“At the time I did not know that stories of life are more like rivers than books.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
I am the product of a boa-constricted timeline, two people who decided the day they met in late fall 1980 to train for a mid-June marathon. They married a few months out from that decision, and I keep running with it.
28 days after their wedding, my parents ran the 1981 Grandma’s Marathon in northern Minnesota. Thirty-seven years later, I ran down the same path in a mist off Lake Superior. I’d been chasing this for a long time, using this odd confluence of factors in my origins as proof that my destiny is to run marathons. Nothing dramatic, really. I don’t know precisely when, but at some point I concluded that this was what made me a person – both that it put me physically on this earth, and that it would direct my life. Sometimes you create your own spiritual beginnings.
They met at a disco nightclub called The Oz in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was in the basement of an now-defunct hotel. I wish so much that place still existed so I could see what kind of environs inspire insane cardio-related decisions with people you’ve just met. But now I am the keeper of that neural connection, maintaining its glowing pathway.
In my imagination, all The Oz’s lighting is green-tinted and no one will convince me otherwise. It was a birthday party for my future mom’s co-worker – she and a colleague, JL, promised to go together so they’d at least know one person. Then JL invited my future dad. Thank you, JL, whoever you are, for thinking to introduce my parents. My dad claims my mom had eaten all the cocktail weenies, which was certainly a party foul in his Iowa boy eyes. He never fails to mention that detail when telling this story. Good thing he decided to spend the rest of his life with this meat-hogging woman.
Hors d’oeuvres shenanigans aside, JL and his victims got to talking about a marathon. It was November 1980, and people were going crazy for tiny French-cut shorts and long-distance running. Why not, they said, all train for a marathon together? The next June, my parents crossed that finish line together, their wedding a grace note in the whole mad symphony. And why am I convinced this decades-old decision makes me a runner? I still don’t know the answer, but it hovers out there and propels me along all the same.
My parents’ running impulse was latent in me for a long time, a river that had gone underground. I finally felt the current’s tug sometime in college, and it’s since become so elemental that I don’t know who I am without it. If I stop running, will I, like a shark, sink and die? I started thinking of my parents’ meeting and first marathon as my own story, and the reason I’d been compelled to run after whatever made them join together and aim for the same horizon. Here was their story, and along I came and held on.
When I put my feet near the starting line of the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon a few days ago, I tried to summon all these talismen I’d been using to start and keep running. Here I stood in Two Harbors, Minnesota, at the crux of everything I said I was, in the middle of a story I’d merged with mine years ago. I looked down the road through the fog and the pines, the shivering runners, trying to conjure the spirits I’d spent so long talking to. Silence met me. It was just me out there, and a healthy dose of fear. Confronting the thing you say you are can be a revelation, but this wasn’t for me. You build the shrine, but the spirits stay hidden. I was alone in my own wilderness.
The race itself was the most Minnesotan thing ever. People were running in packs, casually talking in loud tones about their old friend’s recurring butt cheek injury and asking where their new friends were from. Spectators remarked on how strong everyone looked, so nice, Boston-bound! I alternated between listening to other people’s conversations and trying to quell my own mental panic. I came here to prove my existence, and I could only question it. But I built to a good pace and stayed there, buoyed by everyone around me. Eventually, my quads grew heavy and all I could do was keep myself moving forward. Not as quickly as I’d hoped, but I was still out there in my parents’ path.
When I made it into Duluth, around mile 19 or 20, I pictured my parents trying to finish their own race 37 years before. They were probably much faster than me, and wearing more fashionable shorts. At mile 24.5, my mom herself was waiting, along with my sister, who made a sign that said “Run like Mueller has a subpoena with your name on it.” (I think she is the true winner of the race.) I gave them sweaty hugs while babbling incoherently. After I crossed the finish line, I went straight for the food, as my ancestors would have wanted. But while waiting in line for orange juice and salty snacks, my legs said that if I did not sit down straight away, I would be a goner. In a rush of pain that constant motion had kept at bay, I sank onto a nearby curb. I had often thought I would cry at the end of this marathon, overcome with finally running my ur-race, but no tears came. Instead, I hugged my tinfoil blanket tighter around myself, shaking even as my quads burned. Any meaning to this day and this pathway retreated back into my legs, where it will stay knit into my muscles. Forward motion is all I can offer.
Running this marathon was like running down the river of time. This place and this race still form me, but I can’t impose a neat narrative on any of it. You want to stop and pick up water-smoothed rocks but the flow is too strong. There’s history and meaning and direction, but they loop around and lead into a larger body of water where everything spreads out even more. I’ll swim in it my whole life, this merging.
My parents have this river, and a weirdo runs through it.