How to Be...A Runner

I'm in sixth grade.  At a new school.  In gym class.  It's the Presidential Challenge, Physical Fitness test day and I'm pissed. I have to do WHAT?  And it's a TEST?  With AWARDS?

Though I was pretty happy to be in the public school system after five years of parochial education this was a new turn of events, and frankly, unacceptable.

We are paraded outside to the baseball field and lined up.  When we hear the whistle, we're told we have to run laps around the baseball field until our distance equalled a mile.  We were going to be timed. BUT--it was emphasized--this wasn't a competition.

My butt it wasn't.

The whistle blew and those kids were off.  It was like in this suburb they'd been training since birth, cross-training in the cul-de-sacs, mixing protein powder into their chocolate milk and preparing for this day like it was the freaking Olympics.

What. The. Hell.

I coughed as all the kids in front of me kicked up dirt and sprinted away.  I pumped my arms wildly and propelled my body forward in an attempt to keep up, but the burning sensation in my chest and the razor blades slicing my calves open made me slow back down to a stop.

"KEEP GOING!" The gym teacher screamed from her luxurious spot atop the bleachers.

I bent over my knees, hoping this would convince her of an impending heart attack and cause her to pull me from the race.

"IF YOU HAVE A STITCH IN YOUR SIDE LIFT YOUR ARM OVERHEAD AND KEEP GOING!" She bellowed in that way only gym teachers can.

I shook my head frantically.

"THE PRESIDENT IS COUNTING ON YOU!" She screamed and even though that was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard, I knew if I didn't at least try to trot this would only get more embarrassing.

I began limping along, my right arm lifted high over head, my left hand rubbing my side.  I looked like a lame monkey chasing her troop.

"Whatsa matter Timmington!?" the fastest boy in the world called out as he whizzed by me, finishing his first lap in less time than it took me put on a pair of pants.  I ignored him.  Mustn't. Waste. Breath. On. Talking.

"Oh come on Timmington!" The other mutant boys hollered as they lapped me one by one.

There was something wrong with these kids.  No way this had anything to do with me.  I mean, I trained at Miss Eva's school of Dance and wore beautiful outfits on ice for many years.  I was as much an athlete as these  kids.

Except that's not exactly true.  Because I didn't actually  get a chance to finish my mile as I was still "running" when the bell rang signaling the end of gym class.  I had disappointed the President.  I didn't get an award.  And in that moment, my hatred for running was born.

Which lasted til high school. Until a guy I was pining after  joined the cross country team.  In what I considered a shrewd move, I joined too.  I was older, I was wiser, I saw people run all the time.  I could totally do this.

I prepped the way any good teenage girl would.  I bought the cutest little running outfit that ever there was, convinced my folks to spring for a ridiculously expensive pair of shoes, put my favorite cd (a musical soundtrack, no doubt) in my discman and was out the door.  I smiled as I turned out of the driveway onto my street.  Hey!  This wasn't so bad.  I was looking good, I was feeling good, I had great tunes streaming in my ears, NO PROBLEM!

And then a little twinge struck me in my side.  And my calves started to ache.  And crap, I wasn't even past the third house on our block and I was wheezing like an asthmatic in a dust storm.  That gym teacher's voice kicked in and I lifted one hand over my head, grabbed my side with the other and did the monkey dance I'd learned in sixth grade. I sucked in a big breath of air and kept freaking going.

And I made it all the way to the end of the street.

As I turned back around, head hung low, I made a decision.  Running wasn't for me.  I went home, tucked my sneakers in the far corner of my closet and officially retired from something I'd never really begun.

And that guy?  Turns out he was gay.

But they say that you continue to be presented with the same lesson in life until you learn it. And there was clearly something about running, that I was missing.  Because at twenty-one  my best friend asked me to run the Paris marathon with her.  Now as a girl who could barely run down the block, let alone 26.2 miles this was an ambitious goal.  But I agreed, realizing that I was being presented with a rare opportunity and it'd be foolish not to at least try.   My best friend was studying in Ireland, I was in London and we agreed that we'd backpack for a couple of weeks and then make our way to Paris for the race.

With four months to prepare, I researched the best way for a lame monkey to train for a marathon and set out a very disciplined schedule for myself.  I began to run again.  At first it was thirty seconds of running and a minute of walking, and then a minute of running and thirty seconds of walking.  Gradually I built up my endurance and though I was running fourteen minute miles, I was running.  I preferred to run the city streets, making my way through all the towns outside of London, gagging on the smog and frozen to the bone in the chilled rain but finally beginning to feel my body adapt to this new way of moving.  I was convinced I needed a perfect equation to run--the right shoes, the right music, the right meal immediately beforehand, otherwise I found myself stopping, turning back around or walking the remainder of the run.

The day I completed my longest run in the training series, at 21 miles, I was out for over four hours.  When I came home my face was covered in grime, my clothes were completely soaked and when I stood in the shower, rivers of dirt washed away down the drain.  I ached for days but the sense of accomplishment trumped any physical pain.

The night we boarded the train from Switzerland to Paris I ate a slice of cheese pizza from the train station in Lucerne.  We boarded the train and I immediately fell asleep.  About an hour into our journey I awoke, feeling violently ill.  I ran to the bathroom and collapsed on the bathroom floor, curling into a fetal position.  Nothing was happening, but I was certain that if I attempted to go back to my seat I'd regret it.  For the rest of the train ride, I lay curled up on the floor of the bathroom taking solace in the cool tiles against my face and hoping to God that this was just a little traveling bug that would soon pass.   My best friend knocked on the door asking if I was okay, and telling me we were at our stop.  I unlocked the door and when she opened it, she gasped at me laying on the floor.  She lifted me up, carrying me off the train and I once on the platform, I immediately went back down to the ground, needing to feel the cool concrete against my face.  She and a cab driver got me into the cab and we made it to our destination--her friend's apartment in the center of Paris.  A tiny, one bedroom apartment that all three of us would be sharing for the duration of our trip.  We got inside and the two of them began discussing plans to go out and get food.  I paled at the thought and said I would stay behind.  They insisted I come with, that fresh air would do me good.  As we walked the streets of Paris I noticed nothing but the strong smells of the city, and stayed hunched over in pain, certain that my internal organs would explode outward at any moment.  They finally gave up, deposited me back at the apartment and I curled up, once again, in a fetal position on the floor.

In the middle of the night I woke up and ran for the bathroom.  I'll spare you all a description of what followed but all I really remember is laying on the floor afterwards calling my best friend's name and in a very disoriented state thinking, "Who puts wallpaper in a bathroom?" My best friend opened the door, gasped again and carried me outside to a cab.  Once inside she struggled to communicate with the driver asking him to take us to an American hospital.  En route she attempted to distract me from continuing to vomit by pointing out the fantastic sights of Paris--Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe.  All  were lost on me,  just a glommed together mixture of lights and movement and smells.  After that, I have no recollection of what happened.   A severe case of food poisoning was the ultimate determination and I spent the night hooked up to an IV as a result of  extreme dehydration.  The next morning when I woke up and the doctor came to examine me the first thing I asked was if I could run the marathon the next day.  He looked at me and said, "Not if you want to live."   Not what this girl wanted to hear.

I cried the entire train ride back to London.  Devastated over the  lost months of training and the realization that this had actually become a very important goal for me, I thought--"Okay--I get it.  I'm truly done.  This is not my sport."  But upon my return home to England I found the British family I'd lived with had called the London Marathon (happening a few weeks later) and begged them to let me race, explaining how hard I'd worked and the unfortunate turn of events that had prevented me from running Paris. Though I didn't run London, I did run the Twin Cities marathon when I moved back home later that year.

My time was unremarkable but I finished, my dad trotting alongside of me in his loafers and jeans urging me not to quit despite my protestations.  And though I stumbled across that finish line, I did ultimately accomplish my goal of running a marathon.

The next day, when my roommates had to lift me out of the bathtub because my legs wouldn't support me, when I found myself crawling up and down the stairs to my second floor bedroom, when my director yelled at me for being unable to stand during rehearsal and my knee had what I figured to be a now permanent ache, I thought---"You know what?  I did it--I ran a marathon and I can clearly run, and now I really need to stop." And my doctor echoed that.  The cartilage in both of my knees was gone, and the excruciating pain I often felt while running indicated to them that I should, you know, STOP.  He told me as he popped my knee back into joint once again that I wasn't to run unless I was being chased.

And that just felt like a challenge.

But I did stop. For about four years.

Until I started being chased.

Chased by my life.  I was in Hawaii--paradise to many, but slowly developing into my personal hell.  I was at a school I didn't fit into, in a marriage that was failing despite all my efforts, thousands of miles away from people who knew and loved me and I couldn't escape.

So I started to run again.  The first time, after a fight with my husband.  I ran out of the apartment, down the steps and up the hill into the mountains.  I ran and I cried.  With each step I left behind some of what hurt.  What didn't work.  What I was fighting for and against and with.  I ran and ran didn't care if it began pouring rain or the wind pressed against me so hard that I felt like I was moving through molasses.  I ran.  And I kept running.  When I couldn't take it anymore. I ran.  When my body and my mind begged for a release I couldn't provide through analyzing and thinking and therapy, I ran.  When I came up empty and found myself pacing around our too small apartment I'd lace up my sneakers and head out the door.  I was running away, sure.  It was not about the fitness, or the pace or how many miles I would run.  It was about returning from a run, walking up the stairs  to the apartment  I shared with a man I knew no longer loved me the way he once had and feeling like maybe I could make it through the rest of the day.  And if I could make it through the day, then maybe I could make it through the week.  And after the week, the month.  The month, the year.  Until I could leave and truly get away from this place where I'd seen my life collapse beneath me.

What I didn't realize then was that place, that place was not Hawaii.  Or the school.  Or even the situation.  The place was within me.  What I was running from was me.

On my very last day in Hawaii, an hour before I was to leave to board a plane back to the mainland, I laced up my sneakers one last time and headed out the door.  It was a December evening at sunset.  As I began my run up into the mountains it began to mist, that perfect tropical mist that doesn't bother you at all.  I smiled as I sang along to my music and I ran.  And once I reached the place where I was to turn and head back down to the city I looked up at the mountain, the beautiful backdrop to what had been a nightmarish three years and saw a perfect rainbow.  And for all the awful memories that filled my time there, the last one I have of the island is of the rainbow I found on my run.

Back on the mainland, finding no paradise here either, I continued to run.  In what turned out to be one of the hardest years of my life I took solace in pounding the pavement.  Found that even when I sobbed for an entire three miles, or had a ridiculously slow pace, when the run was over I always felt better.   Stronger.  More capable.  Felt that no matter what faced me when I returned, I might be able to handle it.

Knowing I'd never be able to handle the distance of a full marathon, I set my sights on half marathons.  I ran my first one in May.  I ran next to a friend who encouraged me, pushed me, believed in me and got me to cross the finish line averaging a 9 minute mile.  It's the fastest I've ever run.  And that was the success I needed.  I began chasing a faster mile.  Began running with my dog who turned out to be the ultimate training companion as a whippet/border collie mix with a endless supply of energy and built to race.  Running the trails with my forty pound beast pulling me towards a faster mile I soon broke into an 8 minute mile.  And by my third half marathon I was  3 seconds away from breaking my goal of under two hours.

After that race I found myself thinking about the sport of running.  I'd believed for so long that I couldn't call myself a runner because my body didn't fit into the typical "runner body" classification.  I believed that because I had to wear three or four sports bras in order to prevent eye injuries, had people pass me left and right on courses and trails, and couldn't run a six minute mile that I was somehow less of a runner.  But that was all on me.  Those were beliefs I'd decided, I'd made real without any evidence pointing toward truth.  They were obstacles I placed in front of myself in order to deny my ability, to slow my own self down and to make sure that I didn't break the assumptions I had about myself.

But the more I ran, the shakier those beliefs became.  Finding myself needing to put on my tennis shoes and head out the door every morning, to log three miles before my day began even when it was twelve degrees and the wind stung my face and I came home with snot frozen to my upper lip.  Even when I slipped on ice and wound up on my ass, choosing instead to run through six inches of snow, ice melting in my socks and  freezing my feet, I still had to run.  Even my very worst runs were the best part of my day.

And I found myself realizing, as I slowly whittled away the preconceived notions I had about who I was and what I was capable of, I realized that the only person putting limitations on me, was me.  I realized that I'd found a sport in which I could compete against my greatest enemy--myself.

And I found that running is all about perspective. Whether it's squinting to see if that truly is mile marker 8 WAY out there in the distance, or recognizing that the physical distance of a race is nothing compared to the emotional distance; it's all about perspective. It's all about attitude. And it's all about life.

Running can serve to teach us, to show us the ways in which we race through our own lives. To show us that we're so intent on making it to our goal, be it a promotion at work, or new car, or big house or retirement that we forget to take in the view along that path.  To make the journey as important as the destination and to recognize that often the most worthwhile accomplishment isn't the medal at the finish line but the obstacles we overcame, the people we met along the course, the lessons we learn along the way.  To make us realize that if we're always competing with others, we're always going to be let down. If we're always comparing ourselves to the people who pass us by then we're failing to recognize that each of us is on our own path and where we are is perfect because it's ours. If we're always striving to be the best out of everyone else then we're forgetting that the "best" looks different, is different for all people. The only person we can compete against, race against is ourself, our doubts, our limitations and the thoughts that litter our brains preventing us from reaching our goals.

Running is about finding and connecting with the physical and emotional strength we all possess. It's about finding gratitude for the body you've been given and honoring what you have. It's about recognizing that the only limitations we have are our own and we are perfectly capable of breaking them.

Running is about the twelve year old girl insisting she had to quit and the thirty-one year old realizing she never will.