Sunday, August 22, 2010

Running on Empty

As I get older, I run less often. Big surprise, right? But it's more than slowing down that concerns me (and it's more than my usual summation of a run each time I return, puffing to my front door: I'm old, I'm fat, I'm out of shape.). Somehow, what running has meant to me over the years has begun to disintegrate.

dis - a separation, a parting from

integrate - make into a whole

Running did, once, make me whole, sort of, in an intellectual way. From the time I was 14 or 15, I was an occasional runner, usually to get in shape for sports seasons or to occupy my time and expend some hormonal energy during the summers. But in January of 1994, I became a runner in earnest, to cope with the stress of an impending divorce. My married life had been as restrictive as a girdle, just as painful. I gained a sense of freedom and a lightness I thought had been lost forever when I worked up to my first 3-mile run, after a month of struggling on a stationary bicycle. Outside, I thought, if I could just get outside.

I ran to outpace my fear and shame and an awful sense of fate. I ran because I liked the way my legs began to look, toned and shaped, with definition. I ran to keep ahead of despair and loneliness. I ran because pounds dropped off me--I had never been overweight--and I thought my body was finding its natural balance. I ran so that I could indulge myself in occasional junk food nights, when I wolfed down bowls of tortilla chips, dipped in salsa and sour cream.

It felt good to work up a sweat. I will never forget the joy of discovering what a boost a diet soda could give me before a run; the caffeine and I flew along, hardly feeling the pavement underfoot. A practical accomplishment, that's what it was. Something I could measure. I began to invest in good running shoes and sports bras.

Around this time, in the summer of 1994, I also began to tell people that I ran because it was something that no one could take from me. Once I completed my 4-mile loop, it was mine. I owned it. The feeling was tangible: my legs pushing off, rhythmically, the sensation of strength in my thighs.  The band of muscle running from hip to upper thigh, where I often allowed my hand to rest.  If I had to, I told myself, I could do it again immediately.

The need to prove I could survive loomed large in those days. I wanted all my friends to know I was in charge, that I could handle it--my life as a single parent, a teacher, a jock.

It has been 16 years since that first summer. For most of that time, I have kept it up, through snow and rain and heat and oppressive humidity. Through love and depression and troubles with kids. I had to quit in the summer of 2001 when I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my neck. I dutifully walked or worked my legs on a used NordicTrac we had at the time, but when I emerged from 9 weeks of intense physical therapy and was declared "healthy" again,  I ran my first mile on a tread mill, crying out of sheer joy. In the summer of 2005, in order to survive, I took a job that kept me at work from 3:00 pm to 1:00 am. I switched to walking. A mild depression that Fall compounded matters; by winter I was seriously out of shape, and I have been gradually working my way back since then.

Except. Except.

I am 47 years old. Racing has never interested me. Competing in this solitary sport is not my desire. Now I feel something else as tangible as my initial delight, and that is a separation from what once made me whole. A dis-integration. I have always wanted to age gracefully, without hair dyes or any kind of prosthetic. With aplomb and with a minimal effort. Running these days takes so much effort I can barely stand it. A slight breeze makes me panic: Can I make it?

Who is this person asking this question? Is part of aging the willingness to give up the image I have cultivated for so long? Isn't walking just as good, just as healthy? Isn't it out of vanity that I want to tell strangers, such as those who wait on me in Dick's Sporting Goods, that I just went for a run before I entered the store?

I wonder if I have what it takes anymore. When I am out there, breathing through my nose and keeping a steady rhythm with my feet, I feel good. I feel capable. It is hard work, and I sweat a lot, but I have always enjoyed my own sweat.

But I also tell myself--almost every time--that I should take it slow. No pressure. The goal is to make it the whole distance, not to break any records. It has become annoying; I am not in shape; I am always trying to get in shape.

There has never been any pressure except that which I placed on myself. Maybe that pressure is lifting. Maybe I can think of myself without envying Mary Decker Slaney or seeing the faces of my many friends who do the daily grind. I do not know what to think.

Not knowing what to think is a sign of failure for me. Perhaps it is time to hang up the shoes after all. Who besides me would wonder at it? Who besides me would understand that to be whole now demands so much more than a brisk jog can ever impart?

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