile race instead. It started in an hour, across the street at the elementary school I had attended, and would weave its way along running paths I knew intimately.
When I lined up at the starting line, my 5 feet and 7 inches of body weighed a thick, pale, double-chinned 185 pounds. Once a race in this neighborhood would have drawn maybe a dozen participants in sweatbands and tube socks, including me. Now nearly 300 stepped to the line, all of them fit and geared up. They seemed satisfied with their lives. What kind of neighborhood had this become? I remembered a Dazed and Confused sort of place. When had it become sleek and strong and happy?
During the race, children and grandparents passed me. I fought them off. They passed me anyway. Coming the other direction on the out-and-back course were two guys in Rockville High jerseys, blazing fast. Those kids pulled me along, and through my old trails I caught a glimpse of myself, young and sweet and hopeful. I finished in a little over 36 minutes.
"Good job," said Sherri.
"I want to go fast," I said later, laid out on the floor of my parents' house.
It's important to note that I meant fast. Not "in shape" or "fit," which are fine things to be. But to be fast requires a constant negotiation with self-inflicted pain interspersed with brief moments of euphoria, when the body moves at the limit of its design. I meant fast like the teenager I'd been.
In a listing of local races, I discovered a goal: the Dogwood Festival 5K in Mebane, North Carolina, one year away. My plan was to run the 3.1 miles in under 18 minutes — a number that in my day separated the competitive runners from the merely good ones.
I was working at Duke University, teaching writing, and I talked my way into the Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Laboratory, informally known as the K-Lab, where I convinced them to rebuild me. A doctor strapped motion-capture gear to my body and watched me run on a treadmill. No one used the word old, but I heard lots of remarks along the lines of "Nothing is impossible, even if you're 46."
(Murrell as a 25-year-old first lieutenant in Okinawa. Photograph Courtesy Duncan Murrell)
They told me that if I wanted to be fast again, I'd have to increase my mileage to as much as 50 miles a week. It seemed like overkill, but I was on a mission. Speed workouts once or twice a week: 12x400m, 8x600m, 6x800m. I learned what 180 strides per minute — the optimum pace for distance efficiency — felt like. A young man in a golf shirt gave me exercises to strengthen my hips, such as kneeling on one leg and lifting a weight at arm's length up and diagonally across my body, and lying on my back and raising my legs in succession, so that I looked like I was trying to march up into the air. I carried kettlebells in each of my hands and walked across the gym like I was hauling water. A stride analyst told me that I needed to run more upright so I would land under my center of gravity and not cockeyed. Cockeyed meant stressing muscles that couldn't take it, like hips and quads. I was told to get lots of rest.
I learned all these things and then forgot them as soon as I started to get faster. I stopped doing warm-ups and strengthening exercises. All I wanted to do was run, long and fast and right this second.
For a time there he was, the boy, striding in me, hitting the ground at his cadence, powering up hills, recording the miles in a notebook that became more precious week after week: 20 miles, 35 miles, 50 miles. I snapped pictures of myself shirtless in the woods after runs and sent them to my wife.
"You look like a meth dealer," she texted.
I got faster. I loved the feeling of emerging from the woods into the sunlight along the old tobacco trail so fast I scattered the mockingbirds and outraced the mosquitoes before plunging back among the ancient trees. When I came home after these runs, I was cheerful and more thoughtful. I slept well. I began to wear running clothes everywhere, just in case.
By the end of nine months, my body began to wear down. Leg cramps and micro-tears caused a cascade of pain. My physical therapist stuck needles into the knots of my calf and hooked the needles up to electrical gear. Nothing really helped except rest, and I couldn't rest. I ran on bad calves, which turned into pulled glutes and strained groins. I developed a ritual of ice and heat based more on superstition than science. I placed sea salt crystals under my tongue. I told my friends all was good, that I was faster than ever. I'm OK. There's no problem. I don't have a problem.
When a friend asked me to run a 196-mile Miami–to–Key West relay, I lobbied to run the longest stretch with the most bridges, which are what pass for hills in South Florida. My longest leg was an 11-miler in the rain and dark along a busy highway through alligator country. I started well, but cramps soon climbed my legs and made them feel as if they were turning to stone. I finished respectably but in pain. I tried to cry but was too tired.
(Training at Duke in 2015, eight pounds over his Marine Corps weight. Photograph Courtesy Duncan Murrell)
When I returned to North Carolina, I couldn't run. I could barely walk. I moped and iced and watched good running days drift by outside my window. One day I was so angry I went running anyway, and felt something seize up deep inside my leg. I called my physical therapist while leaning against a tree.
"I just destroyed myself."
I had run this trail hundreds of times and had never once walked on it, but that day I limped the two miles home. A deer watched me as I passed. I went home and quit.
The boy would not have recognized the man he'd become in the last photograph taken before he got sober, on his last bender, a fat old man with a gray beard peering into the camera phone, waving a Natural Light. But he would have recognized the guy who quit running again. Quit. Quitting. Terrible words. The boy had been ashamed of his weakness, his tendency to quit rather than fail, but he had been unable to resist quitting.
Over the next weeks I felt like I had died, which was a familiar feeling. And then in one of those moments when everything becomes obvious, I knew that living with this, and not becoming fast, was the obstacle I had to conquer. I'd wanted to revive the boy I had been, to erase the effects of wasted time and health that had marked my passage into middle age. I thought there might be some quantum-loop exception that would bring me back. But running broke me down and made me realize I had been asking for a miracle.
A few weeks before the 5K, I began jogging again. I'm not entirely sure why, since my goal, 5:47 per mile, was far out of reach. There was no denying my physical reality. My body hobbled and wheezed. But I ran. Some days I ran with my daughter, who is faster than I am. One afternoon I stood in the rain, watching my girl, bright-eyed and kicking, finish first in a 1,500-meter race. She ran with joy and pleasure. Where did she get that?
On the April afternoon of the Dogwood 5K, it was 68 degrees with a few cirrus clouds overhead. I popped ibuprofen and put sea salt under my tongue. I pulled on my compression sleeves and did my strides and stretches. For a moment the old thought crept in: "Could I beat everyone?" I scolded myself and decided I wanted just that day, those minutes. And among the swaggering and smug runners in the latest gear, I began to recognize more than a few bodies like mine, a bit bent, wearing knee braces, pressing on against the odds.
I toed the starting line under blue skies and dogwoods in bloom. I hardly remember the race, but I remember the oaks, the azaleas, the smell of cow pasture, and the little boy who lined up ahead of me in his basketball shoes and took off like a shot when the starter said go.