Back On the Rock

Friday, October 07, 2005

Running For My Life

They say when you fall in love late in life it lasts longer. I fell in love with running late and it’s the one love that I know for sure will last. At 28, just out of Business School, I was looking for a way to get rid of the effects of too much Happy Hour beer. My new trainer looked me up and down and announced, “You’re a runner.”

I laughed.

I was most assuredly not a runner. My only athletic credentials at that point were four consecutive Addition Race victories at Prep School. A race that must have been invented to give the parents of nerds a chance to cheer, it involved a short run across the field to a piece of paper bearing math calculations. I was the slowest runner, but always the fastest adder and racked up victories until one fateful day when my brain was, inexplicably, as slow as my legs. I wrote 5 + 1 = 10 and trotted back to the judge whose usual congratulatory smile turned to shock as she declared me wrong. My brain begged my legs to go faster as I ran back down the field to correct my mistake. But my legs were not used to the race depending on them and my winning streak was over. My only other running memory is of my high school P.E. coach yelling “You can’t run!” as I clocked the slowest 100 metres in the history of the school.

My trainer was insistent. “Try it. You will love it.”

A mile here and there. Then two, then three. Six months later I was running every day and madly in love with the 10K. Six years later, I’m still at it. Through ten-minute miles, then nines, then eights, occasional sevens, and one glorious 6:40, running gives me a high that has me hooked. I know that running is great exercise, but I don’t care. Exercise to me means lifting weights or flailing through aerobics class. That I like the way my body looks when I run regularly is merely icing. Running is not exercise. Running is love.

Our relationship is, appropriately, imperfect. Sometimes love hurts. Like all great loves, running makes me weak in the knees. Too fast, too far, too often and I end up in pain, unable to run at all. Sometimes I stop running, without reason, for weeks on end and I have to start over from the beginning, cursedly slow and tentative. Though I love running more than anything, I have yet to commit to it enough to put up a distance longer than a half marathon. I am a fickle lover, straying off from time to time to tennis, yoga, triathlon, pilates. But somehow I always find my way back.

Most days I run because I want to. On bad days I run because I have to. Cheaper than therapy, better than booze, running has proven to be my personal panacea. When things go awry the only way I know to restore my equilibrium is to rinse the offending stimulus right out of me. Pain leaves my body as tears or sweat. I prefer sweat.

I run away – literally – from disappointment, failure, heartbreak, anger. My heart doesn’t have time to feed those demons when it’s busy pumping blood to my legs. I run towards progress and possibility. Exhale hurt. Inhale hope. A good run is all the reminder I need that I can get wherever I want to go one step at a time.

In six years of running, I’ve learned to solve problems my Addition Race judges could never have dreamed of. There’s no challenge, great or small, that a mile or two or ten won’t fix. A children’s book in rhyme, written on a six mile run. Business strategies revealed. Troublesome story ideas untangled. Running puts me in sync with my own rhythm. I leave the rest of the world behind and let my feet beat out an answer to whatever question, personal or professional, plagues me. My feet don’t lie even when I am tempted to. Waffling about my relationship with my then insignificant other, I took the question, as always, on a run. By the end of the first mile the answer came: Left/Right. Left/Right. Leave him. Leave him.

I run because I can. I have learned to value that – the gift of mobility, the privilege of being able to move myself through time and space at will, at my own pace. Training for a triathlon this year, I hit a wayward jogger in mile 24 of a 25 mile ride. I sailed over the handlebars of my road bike and heard a sickening thud as my helmet slammed into the asphalt. For a split second I couldn’t move and I was terrified. I looked down my jersey in horror as a large bloody mass the size of a mango took the place of my right elbow. But my legs were fine. So I walked the banged up bike home, wrapped my elbow, and dizzily headed out to finish the required 30 minute run. I was slow and achy, my stride was haphazard; but I was running. On a brutal incline out of Central Park up 110th Street, I passed an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway of a hospice. As I ran by, cradling my mango elbow, wondering if training was worth the pain, he looked up.

“I wish I could run like that,” he sighed. “Run for me.”

And so I did. And I still do. I run for him and the physically challenged athletes I pass in the park, running with prosthetic legs. And the blind runners who do their outdoor runs tethered to their guides. I run for the cancer survivors I trained with last winter, who scheduled their runs around their chemo sessions.

But, above all, I run for me. For a little girl who now can leaves ‘can’t’ in the dust. For the sheer joy that it brings. And for the gift of life that I feel most keenly when I’m on the run. Fast. Forward. Free.


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