The obstetrician told my parents that my heartbeat was strong, and my mother said: my child will be a runner. And, despite myself, she was right.
My first shoes were tiny Nike joggers, small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. My earliest memories are of the road rushing at me as mom ran, pushing me in the running stroller. I remember her gold necklace with the runner emblem, which now hangs in my room. My high school dates inevitably involved passing out finisher ribbons at the end of races.
I’ve never been competitive. While as a child I was a pretty good sparrer, I was a half-assed high jumper, and a lazy swimmer. Dad and my triathlon team was called Dos Tortugas, and yes, we came in last. I ran for joy, though; I remember a beach trip with friends, perhaps in eighth grade, when I took off sprinting down the sand, gulping in air and salt and happiness, as my buddies laughed and said they wished they felt the same way about running. I remember P.E. class, when I finished my mile and then went back to make sure people who were struggling had someone to accompany them to the finish line. I would never be the fastest, but in humility I found kindness.
I lost that feeling, or ignored it, and for many years, I smoked packs of cigarettes a day, drank too much, ignored my body. And then my cuz lost his leg in battle, and something sparked inside of me, something Mom transmitted through the umbilical cord. After I went to visit Cuz in his recovery room, and during the same week spoke at my childhood friend’s funeral, I realized the immediacy of death, and the need to have a life filled with breath, with motion, with challenges before it was time for me to go.
Since I opened the library early in the morning, my shift ended in mid-afternoon. I’d leave work, walk the dog, change clothes, and huff my way through the Riverbend, around the cemeteries, up and along the levee. I grew fond of a particular goat that hung out on the batture. I listened to audiobooks: Bradbury, Dickens, Slaughter. Eventually I stopped listening to anything, and focused on my breath. I became swept up in the rhythm of my body, of pushing it through 90F+ with 90%+ humidity with no shade, of finding the courage to claim my space on a trail when cyclists or cars didn’t want to share the road. I ran through tropical storms, through heat advisories, through my divorce, into the hash, into this precious life of sweaty socks and Strava. I ran through injury, ran into Florida, ran longer, ran through the Everglades, ran to Boston, ran into sobriety. Whatever happened, no matter how much pain or stress was in my life, I could lace up my shoes and go find my breath, my rhythm, tap into that heartbeat my mother heard so long ago.
I remain a middle-of-the-pack runner. Sometimes I’m in the very back, the last person in my age group to cross the finish line. Sometimes I’m closer to the front, laughing with a friend. It doesn’t make a difference. I like short distances, and long ones; time trials and hill repeats. I’ll run wherever I am, here in the North into the sleet, the hail, the blinding snow; down South into the humidity, the heat, the hurricanes. I’ve stopped along the side of highways to run alone during long solo car trips, and I’ve stayed running the streets and hills for hours with all kinds of wonderful people who’ve lifted my spirits when we are together, sharing these moments. Everywhere, I run, even when there are no clear paths, or I’m in the road against traffic, or shuffling through poison ivy, or battling my ennui in order to get out of the door in the first place. Running makes me stronger, and happier, and most of all it makes me ready to do what needs to be done to help the world’s own heartbeat remain strong, to do my tiny part to help keep us going.
There are people who run away from terrors in order to survive, and there are people who run toward them in order to fight. I am of the latter group. I run not to flee from something, but to strengthen myself, to find peace in myself, so that when I return, sweaty and smiling, I can do some small thing to combat the evils of this world.
Knowing your resilience means knowing that whatever is on the other side of the door is something you can face.
That strength is in all of us. It may not come out in running. It may arise from listening to someone share their pain, from analyzing and distributing factual information to help people remain safe and calm, from gathering people together for a laugh in the midst of fear, from asking hard questions, from finding the answers to rapidly shifting issues. The hardest mile is the one from your bed to the front door, the hardest effort is the one that comes when you are afraid of what’s out there in the world, and the most gratifying thing you can do is turn the handle and overcome your fear.
(Post inspired by Bill Smyth)
P.S. I love you, Mom, sender of the hawks that remind me to keep going when I want to give up.