The flying pig is my personal mascot. For me, the flying pig represents something impossible that has come into reality. A flying pig challenges me get with the program. It’s a reality check. It’s a sign that I need to up my game, that I need to dream bigger and do better.
The thing that you think is impossible? Someone else out there is already doing it.
At one level, the flying pig is a metaphor for achieving the impossible. It is a talisman for impossible things that have manifest themselves into reality. It begs the question: If pigs *could* fly, what else might be possible? But here’s the thing… Pigs are already flying. It’s not a matter of IF pigs will fly, it’s WHEN they will fly.
When will they fly? Every year, the first Sunday in May. That’s when thousands of pigs take flight at the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. The Flying Pig has quite literally become a mascot for my hometown.
Flying Pig marathon weekend means a lot of things to me. This is an attempt to explain my deeper connection to the Pig.
Running to reclaim my past
I used to jokingly tell people that I ran away from home, and that I was a refugee. When I moved away from Cincinnati in the late 1980’s, I left the place where I was from and never looked back. Choosing to attend graduate school as far away from home as possible, I engaged in the fantasy I could escape difficult aspects of my life by putting as much distance between me and my home as possible. To borrow a term from rehab, this is called “pulling a geographic.”
After staying away for a few decades, my mother passed away. My brothers and I traveled into my mother’s territory to make her final arrangements and clean out her apartment. With my mother no longer there, the sense of unease and dread that I had felt about being within the Cincinnati city limits was gone. With her gone, I felt like it was finally safe to return to the place where I was from without being crushed. I realize now that I mixed up escaping my family of origin with escaping the city where we lived. I had thrown out the baby with the bath water.
Grief is a complex thing, and my grief was made more complex by the difficult relationship I had with my mother. The details of that are a topic for another day. However, one of the things I decided after my mother’s death was that I needed to run the 2011 Flying Pig, and that would be my first “official” 10K race. Part of my motivation for running the Pig was to re-claim the city for myself. It was a homecoming, but the place I was going wasn’t my home anymore. I was coming back a different person, and my hometown was a different place. The girl who left in the 1980’s had never set foot in a gym, and had never run a mile in her life. The girl who came back in 2011 was an aspiring runner. Somehow it just felt right that I could wrap myself in my new life and dip myself back into my old one. It would prove to me that somehow I came out okay.
I adopted the flying pig as a personal mascot while training for that first Pig. The flying pig was a symbol of my personal transformation. I embraced the slogan on a shirt that was being sold in the marathon store: “I’ll run a marathon when pigs fly!” A pig actually flying is just about as likely as the transformation I set to create in myself, beginning as a 285-pound couch potato who had never run a mile in her life, transforming into a person who might one day be in good enough shape to run that marathon. It is really about how with enough hard work, the impossible can happen. As one flying pig meme says, “With sufficient thrust, pigs fly just fine.”
And fly I did. At the 2011 Flying Pig 10K, I ran my personal best 10K. I lived and trained in the mountains at 7,000ft and ran the 10K at 800ft, and for the first time in my life I felt the benefit that comes from training high and racing low. My race time shaved a whopping 6 minutes off my best training time, and was more than one minute per mile faster than my best training run. One of my brothers came to run the 10K with me- it was his first race ever. I went home, back to my life in the mountains, feeling happy with what I’d done and pretty damn victorious. I had conquered that Pig.
Then something completely unlikely happened.
You realize this is a story about flying pigs, right? You knew something unlikely was going to happen, right?
The spring of 2013 turned my life upside down. By the Fourth of July, the ink was dry on my divorce papers and everything I owned was loaded into a POD moving container, headed toward Cincinnati. I moved back across the country, from the place that had become my home to the place where I am from. I had nowhere else to go. But moving back to Cincinnati didn’t feel much like coming home. It felt a little more like a tractor beam that locked on to pull me back to the place where I tried to escape from…. as if my personal launch hadn’t actually reached escape velocity, and I was falling backwards.
Trying to salvage what I could of my broken life, I vowed that I wouldn’t let this destroy every last bit of me. One of the things I promised myself was that, for as long as I lived in Cincinnati, each year I would run one of the events in the Flying Pig Marathon weekend.
That was the deal… I might have to live here, but at least I get to run the Pig every year. I refused to let go of this piece of me.
What the Pig means now
This weekend I completed my Fifth Pig. This year I’ve been dealing with an injury and some chronic pain. This is the first time that I’ve seriously considered deferring my commitment to the Pig. But I also know that if I didn’t do it, I’d spend the entire weekend regretting it. So even though I’ve got a herniated disc and peripheral neuropathy and this sounds like a pretty dumb idea, I took the day off work to walk 3.1 miles on the first Saturday in May. This herniated disc has laid claim to some parts of my life, but I refuse to allow it to take away the Pig.
Participating in a Pig race is a message that I send back to the past version of myself– the one who, one night in 2006, lost her damn mind and signed up to train for a half marathon when she had never even run a mile before in her life. The girl who runs the Flying Pig each year sends encouragement back in time to that girl. And it’s also a message that I speak to my present self about my future: You really have no idea what is coming next. You really can’t know what else will happen when even pigs can fly.
What’s important about this is the ritual of returning to the same spot to do the same thing, year after year. Several times during the year, I will pass by the city landmarks that transform into the start line and the finish line. In my mind I can see an start line and finish line hanging invisibly over the streets every time I pass them. When I pass these places on an average weekday, when they are just ordinary streets and intersections, I can feel their secret magic. In the ritual of returning to the start line on race day, I can observe how I am the same and yet different each time I return. As I cross the finish line and collect my medal, I am filled with gratitude. I’m just so damn lucky to be able to participate in this ritual every year. There will come a time when I won’t be able to do this anymore.
In the end, though, it’s also about the challenge of lining up for a race: I’m pinning on a bib and committing to giving it my best shot of the day. I’m showing up to the start to do what I can, with what I have, where I am today. I’m bringing myself to the line even when my personal best can be considered small in comparison to other people. I mean, come on, I’m signed up to walk 3.1 miles, and I won’t be anywhere close to running 26.2. Still, the act of pinning on a bib and showing up to the start line puts us all into the same place no matter how far or how fast we are (or aren’t) running– We are all asking ourselves, what have I got today? How can I best respond to the challenge of this day?
This is an annual ritual that challenges me to approach the streets of my hometown with a spirit of open curiosity. I wonder… what is gonna happen when Pigs Fly?
To my fellow runaway refugees (you know who you are): You might feel like a pig stuck in the mud, but I promise you, you have a choice. You can choose be the pig who takes flight. Be a Flying Pig. As our friends Tom and Melissa have told us, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.”
And to my friends and to the visitors to our city who line up at the start line for the main events, “Welcome to my house.” Mi casa es tu casa.