I started running in 1980. I wore a pair of red and white Adidas knock-offs from Sears. The soles were thin and unforgivingly flat, but I didn’t know the difference. I took up the sport for the reason that I’ve made many, many decisions in my life: I didn’t like my body.
When I was 9, I cried to my mother that I was too skinny. I actually kind of remember the conversation, but I don’t distinctly recall her trying to stifle a laugh—though I’m sure she did. My mother went on a diet practically every Monday morning for most of my life, so I know that being too thin was not a worry of hers. She was reassuring, though, and promised me that I looked great and that I was too young to care about such things.
I can watch the slant of the morning sun on the path in front of me, and I can let ideas float through my head at their own will.
I did gain some muscle in the next couple of years because I was involved in gymnastics and diving and I took my mom’s advice to not worry about my weight. In what felt like about five minutes, but was really seven years, I had outgrown tumbling and trampoline and back dives from the high board. The mixture of little to no exercise and simply being 16 was all it took to cause me to put on weight. That's when I began my now decades-long battle with being heavier than I want to be, and that self-perception has remained with me since then. My hope for the first run in those Sears’ shoes and very short, red and white striped nylon shorts was that it would solve my problem and still let me eat whatever I wanted to eat. A few marathons and probably thousands of miles later, running is still what I do to try and stay at a weight I can live with. But it also serves so many different purposes.
For one thing, it gives me 30 minutes or an hour every day to just be outside and in my own head. No one is talking to me and I can listen to Stevie Wonder or Counting Crows or nothing. I can watch the slant of the morning sun on the path in front of me, and I can let ideas float through my head at their own will. It’s one of my best times to solve problems, to develop writing ideas, and to take photographs. Nearly 40 years later, it’s also the way I keep my body moving.
The need to simply move was never part of what got me out there when I was in my 30s. It was much more about vanity in those days. Once I discovered training for a 10K or a marathon, it became something else. There was a goal and a plan and something to shoot for. I would studiously read training guides in Runner’s World and use them to map my own. Of course I also discovered better shoes, found running routes in my neighborhood, and even ran in cities I visited on vacations.
I run now so I can keep running, or at least keep moving. I am a lucky runner because I haven’t been injured. I’ve had a few bumps and bruises and an achy knee or hip, but nothing for very long. I’ve gone a couple of weeks without ever putting on running shoes and I’ve had weeks when I’ve run 45 miles. These days, I’m lucky if I do 20, but if I do none, I pay for it. My body feels stiff and my head feels cloudy and full of random thoughts. When I was in my 40s and going through menopause, my metabolism slowed down. It’s one of those evil things that happen to women as we age. It reminded me that I couldn’t take running for granted. Now three miles just doesn’t do as much as four or five. And so, I’ve adapted.
I’m amazed always that I’ve stuck with running for as long as I have. I compare it to other things in my life that seem harder to discipline myself to do. Why can I almost always get back to a running habit when sitting down to write is so hard? The answer is basic. The result of running is immediate. When I hear the tapping sound of my shoes on the street as I move onto the path by my house, my breath begins to syncopate and, in a weird way, I relax. I listen to Pat Metheny’s Last Train Home as I come up over the hill to the other side of the green belt. It’s early in the morning and there is still a chill, even on summer days.
I’m burning calories, to be sure, and that will always be part of what brings me out here. But more than anything, it creates a kind of peace inside me and lets me start the day on good terms with myself. I am, literally, grounded. It is my own form of meditation, of recounting what I’m grateful for, of appreciating my own presence as I keep my eye on my shadow in front of me. I’m a slow runner, and methodical, to be sure. But I’m a connoisseur of my own runs now, and feeling so lucky for every step.