It’s Spring Break here in the Mid Atlantic and, although I have no traveling vacation plans this year, I’m going to take some time off of thinking about learning, teaching and child development and ponder something that I have grown to love and could not bear to be without: running. There are those who think I might alienate all you non-runners out there if I wrote about this, but, hey, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, now can you? And, besides, while you may not be a runner, perhaps you walk, swim, bicycle, elliptical or aerobicize and already know the gifts of an activity that engages your physical and mental being, improves your health and provides opportunities for social interaction with others and the kindling of lifelong friendships.
Quite honestly, running has transformed who I am in so many ways that I often believe I am nearly a different person because of it. When I look back on my path, pun intended, running has become absolutely integral to the mind-body connection of my life, and has touched just about every aspect of it… personal, professional, social, cultural and more. Besides all that, I have found, as many runners have found, that many of the things I know about life are things I have learned from running.
Truthfully, I never planned to be a runner and I came to it thirteen years ago in a little bit of a state of self-loathing. My second son had just been born, but I had entered motherhood after a rather unpleasant stint as a new teacher on Cleveland’s west side and even though the new career of being a good mommy was wonderful and joyous, there was a big personal/professional piece of me that I was painfully aware was missing. Two months after his birth, my 5’3″ frame was still 40 pounds overweight and I had the unfortunate cardio-vascular system of someone who had successfully balanced seven years of higher education and an exuberant social life full of vice. I lived a beautiful but rather isolated area, far beyond the city limits of Cleveland and, though my days were good ones consisting mainly of mommyhood and gardening, I worried a great deal about my life after motherhood and who I would spend the rest of my life being after my two little birdies flew the coop by way of the school bus. Then, someone snapped a photograph of me that proved to be a bit of a wake up call. Lesson #1: If you have a feeling that something needs to change, it most likely does.
You know those photographs. They’re the ones that surprise you when you’re going along, choosing to be oblivious to too much in your life that’s probably important. I’d broken my foot that week doing something utterly domestic and mundane and, because I had a toddler and an infant, the swelling had refused to go down so I had to prop it up as often as circumstances would allow, including at a family picnic where the picture was taken. I saw it and wondered who is that woman in the picture? So, like many of us who begin some sort of an exercise regimen, the objective was rather simple: lose the weight, get back in shape. I’d been sitting on my largish butt watching Oprah for months so I had heard, ad nauseam, how “fitness is a lifestyle,” but this is really not the thing you are thinking of when you are quickly approaching the bigger pant sizes on the rack. In this moment, just months from my thirtieth birthday, my first reasons for getting off the sofa were truly the shallow kind. Lesson #2: Even though the average dress size of all American women is shifting, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.
So, with my leg in a cast up to my knee and two little boys stuffed into a hand-me-down double stroller, I pushed out my first walking mile, doubling back twice on a quarter-mile, horse-shoe shaped road that was half gravel. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing and repeated this day after day, sweating and struggling to breathe in the July heat, ignoring the shin splints that set in immediately and trying to add a little distance as the days and weeks passed. My goal was to drop 20 pounds, and it took me a solid six months of walking to do it, at which point I was grateful that people started to notice. I’d made my goal and it felt really good, but anyone who knows the empowerment of weight loss and the triumphant feeling of doing more and going farther will understand when I tell you that, all of the sudden, something really started changing, not just in my weight and my fitness ability, but in my mind. I started thinking, if I can walk this far, maybe I could run. Lesson #3: If you are totally honest with yourself, you know that achieving one goal is never really enough.
My first running mile thankfully did not include the double stroller but it was probably one of the worst physical experiences of my life, right up there with childbirth and the flu. I hated it. I really hated it and this was the exact thought going through my head during the entire time it was happening, which was probably about twenty-five minutes by the time all the starting and stopping was added up. As I finished it with an exhausted and plodding walk I wondered how the hell anyone could get to enjoy this! But the part of me that longed to burn more calories in less time persevered. Lesson #4: Most of the things you will be even moderately good at usually start with something that you totally suck at.
In the years that have followed that brutal first mile, I would drop another 20 pounds, be able see the outline of the muscles I had awoken for the first time in my life, clock a 6:30 single mile time, reach an endurance distance of twelve miles, race competitively to place in my age group, and join a group of runners who would become some of my dearest and closest friends in the world–you know who you are and the miles that we share make me a better person. But even more than all of this, I ignited a part of my brain that began to be able to imagine the career possibilities for someone with an anxiety for the future, a jumbled array of interests and an aversion to conventionality. And, in 2002, out on the road, over an unknown number of miles, and completely inside my endorphin bathed brain, I wrote my first book, I Love The Night. Lesson #5: Every pound is made up of 16 awful little ounces and every mile truly does begin with one, single, agonizing step.
This past Saturday I joined the Rose City Runners for my second Jersey Shore Marathon Relay (and, to all you non-Jerseyans, this race actually has nothing to do with Snookie, I swear). In the car ride between the five legs of this 26.2 mile race, one of my teammates told me the story of how he came to running. It was just three years ago and he was overweight and out of shape after a lifetime of being sedentary and, to make things worse, he had just lost his job after relocating his family and many years of company loyalty. He was 43 years old and his doctor had also just informed him that he was pre-diabetic and at risk for all the terrible things that come with that. His neighbor, and one of the leaders of the Rose City Runners, called him during one of these dark days to see how he was doing and to find out if he would like to join them for a run, which he did. He now has a clean bill of health, a new job and a whole new outlook on life. In one of those unexpected and poignant life moments, this man told me that while he was not a particularly religious man, if there were a god, it might actually be his neighbor and running-friend because, in his words, “he saved my life.” Lesson #6: Sometimes you really do have to go down to go up.
Saturday on the Jersey Shore was a real weather adventure. Cold, cold blustery winds whipped off the Atlantic from the North, creating a strong headwind for the 3,000 or so runners who passed the baton to each other from Seaside Heights to Asbury Park. The cloudy, gray sky threatened rain all day long and by the time people were reaching the finish line, it was actually sleeting. Our team had a number of snafus including late arrivals to transitions and wrong turns in heavy, construction-congested traffic. There were plenty of reasons to be annoyed. But, as I got into the rhythm of my 6.1 mile leg, I couldn’t help feeling all kinds of amazing things instead. I was thinking, here I am in my 43rd year, running up the coastline of America, a view of a beautiful, churning ocean beneath a sky full of birds, my friends driving by to cheer me on, running and running along with thousands of other running folks of all ages, and passing smiling race volunteers who will be standing for more than five hours out in this weather to pass out water and make sure we all find our way.
I am only occasionally existential, but it was definitely one of those existential moments for me… I was thinking yeah, it’s really cold and windy out here and there have been some things that haven’t gone as planned but, I am alive and able to be here, doing this, right now. I had yet to hear the story of how my teammate had come to running but I daresay that I was having my own religious experience–so much so that when the second runner was late to the transition point, I mistook it for a water station and kept running for another 2.5 miles. Lesson #7: A racing heart, a beautiful view and good friends to cheer you on will always trump a nasty, cold headwind.
Run on, my running friends… both literally and metaphorically. :-)
TRY THIS WEEK: Whatever it is toward, take that first agonizing step.