It has been six months since I left the Marine Corps.
In that time, I have grown the required just-reentered-civilian-life beard that most veterans attempt to cultivate, part of a casual pact that myself and three others have agreed upon. I have experienced that strange feeling of missing something that I so often hated, then realizing that it wasn’t so much the structure that I am longing for but the camaraderie with those that I served alongside – the small collective of men that I lived in the deserts of Afghanistan with, the few that are able to wholly relate to what it is like to wake up with a rifle slung across your body and then go to sleep with that rifle still at your side, those that were willing to kill in order for me to live.
What I haven’t done a whole lot of is running. There have been no upcoming Physical Fitness Tests to motivate me to remain in fighting shape, and my infrequent gym sessions and weekly slow-pitch softball games are no substitute for the heart-pumping adrenaline rush of competing against 150 fellow Marines through obstacle courses and during the duration of an out-and-back three-mile run.
I own a GPS watch, a decent one at that, the Garmin Forerunner 110 (cheaper, refurbished models are another option) which also came with a heart rate monitor chest strap. It tracks distance, pace, elapsed time, lap splits, and heart rate. But it was getting no use without the military forcing me to get up and hit the pavement.
And so, to prove to myself that my willpower is strong enough to refuse the temptation to enter that quiet death, the one where my capabilities regress to the depressing state that is the American “average”, I started running again.
The Marine Corps standard of three miles is a sprint away from equaling the 3.1 miles that are a 5k, so after a couple weeks of late-night runs, I entered a race. I ran a local 5k and finished in 23 minutes, 42 seconds. Then I ran another local 5k the following week and finished in 22 minutes, 44 seconds.
These are not incredibly fast times, but the important part is that they are getting faster. Already I have my sights set on 10k runs, and then possibly something that I have never done before – a half-marathon early next year.
I find something powerful in that moment of isolation and self-doubt, when each inhale burns and my chest heaves irregularly as I attempt to control my breathing, when my legs are screaming at me and I can feel the tightness in each stride, when beads of sweat run down the side of my nose and find their way into my eyes and then my vision clouds and it burns to keep focused on the finish line in front of me, just a little farther…
And then I keep going.