Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Not a Good Runner

I am not a good runner. This is a confession I ought to have made years ago.

I am a runner, but I know it conjures up images of lean, long distance types wearing tank tops and runners' shorts with mesh in the side seams, for breathing, which they wear not to show off their muscled legs but because they run such distances that they keep cool any way they can. I imagine they don't tire, or plod, or wish they could let themselves off the hook. When I am driving and see their intense, focused faces on road shoulders or paths, I give them a thumbs up.

My dentist is such a runner. When I visit him, I prompt him for stories. Once, in New York, a friend of his who was running that city's marathon (for which one must qualify) stopped to massage a cramp in his leg. Apparently this race wends its way through some tough neighborhoods; he heard the voice before he saw the homeless drunk slumped in a doorway, training one bleary eye on him: "Ya' loser! Ya' quitter!"

Once, I saw my dentist in June, in the week after Grandma's Marathon, Minnesota's famous hilly and chilly race. After asking him how he did (he always places in the top 10 for his age group), I said, "So, are you pretty tired? Are you taking a little break?"

"Yes," he replied, "I haven't really done anything since the race." Then he paused, his pick hovering above my top lip. "Well, I guess I did go for that long bike ride on Saturday. And I played tennis for a couple of hours on Sunday."

It's time to dispel any assumptions that I resemble him or any other serious runner. (I hate to use that word: I am serious. I have been running steadily for 16 years, I buy good shoes, I stretch before and after, I do what I can to match my socks and shirt. And yet. And yet.) Contrast is the key here. My list of confessions is long and painful to write:

1) I run 3 miles. It used to be 4 when I was 15 years younger. More than once I've run five. Now it's three. Did you hear that? Three.

2) I don't compete. A few times, I signed up for the Anoka Halloween 5K because it's near where I live and it's mostly for fun. Groups of people run in costume. The first time, I panicked in the pack at the front; I wasn't used to running with elbows bumping my elbows, other people's breathing in my ears. After the first half-mile, the pack thinned out, and then I cruised along at my usual pace. But when I told a friend who asked my time, she laughed at me. "Really?" she said. "Why so slow?"

Another time I ran the race with my sister, and we carried bags of candy to toss to children sitting on the curbs waiting for the upcoming parade. Approaching the final hill, I urged her to run ahead if she wanted; I was content to jog my way to the finish line. She took off. Later I overheard her telling a friend how she "kicked my sister's ass" in the race. I never ran it again.

3) I carry a Walkman. Yes, I said Walkman. Sony's original. It sways at my hip like a pendulum, and I switch it from my right to my left hand at the half-way point, listening to the same tape over and over, like little children who go on food jags. Please don't suggest an MP3 player or an I-pod or anything that straps to my arm. I run with this device in my hand because it provides an additional upper body workout. It's more practical than carrying weights; I get music, not just heft.

4) I don't run with other people. I don't want to talk before, during, or after, though I have deigned to speak to my sister after our race. She's family; she doesn't count.

5) I don't run outside in winter. I toughed it out for many years. 2005 was the last year I managed to go outside all winter, and I often shoveled the driveway before I ran. The next year I tried, but mincing along on top of patches of ice was not that fun, or that strenuous. I got a treadmill.

6) I have no desire to run a marathon. Years ago, when I was going through a divorce and savoring those first months of speed and stamina, I considered it. Then I reconsidered, after hearing stories of people who limped for a week afterwards or crawled across the finish line. For ten more years, I kept it as a possibility in the back of my mind; but I have decided I don't have to run one, just because all the runners I know well have done it.

7) I sometimes walk half a block when I get tired.

8) I don't wear those runners' shorts, though I do own and wear several really nice sports bras.

9) I am slow. I really jog, rather than run. That's why I don't time myself or run with other people. Though sometimes I do get that old feeling of flying along, not winded, and then I wish for a stopwatch. And I have a recurring dream that I can run without tiring or stopping--and I mean run--forever.

10) I recite poetry to myself as I run. When I'm not doing that, I write lines of poetry in my head. Or, I repeat to myself poems I've written. I am the proverbial poet-runner, and I'm not going to apologize for that.

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