By Ryan Sterner
July 23, 2017
I’m not the first. Many have suffered a more high profile humiliation than mine. But after all these years, I figure my story should be told publicly out of solidarity, if nothing else. To all the faceless bozos that exist on the fringes of the running world; that know the location of every bathroom along their regular routes; that zip toilet paper into their key pouches; that tried their best but still found themselves howling in the ditch like a feral animal. This is a story for you.
On July 12th 2010, my running journal says that I ran 7.6 miles at a 6:50 pace–a normal day in the middle of a summer training block. I was back home in Minnesota for a couple weeks and found myself enjoying runs on empty gravel roads and neighborhoods with little or no traffic, save for the occasional tractor or shirtless man towing a boat.
But traffic updates or complaints about the weather or what shoes I was wearing were not the subject of that fateful journal entry.
It was a Monday and I left for my run in the late afternoon. The weather was balmy, with a high of only 79 as I set off for my usual eight mile route. Most of the run was through the middle of nowhere. Cornfields. Farm houses. Cows. Gravel roads as wide as a highway sprawled straight ahead for miles, my only company was the occasional barn cat or good ol’ boy driving by in his truck.
Four and a half uneventful miles passed. I had just reached the apex of a hill I ran hundreds of times in high school when I felt the Hand of God press down on my abdomen.
Time to come out, it said.
At this point I was still on a gravel road, replete with ditches and shoulder high weeds to provide coverage; if one had to shit, this was the spot.
The thing with shitting outside, though, is that it’s always a last resort. When I’ve had to do it, I’m wracked with anxiety that some gun toting hillbilly would spot me squatting on his property; that there won’t be anything to wipe with that’s not sharp or rash-inducing; that I’ll accidentally drench my shoes in some incoherent mass.
So, like every run that came before it, I decided I’d hold it until I couldn’t any longer. The nearest public restroom, by my calculation, was less than a mile away. Five minutes to sweet relief.
Two minutes of running pass and I found myself safely in a subdivision. A treeless street festooned with American flags, cookie cutter houses, and weird town kids riding bikes in the street without a parent in sight.
My gut hitched again. Could it be something I ate? My diet was typical midwestern: full of mayonnaise, dairy and dairy byproducts, and red meat in abundance. What sort of lethal barrage lie below?
I resorted to walking. Whatever threatened to blow had retracted and, after a couple minutes of waddling it felt safe to resume jogging.
You’re a quarter mile from a bathroom, you will be fine.
I turned down the street toward my salvation. Tree lined. Dead quiet. The sun still high. Curtainless windows standing watch over the streets. I made it ten steps before I had to stop again.
My body was playing a polka, a game that I (and every runner) has played before. The rules of the game are thus: you stop running and the bowel movement withdraws its unholy ultimatum. But my body was about to light fire to the rule book and dread washed over me as I confronted the reality of what was about to happen.
Oh no. Oh god.
The faucet turned on. A deluge of semi-solids rained uncontrollably from my body. I took short, tortured steps and waited for it to end. I let out a primal grunt. My 1.5 inch inseam shorts groaned under the putrid mess, the liner threatening to expel the foreign body.
Please don’t drip down my leg. Please. For the love of God.
Somewhere a dog barked. Across the street a swing blew in the wind. In a distant garage someone tried unsuccessfully to start a lawnmower. The chirping of birds and thrum of bugs hung in the air. All around me the world spun in a state of nirvana as my body waged its personal Chernobyl on my running shorts.
There was nowhere to go. Houses on houses. No ditches. No shrubs to duck behind. No friends or relatives within walking distance to turn to.
Knock, knock. I shit my pants. Can I come in?
The shit torrent stopped. I was an adult human with a full diaper. The acrid soft-serve resting precariously in the lining of my shorts.
Miraculously it held. I stood there in disbelief. Maybe laughing. Maybe crying. Maybe both.
One block away I saw what was a long-shot: an elementary school. My elementary school. Gingerly, I walked toward it, hoping beyond hope that the doors would be open. That no one would be there to greet me. That I could be left alone to cleanse myself in the light of a public restroom.
I pulled on the heavy steel door. It gave way. I was inside. Tiny cubby holes. Crayon drawings of dogs and parents and houses. Pictures of tiny innocent faces. All of these things staring at me as I made my walk of shame, tip-toeing past open doors, lights on but not a teacher in sight.
Four empty classrooms passed before I found the bathroom. This being an elementary school, everything was ½ size: sinks up to my shins, urinals I would have to use standing on all fours. If I sat on a toilet, my knees would be up to my chin. I was Goliath swaying over a miniature model of a bathroom.
I locked myself inside the handicapped stall. Where do I start? Squatting, I gently pulled my shorts down. Whatever was held inside the shorts came free and hit the floor like a spoonful of mashed potatoes. I pulled my unholy shorts off and used an entire roll of toilet paper cleaning myself up. Afterwards, I stood naked from the waist down at the tiny sink and tried to wash my shorts as best I could.
This is how you become a sex offender.
I pulled my wet shorts back on and covered the mess with toilet paper, like a coroner draping a sheet over a dead body. In attempt to regain some dignity I tried washing my hands, but the soap dispenser was empty. Of course. Defeated, I forced myself to make eye contact with my reflection, took a deep breath and exited the bathroom.
Emerging from the elementary school, I was a different man than when I entered. I had soiled my pants, sullied a little boy’s bathroom, ruined a janitor’s day, left any shred of dignity I had in the dusty halls of my youth, where even the 8-year old me hadn’t bothered to shit his pants.
Two and a half miles to home. What lesson was I to contemplate, running gods?
I made it home without incident. Staggering into my house smelling like a landfill, I managed to avoid eye contact with my father napping in the den, my brothers draped over the couch and my mother sitting at her desk. All of them oblivious to the fresh hell I had just suffered. I stood in the shower and searched for the answer to life’s questions in the water swirling down the drain.
Still dripping wet, I placed my shorts in a plastic grocery bag and discarded them in the trashcan next to our garage like a dead pet fish, effectively destroying the only witness, evidence and victim of my gastric crime.
It took about 30 minutes to grieve my lost innocence. Perhaps it was a little bit inevitable, I thought. My bowels had flown too close to the sun and their waxy wings finally melted. I told the story to everyone–it became a parable of a runner’s pride; the folly of a man who put too much trust in his potty training.
Seven years removed and I’m telling the internet. Am I a hero? Of course not. I’m just some idiot who shit his pants in the middle of a city block.
Hobby jogger and soup enthusiast whose work has appeared in a number of highly esteemed publications such as Flotrack, The Howard Lake Herald Journal and Ebaum's World. Currently a resident of Los Angeles, where he spends most of his time indoors.