"At least you can run," I offered. One of my kids' middle school teachers was lamenting how middle age has slowed her pace. She awakens at dawn, runs from lower to upper Manhattan every morning, teaches middle schoolers math and science all day, supervises after-school and running club, and then prepares for the next day. Yet this Wonder Woman was criticizing herself for her decline.
"It's true," another middle school mother, seated at a table with us, added. "My late friend Jennifer Goodman Linn [the founder of Cycle for Survival] loved to work out. Jennifer battled cancer for years. She reminded people how happy she was on the days when she was able to run."
The mix of Rumi wisdom and Jewish disaster preparedness seemed to carry some truth. "I do need to remember to see the beauty of the trees and not worry as much about my time for each mile," our kids' teacher conceded.
That was last night. Then, this morning, as I was walking my son to school, another parent called out: "It's National Running Day!" That was it. All forces were pointing me to putting those running sneakers back on my feet.
It has been a while. I talk a good game about joining the cool group of running moms from PS 87, the elementary school my kids attended, but when push comes to shove (or to jog, as the case may be), I chuckle, say "one day, soon..." and head home.
I have excellent excuses for not running. I do yoga. The impact on my almost half-century old knees and joints isn't good. I have a hammer toe on my left foot. It's too hot, cold, humid, wet, or icy. I need to take a nap (if you read my piece on napping I have an update for you: I do have a sleep disorder after all!). But the talk last night reminded me that I, too, can run. So, I put on the sneakers and headed out to Central Park.
"I'm doing it!" I defied those tugging hamstrings and accelerated breathing. I greeted the reservoir as if I'd returned to pals at a college reunion. "Hello [white lines of] darkness, my old friend[s], I've come to talk with you again..." Runs of past flooded my mind. I realized the important moments I've experienced while running.
Back in graduate school, I was up to my ears in debt. I ate cereal and pasta for dinner. My roommate and I played a waiting game of who would buy the toilet paper first. Gym membership was out of the question. So I ran. I ran in the snow, the rain, the heat and it cleared my mind. Reading literary theory in the library all day, I craved my runs as a time of release. I could run virtually anywhere and at any time (I wasn't foolish, mind you -- I didn't run in New Haven in the 1990s at night). My body was mine.
In the early days of graduate school, I admit that I held onto a very rich college boyfriend as a security blanket. We traveled. His family introduced me to fancy New York restaurants like the Quilted Giraffe where his father ordered us the "beggar's purse" caviar appetizer for a supplement of $50 a piece (in 1988 dollars). His neediness appealed to my desire for admiration. We both ran and were highly competitive about it (it was that kind of relationship). But he did teach me about running run along the reservoir, in the days before the Central Park Conservancy replaced the gritty grates with fine iron spokes. When I visited him at his parents' apartment on Park Avenue, getting out to run took dedication. Dressed sloppily in black bike shorts and tee shirt, I would have to pass a series of spectacularly-uniformed elevator operators, lobby escorts, and doormen before I could emerge in the open air and breathe freely. You'd think that sense of imprisonment might have clued me into the relationship's dysfunction. But it took until he broke up with me -- by cheating -- for the relationship to end. Alas, youth. After a few days of sobbing and feeling betrayed, I went for a run. It was terrific -- dare I say, an epiphany.
To get some TLC, I had driven from New Haven to visit my parents in Newton, Massachusetts. As I had done for years, I put on my sneakers and headed out on Commonwealth Avenue, the very strip of the Boston marathon called "heartbreak hill" (although I ran down the hill...). The tears that had been clouding my eyes dried up with each step of foot on the pavement. As my heart rate increased and my muscles loosened it dawned on me: "I'm free!" The run unleashed the inner truth I'd known for years -- I was strong, and I could take myself where I needed to go.
Running along the reservoir this morning, I remembered other significant runs. There were the panting attempts to make it around the loop just one time after the birth of each of my children. "How do these people walk so fast?" I marveled at almost everyone who sped by me on the sidewalk after I returned from the hospital. The runs were a way of reclaiming my stomach muscles, my independent body, and my identity.
There was the run on Sept. 12, 2001. The bright blue sunshine of the previous day still bathed New York, although the air was starting to smell strange, even on the Upper West Side. We sat glued to the television most of the time, but I needed to move. I jogged around the reservoir in a daze and every conversation I overheard by fellow joggers was the same. I still can hear people's voices trying to make sense of what had happened. I was running alone but we were all together.
Decades of runs in changing seasons, with different friends, and in various incarnations of myself, fused into a grateful embrace during my run today. Like the middle school teacher, I do run slower now. But I also notice different things. Was the spraying water in the center of the reservoir always there? Did the tennis courts on the north side always look so inviting? I wasn't comparing myself to other runners or even counting how many more yards I had to go. I was simply running.
From Jennifer Goodman Linn:
"I have learned to become a lot more open-minded about what constitutes exercise. It used to be that if I didn't run five miles or take an intense 60-minute spinning class, it didn't count. That has changed. Now, every day, I force myself to take a water aerobics class or ride for 20 minutes on a low resistance on my indoor bike. If the weather is nice, I take a walk. And I always do some weight training. Although my 12-pound weights have now been replaced by 5-pound weights, I still know it's important to help prevent muscle atrophy."