“May the wind be at your back,” a friend posted to my Facebook wall when I commented on my half-marathon for the weekend. As I passed our kids’ school, somewhere around mile 9, in the pelting rain, the allusion to a song sung at the closing of each school year seemed cruelly ironic.
May troubles be less
And blessings be more
And nothing but happiness come to your door.
May you have luck wherever you go
Your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow.
May wind be at your back
And sun be overhead
May friends be at your side
Wherever you are led.
The wind, rather than being at my back, had been slapping me in the face with pelting rain for the past mile or two, so likewise, the sun was decidedly not overhead. As for friends, well, my family was sick, and most folks with any sense were inside, probably with books, blankets, and hot chocolate. But, as I passed the red walls of the schoolyard, and turned down a side-street and blessedly out of the wind, I realized that my blessings are indeed more, and that this run was reinforcing my awareness of them.
“You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.” – Uncle Remus
You can’t run from your past – from your actions, choices, or emotions. But, you can run to understand your past, and to understand that like each stride, every choice you’ve already made is done. Yesterday’s race took me from downtown Davis onto the university campus, past the dorm I lived in my freshman year – where I had my first kiss, my first broken heart, my first D on a test, and where, years after my residence there, I would meet my husband at a party in my old room.
The girl who lived in that room is gone. Her choices are made, her tests are taken. She packed up her boxes at the end of the year and left the room to a full generation’s worth of new freshmen. Yet, without her choices, without her pains, joys, and growth, the woman that I am would never have passed her dorm on a rainy Saturday 24 years later.
We ran past the apartments where I lived my junior and senior years of college. In that apartment, I learned to co-exist in a group other than my family, I experienced rejection and acceptance, I lost my virginity, and gained confidence. I don’t live there anymore. I am not that young woman either. She looked at the future and saw a blank slate of dreams and terrifying facelessness. I see the faces of loved ones in every leaf and raindrop, and I know that reality and dreams are equally ephemeral.
We ran through Village Homes, where several friends live, past the lawn of the commons where the children of friends have had their 8th grade graduation ceremonies. My brain read the street signs, straight from Middle Earth, “Bombadil” “Oakenshield.” I’ve never been able to stand Tolkien, but my husband and kids are Lord of the Rings fanatics. But, even evenings spent watching the movies, or listening to my kids debate the finer points of the stories are, in a way, gone. More are likely to come, as I am likely to take more strides on many more runs. But, each footprint, each laugh, each argument lies behind us.
I run to get stronger.
Down a slope, up a hill. Every mile I run is a mile I couldn’t have managed five years ago. Every drive of my legs is a step further than I once thought I could take.
As a confirmed nerd, I never really connected physical fitness with mental or emotional strength. After all, jocks are dumb, right? Insensitive. I’ll admit it; I bought the stereotypes for longer than I care to acknowledge. I married a former jock, who is quite literally a genius (and more sensitive than he would willingly admit.) I’ve known plenty of fit, astute people. But I didn’t get it. Didn’t get that there could be a coordination between the body and the brain, or the heart.
Mens sana en corpore sano, said the Romans. A sound mind in a sound body.
When I run faster or farther than I have before, when I sprint a steeper hill, or run into a bitter north wind without walking, I remember that I can do more than I thought. If I can run one mile, I can run two.
If I can face losing a pet, I can accept the loss of a friend. If I can handle a tiff with my husband, I can take my children yelling “I hate you!” If I can brave a run before dawn, I can call an intimidating source for an interview. If I can run three miles in ten minutes less than I could a few years ago, I can meet my deadlines. If I can lace up my running shoes and hit the pavement when my body wants to crawl back under the covers, I can create something beautiful even when my mind wants to crawl into a drink or a pint of ice cream. If I can cross the overpass above the freeway that sent me into panic attacks a year ago, I can handle professional scrutiny or brave sending my work out for rejection. If I can run past aching muscles, I can work, live, love, and laugh through an aching heart.
There’s no such thing as a bad run.
It may feel like I’m slogging through oatmeal. I may have gotten cramps or a migraine two miles in and had to walk for the day. I may not have met my goal for time or distance. I may be bored. I may hate every minute. The endorphins may have gone to find another home that day. But, even the “bad” runs, the off days, the days when I want to indulge my inner self (who is a 400 lb, borderline-alcoholic recluse with some serious control issues), even those runs make me stronger. I didn’t stay on the couch. I built some muscle fiber, some aerobic capacity, burned some calories, remodeled some bone, saw some trees, birds, and sky. Not meeting my goal doesn’t negate the value of the run.
I may not like every experience of a given day, week, month, or year. I may wish that any or all of it could be different, that the problems would magically resolve. I don’t like loss, rejection, failure, chaos, or stress any more than I like sore muscles, blisters, stitches in my side, nausea, aching knees, or sciatica. But, just as the latter things are the inevitable accompaniments to the benefits of running, the former pains go hand-in-hand with the joys of life. Sore legs remind me that I am building muscle. Sorrow, anger, and even regret remind me that I am building strength.
I run to feel better about myself.
Yep, I’m vain. I am a stronger, braver, kinder, more patient person when I feel good about myself. And, though it may be shallow, I feel better when I look better. I read a gem online a while ago. It was one of those pithy eCards on someone’s page. “I don’t exercise to be healthy. I exercise to look sexy as f—k. Naked.”
Yep, you’d better believe I repeat that one to myself when the running gets hard. It may be lofty to exercise for one’s health, or mental balance, or as an example to one’s children, but when you hit that last couple of miles, and everything burns, and you really only want to either vomit or die – whichever the body is willing to do first – loftiness is of little use. When things really get tough, the world narrows down to a very tight core. We call it selfishness, and maybe it is. But, it is the place of survival, a place of hardness and resolve. In that place, yeah, you’d better believe it – I tell myself that I exercise to look sexy as f—k. Naked.
If the base goals help us to get past the bottom, to come out again into the light and into a higher purpose, well, why not? We are animals, and for survival we need food, water, air, and sex. Philosophy comes once those needs are met.
That is the answer to so many things in our house. The translation is “because I can” or “because it’s there.” I run because I can. I have legs, and my legs are strong. My health is good. My joints are decent. I run because I am blessed with a body that is capable of running – maybe not fast, maybe not beautifully, maybe not far. I will never be an elite athlete, but I can.
I run to know who I am.
Ultimately, this is the answer, the one that is hard to explain when friends and family give me incredulous looks as I babble excitedly about signing up for a new race, or how I’m looking forward to my weekend long run. They want to know why something uncomfortable, taxing, and that most folks regard as a chore is fun to me.
Here is my answer. In each breath, in each stride, with each slap of my shoe on the ground, I am me. I exist in that moment. Every other stride, every other word, every other choice is behind me. The things I fear, the things I hope for, the next stride haven’t happened yet. I don’t know if I will finish the race. I don’t know if I will publish a book or an article. I don’t know if my children will succeed. I don’t know how I will live. But, I know the stride that I take in that moment. When I run, I am not accountable to anyone other than me. I can’t be anywhere other than in my body. I can’t be anyone other than myself.
When I run, I know what I can do. I know where I am. When I run, I know myself.