Last fall, I was struck by the unexpected urge to run.
I was walking through the sprawling cemetery near my house like I’ve done for years, when suddenly my body wanted to move fast. At 39 years old, I felt a bit ripe to start such a venture.
I was always the kid picked last in gym class, staring down at my Adidas’ while everyone else got snatched up for team sports. In middle school, I once tried to break my leg to get out of playing volleyball. When I was only left with a few lilac-hued bruises on my ankles for my efforts, I convinced my pediatrician to write a note explaining that my chronic sinus infections rendered me unable to participate in gym class.
Though unlikely, this strange desire to run was persistent. I was drawn to the efficiency of it—as mom to two young children, I don’t have much spare time, and I knew I could accomplish more physically on a short run than on a long walk.
As became all too clear when grocery store clerks began regularly calling me ‘ma’am’, I was rapidly sidling up to middle age. Approaching 40 and mired in the beautiful and boring tasks of child-rearing, I needed to prove that I could still surprise myself.
A good friend told me that she had just started training to run using an app on her iPhone called Couch to 5K. The eight week program alternates bursts of jogging with sweet respites of walking. It gradually increases the amount of time you jog until you are ready for a 5K.
I decided to sign up for a Mother’s Day 5K in May; I would have eight months to make it through the eight week training program.
After loading the app onto my phone, I again headed to the cemetery, where a voice from my phone instructed me to jog for 90 second intervals between longer stretches of walking.
Except I didn’t actually know how to run.
As I tried to pick up my pace, my body felt disconnected and jerky. The asthma that had lain dormant for years suddenly reappeared.
I felt like a middle schooler on the dance floor—what was I supposed to do with my arms? Why wouldn’t they work as a team with my legs? I was sure I looked like a rabid marionette.
I also feared I would make the dreaded porn face that so many runners make; the scrunched up, concentrated face that looked a lot like intense pain.
Some days, just to keep going, pretending I was running away from my children.
Every once in awhile, when I stopped thinking about it so much, my arms and legs synched up. My brain got quiet. Endorphins sparked and rushed through my blood.
As fall progressed, the bite of cold in the air pushed me further. With the crunch of melon-hued leaves beneath my feet, I made my way past headstones with names like Sterling and Ruth and Eliza. It was impossible to not think of aging and death. My body would not always be so healthy and capable. Sometimes, with the sound of my own heavy breath, I heard myself whisper to my body, to the universe: thank you.
Other days, I had to drag myself out the door. I would jog and walk, jog and walk, wondering why the heck I was doing this to my poor middle-aged body. Loud thoughts would scamper through my head: Do they make Spanx for running? Would it be embarrassing to have a heart attack during a light jog?
Then, from my phone app, I would hear a pleasant, female voice announce, “You are halfway.” Shit, I thought. I am only halfway there?
When hills of snow obscured the ground, I joined a gym. Every few weeks, I’d twist my knee or my back would seize up, and I’d take a week or two off to recover. When I started up again, I dialed myself back a week on the Couch to 5K program.
Suddenly, it was April. Despite my consistently inconsistent training program, I had still not managed to make it past week five of the Couch to 5K program. The Mother’s Day run loomed near. Ancient, negative tapes in my mind hissed at me: You’re a loser. You never finish anything. You’re no athlete.
Lately, I have had ample opportunity to look at my insidious perfectionism. I’ve pondered why I constantly compare myself to others, always coming up short. Being in the middle of the human life cycle seemed like a good time to challenge my old, unhelpful thoughts and patterns.
So I reframed my expectations. I wasn’t a loser because I was walking in between running. I was freakin’ amazing because I ran in between walking!
And then my husband started asking, “Are you excited about the race?”
I really hadn’t thought about the run being a race before. The word reactivated those nasty voices in my head: You will lose the race! You’ll come in last place!
Fortunately, I’d promised to do the race with a good friend. While I was ambivalent about the idea of letting myself down, I’d be damned if I would break a promise to a friend. I decided I would walk as much as I needed to. My only goal was to finish, and to run at least a little bit.
On the day of the race, it drizzled. Maybe they’ll cancel it, I thought.
My friend and I situated ourselves towards the back of the crowd of people at the starting line, alongside elderly joggers and moms pushing strollers, heavy with chubby toddlers. While we stretched, I worried: What if we run at different paces? What if I come in last place? What if I have to pee?!?
We jogged by my husband and kids, who stood on the sidewalk beaming at me. I reached my hand out to give them a high five. The feel of their little hands on mine propelled me forward. I was following through, doing something good for my body. I was teaching my kids by example, even if I did come in last.
A few minutes into the race, we reached the top of a small hill. I looked forward. The road ahead was a river of moving people, a rainbow of bright T-shirts.
We jogged, and pretty soon we were passing people. My friend and I braided in and out, in and out, our paces perfectly synchronized. I didn’t make the porn face because I was too busy smiling. I brushed my bangs, wet from the rain, out of my eyes.
We didn’t talk much, except to occasionally check in with each other.
“You okay?” “Yep, you?”
I caught slivers of conversation from the people we passed and the people who passed us:
“The antidepressants help me think better…”
“Jimmy is almost done with school…”
“It’s all downhill from here!”
While we ran, I thought about the lives of these people running with us. I thought about them the way I sometimes do when I’m at a stoplight and I watch other cars streaming past: I watch the drivers’ faces: solemn, angry, heads bobbing to music, chatting away on their cell phones.
When I’m quiet and present, I enjoy these little snapshots. I watch these people I might not ever meet, who just happen to be here at the same time as me, alive at the same time. So beautiful, so temporary.
We ran and ran and we didn’t stop. I noticed all the different body types of the runners: stocky, muscular, lithe, round, and everything in between. All the same and all different. All here now, running.
Because we could, and because we won’t always be able to. I heard once that the electrical energy field of the human heart extends out several feet beyond our skin. I thought about all those hearts working so hard, and maybe it was the heat of all that humming and pumping that kept me running.
You are halfway, I thought. Right in the middle. Of my messy, lovely life. Of all these people.
The race ended in a baseball stadium. As we rounded the finish line, I am still smiling. We did it, I say to my friend, my body finally slowing down to a walk. I searched the crowd of spectators for my family.
After the race, I got an email with the results. I came in somewhere towards the back end of the middle.
If I’m lucky, I am only halfway through this achy, gorgeous life. I might not ever run a seven minute mile. But for me, that uncoordinated little girl who loathed gym class, that little girl who is still so completely me and not me at the same time, a 5K is a miracle.
Learning to run, to sink into my muscles in a deeper and different way, is a miracle. Still being able to surprise myself is a miracle. Being in the middle is a miracle.
I am halfway.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: courtesy Lynn Shattuck