There are ghosts in Mario Kart. In Time Trial mode, where you race for personal best times on an empty track, a faint translucent ghost of your kart appears alongside you, echoing your previous best run. If you’re driving on pace with your ghost, the two of you, avatar and apparition, will weave down the track alongside each other. Navigate a tricky turn more smoothly than before and you dart ahead, but make a blunder and your ghost will glide off mercilessly into the distance. Compared to what Mario Kart is typically – a mass of 12 racers, bananas littered all over, and freaking blue shells – there’s a pure simplicity in driving alone on an empty track against your ghost. There’s no one to race but yourself.
I rarely play Mario Kart these days (my little brother always beats me anyway). However, I do run.
Last May, I visited Boston to run my first race – a half marathon – and it was a comically horrible vomit-filled disaster. I wrote the lighthearted post “On Half Marathons and Ghosts” about running the race, remembering my past self in Boston, and throwing up. Truth be told, I left disappointed that I botched my singular run in Boston, my home of 5 years and a true running city at heart. Of course my mere month of training was woefully inadequate, but I was angry. Even worse, in the hot summer months following, I lost all my running ability and regressed to only being able to run a pitifully slow 1.3 miles.
In November, I returned to running with a vengeance. I’ve run more than I ever thought I would ever run, like 4 to 7 times a week, around 30 miles. Rain, sweltering heat, oppressive surgery schedules, no matter. I always run alone because it’s simpler for my strange schedule and mercurial pace. I don’t run in isolation though, as I always have my wireless headphones, my music/podcasts, and – most importantly – my phone app that tracks my times and distances. My ghosts, if you will.
Therefore, when I returned to Boston this weekend to photograph my friends’ wedding, I went with a secondary agenda: to race – alone – against last year’s my failed half marathon attempt. A run for my own redemption.
Boston is a city littered with my ghosts. Once again, nostalgia struck and I couldn’t help but imagine my past selves wandering the same streets. I made Boston my home for 5 years because I explored it extensively on long, aimless, 8+ hour strolls around the town. Even with its totally erratic street layouts, I walked it so much that I’ve memorized the bridges, the river walks, the easy crosswalks. This knowledge came in handy while mapping my 13-mile course, which I decided had to bring me back to Harvard for the first time in 2.5 years.
It was a little surreal how much is the same at Harvard. Sure, there are big changes like the Student Center being built in Harvard Square, but memorable details were still there, frozen in time. The six long steps and decorative trash can in front of Adams House, the comforting salty gummy goodness of a Felipe’s burrito, the familiar trees and benches on the Charles River, the same lecture notes in the back of Science Center C lecture hall.
Yet, despite the unchanged details, being back felt so radically different. The place is the same, but now I work harder, photograph better, run faster, am stronger. I’ve mentioned it before, but this newfound mobility is empowering, and, oh, how deeply I regret not running or being remotely in shape in college. I’ve always had my slender frame and robust legs, so my failure to run then was nothing but a squandered opportunity.
I’m making it up now by running more and with urgency. I’m still a novice runner, so I’m in that blissful period when I improve by simply running more. None of my times are official because I don’t run races, but that’s how discouraging my race in Boston was. Instead of drawing inspiration from my fellow ten thousand runners, I found desperation as droves of runners passed me at the end. No runner’s high, no feeding off their energy, no joy in camaraderie. As it happened I feel as if I utterly failed my race, but hypothetically even if I ran fine and placed high I would’ve dismissed it as a consequence of the naturally broad range of ability in running.
Instead, I run alone. There’s a pure simplicity in running alone on an imaginary course against my ghosts. No one to race but myself.
For a while, I was baffled by why I so relentlessly pursue running – an activity I don’t even enjoy primarily – but this weekend I’ve made peace with the answer: I run to outrun my ghosts. I run so that Peters past would look forward, see the person I’ve become, and be proud.
Last year in Boston, I ran my first half marathon in 1:49:13, at 8:20 pace. This weekend in Boston, wearing the same shorts and shoes but adding wireless headphones (and Hamilton), I ran a half marathon in 1:30:23, at 6:52 pace, something a year ago I thought impossible.
Well, hmm. Now a much faster ghost awaits in that hallowed city, beckoning me to race again.