In 1999, I began running for the first time in my life. I’d walk to the gym with Caroline early in the mornings, tennis shoes crunching on ice and frost-covered grass across the campus of the conservative baptist college I attended. I didn’t know much about running (what is there to know?) but I wanted to lose weight. I was struggling with an eating disorder, and one of my biggest control mechanisms were the two workouts I did a day–one before I had to be at work at 8am, and one after my classes at 6pm. Mornings were treadmills side by side with my friend facing the mirror with our pony tails bouncing. Running was a way to lose weight. A means to an end.
What surprised me was that although I did it to punish myself for taking too much space on earth, I liked the running part. It was reliable. Boring, but reliable. I lived to see the blinking light that indicated where my progress would be on the track move slowly along as I powered forward. And what’s more, I began to try to push for a further distance each week. It was natural to me to want to see how much further I could go.
I eventually became bored with the treadmill, wondering what it would be like to enjoy scenery while I forced myself forward by my own power. I hit the track. And that summer, I hit the half-mile loop in the park across the street. I did six loops. Then ten. Then added a trip around one of the surrounding neighborhoods to it. Then I realized I’d been out for an hour run. I began to keep track of my distance, curious how long I’d traveled in that time, and over the months, I added to it. What was one more neighborhood street? If I could run from my parent’s house past our church to the bridge, what was running to the top of the bridge and back? What was then adding all the way over the bridge… and then to the next bridge and over that… On foot, I enjoyed sunrises that I wouldn’t have been able to had I been driving in haste. Many mornings at the top of the bridge, body bopping up and down, I saw the sun rise blazing orange over the barrier island I lived on, turning the trees on the shoreline black against it. I could see two bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean over that strip of land as well as the Indian River I was crossing. Sometimes pelicans, those large, awkward birds, would coast beside me in the draft that swept underneath the bridge.
Over the months, I’d set aside huge blocks of time on the weekends to see how far I could get. I became amazed at what my body could do. At some point, I bought Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jogging and Running written by Bill Rogers; and when it mentioned that it took minimum ten months to train for a marathon, I had a new mission in life. If I could run at all, I could run 26.2 miles. I searched the internet and quickly came up with the Space Coast Marathon. It was eight months away.
My morning runs became training runs. Seven miles became eight miles. Eight miles became nine miles–and all before I punched in. I’d drive to work in the morning baffled that I’d already accomplished more than most of the tired-eyed morning commuters I passed on the road. I began to get blood blisters underneath my toenails that would pop and leave space underneath causing the nails to fall off. Blisters between my toes swelled and popped. The leftover dried skin grated the surrounding toes, bloodying them. I didn’t care. I’d come home from 13 miles on the weekend, and stick a bag of frozen peas into my running shorts to preserve my injured hip and watch This Old House, muscular legs splayed out on the blue rug in front of the TV.
I weighed 113 pounds at five feet eleven and was in the best shape of my life. I had a six pack and never did a sit-up. I used my body for its purpose and potential, and it was responding positively. For once in my life, I loved running more than my eating disorder and ate voraciously and ate healthily so I could run.
I never ran the marathon. I got up to seventeen miles. Seventeen. I got deathly ill two weeks before the marathon and was hopelessly crushed. I still ran every day as the date came and went without me, but never with the same passion. I eventually quit, got busy with college, and began smoking. I always missed it.
Ten years later, I’ve begun to run again. It’s different this time. My body is different for sure. I weigh twenty pounds more. My knees ache and my shoulders become tight as rocks. I have shin splints from the treadmill. But it’s the same idea: the more you run, the more you CAN run. Your body does what you ask of it over time. Your biology does what it’s supposed to do. I never believed my body was capable of running seventeen miles. I know it can now. Not yet for me this decade. But I can do it and more.
I like the idea of no equipment. It feels free. Just tennis shoes and my own will. Every run I can go a little bit farther because I ask my body to take me there. It reminds me that anything is possible over time. Ever hear that “life is a marathon, not a sprint”? Runners know that more than anyone. If forever changes your concept of time and progress. You know you’re capable of more than you think you are. You know that if you stay disciplined you can accomplish great things.
I’m in round two of my running life, and I love it. I escape from my cubicle for an hour a day at work, speed walk to the stairwell on the east wing, and run down two flights of stairs to the gym, my bag of clothes and shoes bouncing at my side. Nothing thrills me more than hitting the “up” button on the speed setting and settling in for 40 minutes of sweat and heart pounding and legs doing what they were made to do.
In other aspects of my life I’ve set a training pace for myself. I’m not where I want to be, and I’ve made my best guess at how to get there. I want what I want yesterday. Last year. But I have to earn it, and I have to earn it one step at a time.
A lot of people think that running is silly. That’s okay by me. It’s part of my life again, and a daily reminder that positive results and progress come from discipline. There was not a day in my marathon life that I wanted to get up and hit the road. Not a single one. What got me out of bed? Knowing that I’d feel amazing as I turned into the driveway on foot and slowed to a gasp, looking at my watch, one more day under my belt. It’s not any different this time around–not on the treadmill, not in my art, not at my job, not in life in general. I’m beginning to trust myself to do difficult things far bigger than myself all over again and it feels great.