At one time, I was an avid runner, and I have pictures to prove it.
I never really stopped thinking of myself as anything other than a runner.
Of course, it bothered me a bit that my husband (who has been in my life for four years this fall) has rarely seen me exercise. There was that isolated summer in Wyoming when he would drag me to the gym every morning before work: I actually built a few muscles, and fell in love with both spinning and step class. But when we headed back to college in the fall, those newly won muscles disappeared again, and I relapsed into frantically busy (and yet terribly inactive) college life.
For years, I never really got to regular exercise, because there were so many other things that I had to do first: study for that test, memorize those lines, prepare for that speech, and I just never made the time for running.
I still thought of myself as a runner, but if I was being honest I hadn’t been one in years. I ran my last half-marathon when I was seventeen. I had gained other titles (college graduate, wife, tutor), but runner really didn’t apply any longer.
Then I told a dear friend I would run a half-marathon with her this fall. As I committed myself, I knew that it would take work, but I had no qualms about attempting it, because I thought (rather casually) that I had run three in high school, and loved them. I could do it again. Natch. I continued to think of myself as a runner. It was a label I had assigned to myself, and I refused to peel it off for any amount of lack of forward movement. I knew there would be a bit of a learning curve, but runner’s (like me!) dealt with that sort of thing all the time.
I dusted off my athletic clothes, laced up my sneakers, and confidently stepped outside the door.
Then I went on my first lung-burning, lurching, jog/walk/limp and discovered, unequivocally, I was no longer a runner. I drug myself home. Not exultant. Not proud. Barely alive. Melting into a miserable puddle of sweat and false hope on the sidewalk.
I did not feel terribly enthused about repeating that torture. The second time I pushed myself out the door on a 90 degree day. My husband confidently jogging ahead of me, his legs beating a steady beat on the pavement ahead of mine. I lagged. I slid. I did just about everything to keep up (barring clinging to his back, now that I think of it, maybe I should have tried that course of action). Finally, my physical pain yelled louder than my pride. I sputtered some incoherent sentence, and we walked. My white legs untouched by sun, glowing in the summer heat.
For weeks I had to bribe, threaten, and throw myself out of our apartment to get those terrifying jogs in. The fear of the stark due date of my half-marathon circled on my calendar was the only thing that kept me moving forward. I strained my ankle, I got adjusted, I moved forward, slowly. Every day I looked forward to spotting the magnificent blue heron who lived on the river by the running path. He would cock his head and eye my progress warily. No doubt amused by a lesser species who preferred scuttling along a path on a hot day to standing waist-deep in cool water.
I remembered ruefully what it was like to be an exerciser: I vaguely remembered the endorphins, the energy, the optimism that was a reward of a run will done. However, these weeks of running gifted me only utter exhaustion. Tiredness hung on me like last year’s moth-ridden coat. Still, I laced up my purple shoes, and held myself together for one more jog. Then another one. There were days when one mile was too far and I despaired of ever running 13.1 again.
Then one cloudy day, I showed up one more time. I slowly willed myself along., listening to a podcast about pregnancy, because of the baby fever thing. Focusing on anything but my legs pounding the pavement, however slowly. I got 1.5 miles away from home when the clouds, that had slowly been observing my slow progress, opened up and poured on me. I hurried under a bridge, and peered out at the storm, rivulets of water snaking down my face. I sighed, and looked at my watch. Calculating how long it would take me to get home. Too long. I thought about my husband, off at work somewhere, unable to pick me up and save me from my sad plight. I considered hunkering down, waiting it out, but I knew it might last all morning.
I thought about how many years I’d hunkered under a bridge, peering out at the stormy path before me. Wondering if I was brave enough to run through it. Hoping that it would pass.
I stuffed my phone deep within my pocket, and broke free from underneath the embankment. I stopped jogging, and started to run. Rain hit my red cheeks and burst on impact. I began picking up speed. Pushing my creaking legs a bit harder, not even thinking about my breathing or my sore ankle. Water seeped into my shoes, and they squished as a ran. I looked for my old friend, the blue heron, but even he had left the river.
Halfway home I passed another runner. She smiled at me cheerfully, and I returned the runner’s salute, a half nod. “Ah, you’re out here too?” She seemed to say “We’re going to make it.” I replied with my brief head shake accompanied by a wheezing smile.
About five minutes from home the sun broke through the clouds, and the rain let up. I ran straight up to our mail box, and clutched for dear life as I breathed in and out.
I thought of the poor miserable girl who could have still been stuck underneath that bridge. Clutching to safety like a shield. Hoping that the rain would be merciful. Wondering if she had it in her. I took off my shoes, and set them carefully aside to dry. I began beaming, and then ran up the stairs to our apartment and gulped down a tall glass of water.