(with apologies to Haruki Murakami, whose book I’ve yet to read)
I’m sure there are people who run for the sake of the running, the endorphins, the self-competition, maybe even winning a race. I’m not one of those folks. I don’t find joy in the jolt of my arthritic joints reverberating against pavement. I’ve never had that runner’s high.
But there’s still something to running, something that creaks me up out of bed (once I convince myself re-take running at all, once again), something that makes me ignore the snap-crackle-pop of my joints and how silly I look in baggy shorts, too-loose cami, too-constricting bra, something in me that jams my baseball cap on my hedgehoggy-hair and heads out the door with the most minimal keys I can manage before I can think too much about how crazy it is to be doing this when the sun’s not even up and I could still be dreaming. Reading. Writing. Baking. Anything except experiencing my sluggish body’s discomfort. Again.
The one-two-three-four in-and-out breath as I try to make my pace match my breath, the jolt of my steps as I round my selected course—that first circuit is always the hardest, always. Unloosening, shaking off the body’s held tension, re-learning to let my arms swing and make my lungs fill, trying to empty my mind of the thoughts that constrict my breathing and make my feet falter from the pace that will let me move forward, ignore the annoying jingle of keys in my pocket, the rattling thoughts in my head—it takes time, some days far longer than others. When I first start out, well—that first day is easier than the second or third as my body remembers muscle and ligament groups that haven’t been used, tries to accustom itself to things I haven’t asked of it in too long. But it’s a good thing, I try to remember through the discomfort— I should use all my parts, not just the easiest ones. After a week, the stiffness and soreness of those forgotten muscles I’m using again—they’ll go away and it’ll be back to just the usual aches and pains that any grown-up just learns to push through. Life is for living; pigs don’t lie in their wallows all the day, either.
The thing about running is– at some point (and sometimes I notice and sometimes it’s a little more subtle) it does become more easy to breathe. My strides become longer. I don’t have to count them off in my head anymore because my muscles and lungs have integrated themselves, moving in time. Instead, I can observe, listen, look side to side, up and down. The patches of sky shine, dapple and dim through the trees. The light changes over the course of the run. There’s wildlife or people making a cacophonous chorus to be heard, to be noted. My breathing’s deep enough that every inrush lets me take in the pong of the grasses, the diesel tang of the busses, whatever route I’ve chosen that day—the sweet spice of the early mountain laurel, the tight pink buds opening to white against their glossy green leaves, or the fresh neon orange of a tagger working all night to sign his newest blazon on the side of a building. There’s a geometrical stack of Café Bustelo in the bodega, perfectly aligned in the window, or someone sweeping the sidewalk all clean—or a dog and her walker, quiet and returning a wave, all in silence in the still of the morning. It’s everyday art.
There are all things I can take in once I’ve gotten past having to just demarcate the act of putting one foot in front of the other—but the gift of starting out slow at first, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other every single morning, is a gift of itself.
You have to walk before you can run.
It’s an important reminder, because sometimes you trip on things you didn’t see in your path, and getting up and walking again is sometimes not as easy as it might seem. Still, I get up, because I’ve fallen before. Sometimes there have been people around, and they’ve been there to help me. Sometimes, I’ve been alone. I’ve gotten up anyway, limped, and carried on. And I remind myself that yes, I did carry on. It hurt like hell, I was bruised and ached for a while, but just like the grass changes color over the seasons, bruises fade and I was able to walk off the limp enough to keep going—even if at the time I could hardly see for the tears in my eyes.
When I run, I see other things besides people, wildlife, pets, natural beauty, the facets of every day things we don’t see in our regular bustle. There’s also Canada Goose crap, dog mess that owners out on walks haven’t cleaned up, markers for natural gas lines, wooden horses around open pits still under repair—reminders, all, that I’m not the only source of mess in the world. When I re-learn to run, I can learn to maintain a pace that isn’t too fast, not so unassailably forward that I’m unable to see, unable to duck around a darting chipmunk, some iPod-deaf hipster swerving on his fixie onto my path. And even if yesterday’s run went utterly smoothly at the pace I had chosen– the one I’ve been maintaining today? Sometimes my body doesn’t want to cooperate; my knee hurts, my side stitches, and I’ve got to adjust the pace that I thought was finally right one—the smooth flow that I thought was going to work is now interrupted and I have to adapt, try something new, adjust my breathing, think again about what I am doing and not (for the moment) reflect on how today, unlike yesterday, the sun dapples this wall and the damp from the overnight rain makes the pavement a different pattern of colors, reflecting the lesson I’m contrarily ruing—that everything changes, one day to the next. Change is just neutral, good or bad—you just have to deal with it as it comes.
Running does present choices, and not just the obvious ones like equipment (and Thoreau’s warning does rise in my brain)—though deciding whether it’s time for new shoes can be a real issue of self care versus deciding that I make do with the old ones a while more. It’s not the same calculus as whether I really need that fancy new bra-lined top with the wicking fabric that also flattens my stomach, or whether I’m just being vain? No—the choices are these: do I keep going? Pick up the pace? Vary my stride? Choose a different route, one I’ve not tried before? Take the cool down, enjoy the sweat-prickling skin and beating heart of my body as I smell-feel-see everything right there, inside me, instead of at its real distance, because perhaps there’s something to that endorphin thing after all?
There’s comfort in the familiar, and I know from past runs that another circuit or another half-mile will bring light at a different angle on old or new sights to illumine something I thought that I knew but now can see in one respect more—but there’s breadth as well as depth to be gained in the journey, and if I choose an offshoot of my usual route, who knows what I’ll find? Perhaps an aggressive dog. Perhaps friendly workers. Perhaps an uninterrupted flat straightaway and room for more thoughts—all of which are good, of themselves. Those things are reminders of what running teaches when I think about it. It’s not about what running gives, though those things are good, and not just because the doctor says so: they’re destination, if you’ll indulge me– the stronger body, the deeper breath, the calmer mood, the way the clothes will fit better. But this is what I think about when I think about running: one foot in front of the other, and the things I see that I wouldn’t any other way. The running’s the journey, and for those few, short, painful miles, that’s all that counts.
One-two-three-four, in breath and out, left-right, left-right, one foot in front of the other.
(Clearly, this post is about running. But when I wrote it over several weeks, I realized it wasn’t just about running– or that it didn’t have to be. Today, as I post it, it is about running again, because I had a not-so-good run this morning, sluggish and painful for no particular reason and it was just– one foot in front of the other. That was all there was to it.)