Initially, this frustrated me. Why couldn’t I define running’s pull on me more definitively? There’s a good reason for this, though: my reasons for running, and what I get out of it, have evolved and changed in the same way that I have over the course of 42 years of life.
My first brush with running came in fifth grade – a hard year for me. I sprouted large breasts I didn’t want; began menstruating (and had no idea what the brown stain in my underwear was or meant); had acne on my back; stank from body odor; had no friends, and thus wandered the playground alone at recess; and while I my school shuttled me to a “gifted” program once a week, what I really wanted was to be athletic, despite being painfully uncoordinated and slow. Though everyone seems to remember being picked last for teams in gym class, I really was – and I couldn’t even blame my classmates. They didn’t want to lose.
Neither did I, of course. And I tried my hardest, whatever the sport. But whether the game of the moment was softball, kickball, relays, dodgeball or basketball, I sucked.
Then my gym teacher announced a program with a hopelessly square title: Run for Fun and Fitness. With each mile you ran on your own, outside of school, she’d place a small sticker dot next to your name – which was on a long, green-and-white printout list of students, taped on the gym’s cinder block wall.
At that age, I loved visual symbols of achievement (I was that girl who earned 10 badges during my one year of Girl Scouts). They helped counter my lack of self-esteem in every area but academics. And besides, I told myself, unlike the gym class games that invited my classmates to despise me even more, because I failed to perform at a certain level, running was something I could do by myself. I wouldn’t let anyone down, no matter how slow I was.
So, at my request, my father measured out a half mile marker from our house that I could jog to, and then run back. Though my pace could be categorized as “plodding,” I ritualistically stopped at that halfway mark to catch my breath, and I even stopped once between that point and home, too. So I struggled. This was not something that was going to come easily. (It still doesn’t, after all these years and miles logged.)
But not being scrutinized by my peers, or even adults, while I clumsily ventured into running freed me. I got to experience an endorphin rush (though I couldn’t identify it), and feel kind of athletic and virtuous (albeit temporarily). Though all the other things happening to my body made me feel powerless, running made me feel strong.
Admittedly, my body odor issues weren’t aided by the fact that I often ran in the morning, before school, didn’t shower afterward, and then went to school in the same clothes – jeez, no wonder I had no friends – but I did nearly burst with pride while watching the dot stickers accumulate like an out-of-control pox next to my name. After a while, I could distinguish my place on the list from across the gym.
And while I ran here and there in spurts throughout my youth, I didn’t really run consistently again until I was in my mid-20s and started dating my now-husband. He was a runner, and the idea of trying running again appealed to me – not just because we could run together, and it would thus be part of our courtship, but also because I needed the exercise, and I was dirt poor. Running was an activity where little more than a decent pair of shoes was required.
So Joe and I ran together and talked through opinions and ideas; helped get each other out of occasional foul moods and ruts (“Let’s go for a run,” one of us would say in a bad moment); and discussed our work and ambitions.
Running, in that moment, was one means of getting to know the man I’d eventually marry.
When I moved from my home state of Michigan to Georgia for grad school, on the basis of a key bit of misinformation (namely that I’d been admitted to the creative writing program within the English department, when that wasn’t the case), running kept me from completely falling apart from humiliation and loneliness. As my feet hit the myriad sidewalks of that foreign (to me) town, where I knew no one, I sometimes cried, but also gathered the courage to stick it out and make the best of a awful situation. I’d moved my life far from all I knew and loved on the basis of bad recon, yes; but running helped me reach a place of determination to make it work for me, anyway.
On the morning of my wedding day, my groom and I ran together, to settle any nerves we might have and, as we often ran in step, remind each other of precisely how attuned to each we were, and how exciting it was to be jumping off this cliff together.
During my pregnancies, I ran to stay healthy and active (see a post about that here), and to prove to myself that I could hold on to this part of myself – though my body was temporarily hijacked, and despite the stares and awkward questions from strangers.
When I had my first daughter, Lily, running provided a desperately-needed occasional respite for a new mother overwhelmed by her life’s complete overhaul. In the past, I’d dumped boyfriends who were too needy, so a fussy baby who constantly wanted to nurse challenged and threatened my hard-earned sense of identity. And though the tether between me and my newborn seemed merely to stretch, rather than break, as I jogged down the streets of our leafy neighborhood, I felt, for a fleeting moment, like my old self again – someone I missed, someone I was mourning. I got a small escape, and I felt like I could breathe again.
The following year, within the span of a few months, my mom died of cancer, and I learned that the dream job I’d finally stumbled upon was going away. (The daily newspaper where I worked as an entertainment reporter was shutting its doors.) I felt numb and lost. Precisely when I should have been updating my resume and looking for work, I instead double-downed on my physical regimen to see if I could do a mini-triathlon. To fight an impending sense of emotional paralysis, I became more active, throwing biking and swimming into the mix, just so I could have a concrete goal to work toward – something positive. And the training would keep me from slipping into depression, I reasoned.
Bizarrely, the strategy worked. I completed the triathlon sprint, and the next job appeared from the ether, as though the universe had been waiting for me to just give myself over to its whims.
These days, with a four year old and a one year old at home, running offers me a precious space, within which I can hear myself think. For just a while, a few times a week, I get away from the tyranny of domestic responsibilities, and I get to have an honest-to-God conversation with myself. Sometimes it’s a pep talk; other times it’s about absurd daydreaming, or venting anger, or rocking out to my iPod; and occasionally, my mind will pore over a vexing problem in order to find its solution.
For although many people turn to the Bible in times of trouble and doubt, I always write and lace up my running shoes.
The two pursuits have yet to let me down.