On Wednesday, my friend Ann gave me a copy of Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. By Friday morning, I had finished it and was contemplative. I was also looking forward to my Saturday morning run, my Sunday morning run, and Monday, Tuesday after that, Wednesday…
I tend to get ahead of myself.
In addition to friends and family, there are two aspects of my life that saved me from an early demise. The first was getting sober many years ago; the second, running. I could do a separate blog on the first, but it’s not what’s on my mind today. Running is.
Murakami is a celebrated Japanese writer who began running at age thirty-three. What I Talk About… is a matter-of-fact chronicle, a collection of essays, about how running is as fundamental a part of his life as his work as a novelist. It’s not a wildly compelling book. I wouldn’t readily recommend it unless you’re a runner and in need of inspiration. I didn’t know how desperately I was until I flipped to the first page.
In the 1980s, I was able to put together one decent marathon but from one year to the next, I was horribly inconsistent. It wasn’t until 1991 that my running became regular and I rarely took a day off. It was as much a habit as brushing my teeth, though it took longer and I smelled after (not minty fresh). Running every day, I became faster, stronger, more confident, happier. Despite not being naturally built for running like my husband is, I was able to complete several marathons in the 3:30 to 3:45 range and collect 10k medals and trophies in my age group.
There were periods of time after each of my children were born when the miles were difficult to stack up, but being married to someone who knows the importance of exercise for physical and mental health, we were always able to coordinate schedules so I could get back in shape. It wasn’t until about four years ago that my mileage began to take a hit, though I refused to believe that the setback would endure. I identified as a runner; surely, that would always be the case. Yet month by month, year after year, my weight increased, my muscles stiffened, and my running mojo ebbed. I’d miss that magical window in the morning when excuses don’t exist, and end up skipping a day, and then another – or I’d drag myself out the front door to put together a pitiable, flat three miles that didn’t seem to do anything other than leave me feeling soft at the end of a week.
Like Murakami, I don’t proselytize about running. Putting one foot in front of the other has worked for me because of the simplicity and because I stuck with it long enough to capture myriad benefits, but it’s not for everyone. In my life, however, it has rewarded me in ways unforeseen after watching Grete Waitz padding through the rain in New York’s Central Park, competing in the city’s 1982 marathon. I vowed then to complete that race and did so in 1985, and four different years after. In 1992, I was invited to join a group of friends who ran together in Santa Monica (go Flying Squirrels!) and proceeded to show up every Saturday for nearly fifteen years, cultivating some of the strongest friendships I have today. I met my husband when he joined the group in 1995. We ran the Big Sur Marathon together the day after getting engaged in Carmel. I’ve run in other countries. I’ve run at the beach and to the beach, in the mountains and deserts, in circles around Central Park. I’ve run a 24-hour/12-man relay, which involved a moonlit eight miles in Petaluma and a midnight skunk encounter at San Francisco’s Presidio. When I travel anywhere, I see the sights in the morning after lacing up my running shoes. I’ve had a heart rate as low as fifty and 90/60 blood pressure. My friend Wendy and I have solved the world’s problems ten times over while out running “Barham.”
Last Thursday morning, I was sitting with two teachers from my daughters’ school. One of them turned to me: “I hear you’re a runner.” I felt an uncomfortable and surprising moment of shame, literally dropped my head and stammered. “Well, I run but I’ve fallen off a bit for different reasons. My husband is really a runner. He just did Boston in 3:17,” I said, trying to deflect attention away from my physique, which no one would mistake for a person serious about her mileage. The exchange left me feeling awkward, and sad. I went home and started reading Murakami’s book.
After finishing What I Talk About… the next day, I was reminded of my love affair with running, how something perfunctory can become as vital as breathing, and how losing it in degrees has made me feel lost. I want it back.
I’m not interested in starting a running log; this post is writing-as-therapy. A friend gave me a book. It made me think. I ran around the soccer fields this morning while Bun Bun practiced and I’ll get up tomorrow morning before mothers everywhere are celebrated and run up in the hills. I’ll listen to my breathing, think about very little, and put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over.
I’ll run because I have to, because it is a part of who I am. The next time someone wants to accuse me of being a runner, I’d like to feel guilty as charged.