“I believe there is no God.”
This phrase was echoing in my head while I passed the 22nd mile marker during the 2009 Red Rock Canyon marathon. It was put there by Penn Jillette with a little help from Steve Jobs (iPod), Nathaniel Baldwin (headphones), and Jay Allison, the editor of the excellent audio book “This I Believe” from which Penn was reading. The words startled me like the sound of an 18-wheeler truck horn unexpectedly blaring behind me. All sensations stopped and my attention fixated on the translation of the magnetic clicks that entered my skull through my right ear.
I’m not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it’s everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I’m raising now is enough that I don’t need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.
As I listened, I looked around at the gorgeous scenery. Gigantic colored rocks reached up to a near-cloudless blue sky. A sea of chalky dirt and rocks surrounded me. It was speckled with dried bushes and desert shrubs that looked like lifeless sea anemones. In the distance, three deer navigated the terrain oblivious to passing cars, marathon runners and questions about creation.
“Could this really be all there is?” I wondered. “Is this heaven?”
Moments like these are common in later marathon miles. They are usually prompted by some unexpected sight, sound or feeling that shakes your endorphin-clouded mind and gives you a brief flash of clarity. Stabbing muscle pains, joint soreness, and chaffing sting momentarily disappear, replaced with intense focus on a single thought. Sometimes the thought is about existence and your place in the universe. But more often the thought is, “Why the hell are you doing this!?”
Negative Self Talk
These negative thoughts plagued me sooner in this canyon marathon than most previous marathons. They started around mile 4 while I ran next to a 42-year-old, first-time marathoner named Troy. He saw me joggling and was interested in hearing about it. I answered his questions and asked him a few about himself. We went on to talk about the canyon, Las Vegas, his training, our race expectations, and other bits of life minutia.
“Are you going to keep this pace up the whole way?” he asked.
“I’m going to try to,” I replied.
“Good. Me too.”
As we scaled the 1000 foot incline, I looked down to adjust my headphone chord and my sunglasses fell to the ground and broke. A voice said, “I don’t know why you keep running these stupid races.” I glared at my running companion then realized it wasn’t him but my homunculus who said it. “Just ignore him,” I thought. “Don’t think, just keep joggling.”
Troy was nice enough to stop and hold my juggling bags while I tried to fix my glasses. I couldn’t, so I shoved them in my back pocket, took back my Gballz, pulled down the bill of my Nike hat, and resumed joggling. As I steadily pulled away from Troy, the negative voice in my head returned. I turned on my audio book and let the melodious words of Studs Terkel drown him out. The fifth mile of a marathon is no place for negativity.
Red Rock Canyon Course
The course of the Red Rock Canyon marathon is roughly a U-shaped, 13-mile winding road. You start at about 3700 feet elevation and build to 4700 feet in the first 5 miles. It flattens for a couple miles and then it descends from mile 9 through 13 back to 3700 ft. At the half-way point, you turn around and go back to where you started. All the down-hills you loved on the way there become grueling up-hills on the way back. If you’re not used to running hills, it’s rough!
I managed to focus on the various voices of the This I Believe book and steadily cruised through the first half. Except for a couple miles where I played rabbit and tortoise with a faster runner who kept stopping to take pictures (he was the rabbit), I ran alone after Troy was gone.
Running in Isolation
There was no cheering crowd to amuse with joggling tricks. No rock bands or DJs to get my blood pumping. For miles, there was only me, my flying Gballz, and the isolation of the canyon desert.
I heard different authors in my ear, catching phrases like “I believe in God” or “There is no job more important than parenting”, but their words were steadily reduced to a low tinnitus-like hum in my head. Sadness and loneliness engulfed me like a cloud. Only the instinct to finish kept me joggling and moving forward.
Around mile 10, my mood brightened upon seeing runners coming from the other direction. These were the half-marathon runners who had started a little over an hour and a half after us. They cheered and yelled as they passed things like “Way to go juggler!” “You’re incredible!” “Oh my God! That’s great!” I was reinvigorated.
Every couple miles there were roadside tables manned by 2 or 3 volunteers. They handed out life-saving water, sport drinks, and cookie that propelled you into the next mile. More importantly, they cheered enthusiastically. They made me feel like a Hot Wheel car going through an accelerator box. At mile 12 there was one lady handing out water with her three kids. Their faces lit up when they saw me joggling.
“That’s so cool!” one of them yelled.
I grinned ear to ear. While passing I turned around and did a little backwards joggling. They cheered louder and it pushed me to go faster.
At the turn-around, I saw the steepness of the hill I had just ascended. Going back up was not appealing. I kept reminding myself that the last 5 miles will be an easy downhill. That worked right up through mile 16 when I gave in to my pain and walked up a steep incline.
Thankfully, I’ve practiced juggling while walking (walggling?) so it was easy to keep the pattern going. Throughout the rest of the race I walked intermittently whenever the hills got too steep. It certainly added about 15 minutes to my time. But it also ensured that I would finish.
Pondering to the Finish
In mile 22, I was alone again and feeling deliriously tired when those words of Penn Jillette woke me up. “I believe there is no God.”
I listened intently when he said,
Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.
And when he finished by saying that belief in no God “…encourages him to make this life the best life he will ever have.”
His words kept me pondering for the remaining miles. Sure, I noticed each mile marker and the few other runners that I passed, but they only briefly disturbed my storming thoughts. What do I believe?
I didn’t come to any final conclusions but I thought the following.
This world, this canyon, this race, this moment is all there is. Life provides no after-race snacks of cookies, bagels, nachos and hot chicken soup as there were after this marathon. Life’s finish line does not have a timing mat that tells you you finished in 4:07:44 (24th place out of 125 finishers).
This life is all you get. You succeed and fail through your hard work, your efforts and sometimes with help from cosmic luck. Whether this luck is God, I can’t really say. I doubt it.
But I can say I believe in this life. I believe in the joy of joggling. And I believe that marathons can push your body and mind in ways you wouldn’t think possible.