In grade school, I was one of those kids, the kind no one picked for their team. Instead, I lurked on the sidelines with Arlene, a fragile girl with Bambi eyes, and Joanne, a chubby thing with an attitude problem. The trouble with me was that I refused to run. Instead, I galloped. Like a horse.
In my teens, I sniffed at sports. I skied a little, skated some, rode a bike around town until I got my license. I swam during college to keep the weight off. Took a few aerobics classes when Jane Fonda was all the rage. I once went “running” with an inspiring girlfriend. But that lasted a mile, at which point I threw up.
Billie Jean King was clearly someone I was not.
It wasn’t until I moved to Iran that I missed all the activities I’d ignored in the States. Suddenly, there were a million and one things I could no longer do.
Where I was living, an athletic woman was considered tawdry. Iranians had nothing against an active woman, per se. Moving and sweating, after all, were a way of life, what with temperatures hovering for months on end at 100º.
It’s that an athlete exposes her body in public.
Which spits in the face of Islamic modesty.
The forbidden turned into that which I yearned for. I thought, while I de-stoned the rice for dinner, how nice it would be to bike across Iran. Run along Chamran. Kayak the Karun.
Then, when I came back to the States, I caught up with some other friends I’d really missed. I partied with Cheese Cake and Big Mac and Little Debbie. Overnight, or so it seemed, I packed on twenty pounds.
About the time my zippers stopped zipping, I came across a photo in a glossy magazine. A woman running; the vantage point, her back.
I thought how wonderful it would be to look that good--legs, waist, and arms the epitome of perfection. A runner’s body, it occurred to me in a light bulb moment, would only be gotten if one actually ran.
I started jogging with an arthritic girlfriend. Out of shape, we’d stumble for five minutes, then speed walk for ten. When pain got the best of her, I didn’t give it up. I signed up at the gym. Formed a relationship with the treadmill. I’d huff and puff for half an hour, then, after a few weeks, push myself to do more.
By the end of the year, I was faster and svelter. Despite going through a divorce, I liked myself more.
At work I discovered the lunch time crew. A handful of runners who ate lunch at their desk, then ran downtown Waterbury at half past noon.
Some days, running was a social thing. A time to talk, joke, decompress. A time to be a kid again. And just get silly.
Some days, running was a me thing. A time to listen to the wind, the slap of my feet, the sound of my breath.
When I ran by myself, I had space to think. I wasn’t bombarded with opinions. I could hear my own voice.
I liked the notion of racing, so I signed up for a 5k with two of my crew. 5k’s turned into 10k’s. A half-marathon, into marathons. The three of us ran together almost every weekend. On long runs we’d discuss roofing materials, donuts, and term papers. When my ex-husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my running mates listened to me cry while the pavement slipped past. The two and a half years it took him to die, we logged hundreds of miles. I talked myself blue.
Running was what the writer George Sheehan claimed: The proving ground where one learns to conquer pain.
What started as a weight loss gimmick, became the centering force to my existence. Running gave me confidence. Pride. Space. The ability to cope.
Somewhere along the way, I learned how to relax. I learned to relax not only my body but my mind and soul as well.
I run with Walt now. He’s the perfect partner. For miles we say nothing. We get lost in our heads. Sometimes we talk about the day. Or hash out our problems.
We point out foxes to each other.
And the eagle in the tree.
We comment on the perfect sunrise.
Running, fifteen years later, is still the key to my power. It’s the magic pill that keeps me whole.