Last year, a day before the Boston Marathon, I decided that it was time for me to start running again. Now, don’t get me wrong; I was never what one might consider a serious runner. But my husband and I had dedicated ourselves to running up Wollaston Hill in the ice and snow during our graduate school years (before children, before real jobs, when we were still dreaming of palm trees and sunscreen). Our first race took us out onto Castle Island, back through South Boston, and into the Seaport District. At the finish line, we were handed two beer tokens to use at the Harpoon Brewery (I’m still a true believer in the power of running and beer).
So the idea was there on April14th, 2013. But then, after the Boston Marathon’s abrupt and tragic end, I felt even more compelled to run. So I started that Tuesday. I went again on Wednesday. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any training. But I kept going. On the morning of my 36th birthday a few months later, I ran ten miles without stopping. For the first time. Ever. In the year or so that has happened since that April, I’ve participated in eight 5Ks and two half-marathons. There’s still a lot I don’t know, like how to not hate myself during speed workouts or what those compression socks actually do. But it’s the things I’ve learned that matter.
And these are those.
Running is hard. Not running is harder. (The same has been said about writing, of course.) When I run, I’m not (as) stressed out. I sleep better. My skin looks nicer. I can see some of my muscles. And I don’t feel as badly about my infatuation with a certain hop-centered beverage. When I don’t run, I’m mean. And tired. And impatient. And bloated. And mad at myself. Really really mad at myself.
Running has taught me things. All kinds of things. Shoes do matter and speed workouts actually work. A seventy-something-year-old woman can float across the finish line just steps before I come huffing and puffing and pounding. I really can hold my pee for thirteen miles if I have to. And when I race, there are all of these people (some with cowbells, even) who have no idea who I am and yet they decide to cheer for me like they’re my biggest fans. I’ve learned that tripping, falling, and bleeding are all part of the . . . fun. (And sometimes part of my lack of coordination. I’m really not so good at running in the dark.)
Someone once said that “fate is a fickle mistress.” (Ben Linus said it better.) Well so is running. Sometimes three miles feels like fifteen. Sometimes you can’t do physically what you can do mentally. And sometimes, it’s just the opposite.
Sometimes, my knee will hurt so badly that I’ll hobble up that stupid hill, holding back the tears. And my runner-coach-friend will text me:” IT Band.” And I will have to Google “IT Band.” One Saturday, I’ll run thirteen miles, and two weeks later, I won’t finish five. I’ll feel good when the speed workout is over (and so is that puking sensation), but I’ll want to die (or at least puke) while it’s happening. One weekend, I’ll get a stomach virus, and the long run is out the window. A weekend later, I’ll get another one, and I’ll start thinking I’ll probably never make it to mile seven of that upcoming half. There are soccer practices, soccer games, Girls Scouts, dance camps, papers to grade, nights when my children and I won’t sleep; there are all of these things that will try to keep me from running. But I have to keep going.
Because it’s so hard to start again once I’ve stopped. And I’ll always wonder what I could have done if I just hadn’t stopped. If I just kept going.
The truth is, I don’t know that I’ve ever participated in anything with such measurable goals and tangible accomplishments. Even when I tried to take swimming seriously in my younger years, the accountability wasn’t there; I wasn’t ready, yet, to answer to myself. And maybe that’s the point of all of this: to feel like I truly did something. And have the t-shirt and medal to show for it.
Because sometimes, you meet those goals. Sometimes, you exceed them.
I don’t know, yet, if I would call myself a “runner.” I mean, I run (if that’s what you call it). But I don’t know what my pace goals are. I don’t have my PRs memorized. I don’t know if I want to get faster or just keep going. What I do know, though, is that there is some connection, some understanding between those of us who like to run. We’ll get up at five on a summer morning when the humidity has weight to sweat through a quick 5K just for the watermelon afterwards. Even though we’ve never actually spoken, we’ll nod encouragements to each other when we pass on Campbell Road on early Saturday mornings. We get excited when others tell us they’re thinking of taking up running (my mom and stepdad are running their first 5K this weekend — go Mom and Jim!). And if you think of running as a solitary sport, you’re (mostly) wrong. It takes an entire community. (My coach would be happy to tell you how often I text him.) And, honestly, I thought I enjoyed running alone, until I ran with a pack of teenage students this spring. While I still enjoy the quiet and solitude of a morning run, running with others changed my whole perspective. In a good way.
I know that I will never be fast, and, most likely, my husband will end up beating me. Soon. But all that really matters to me is that I just keep going. And, really, isn’t that all that ever matters, with anything?
P.S. I ran enough to wear out a pair of running shoes. I bought my second pair this week (thank you, Milton). That feels like a serious accomplishment to me. I think I deserve a beer.