” . . . let us run the race.” Hebrews
Every now and then I can run again. Not often. But when the sun sneaks out after long absence and the pacific northwest sky is uncommonly blue, I’ll risk aggravating my slightly bulging L5 S1 disc and head into the forest near my home. Years of pounding on road and trail have worn down my spry, so I start slow, all plod and ache, until stiff joints remember younger days and I can escape – all my worries, all my thoughts, lost in a rhythm of wind and trail and breath and legs, and I recall why I started running.
It would be too dramatic to say that running saved me, but there’s truth in it nonetheless. I started in the 5th grade because I was really a bit lumpy and lost. Family life was chaotic and uncertain; I needed something to grab, a piece of flotsam in the storm. Also, I had started noticing girls. One day, during art hour, the teacher asked us to sketch the person across the table. I was sitting across from from a cute, green eyed classmate, on whom I had the vaguest stirring of crush, and this young crush informed me that I was too ugly and fat to draw. I knew immediately it must be true, and I suddenly realized I cared, a lot, and comments like that could hurt in ways I couldn’t yet define.
So I followed my mom to a park in Fresno, California and shuffled along a dirt trail, around a brown park of dead grass, paper bags and a few thin trees. The air was flat and stale. I completed one lap, a quarter mile or so. My breath was heavy and my legs were leaden. Nothing worked together; every step required thought. But to have willed a lap, to have controlled that small part of my life, that felt good. A vague premonition of strength and freedom drew me back to the park the next day, and then the next, and after a few weeks I could run two laps.
I jammed my toes under the couch and thrashed out sit-ups until the skin on my spine rubbed bloody on the carpet. I did push-ups and pull-ups at recess. By the 6th grade I had earned the right to wear the blue gym shorts at Awahnee Junior High. Blue shorts signaled to all that I could complete basic fitness requirements – run a mile in 10 minutes and do 5 pull-ups – and that I wasn’t quite so sedentary and lost. I longed to be in the small set of classmates who earned the right to wear the orange shorts, those who ran a mile in 7 minutes and did 10 pull-ups in a row, and had a comfort and ease in their bodies.
I bought a pair real running shoes: Brooks, I recall now, thick soled and light blue. I read everything by 70s running guru Jim Fixx and envied his muscled legs set against the red background of The Complete Book of Running. After we moved to Phoenix, I learned to run at night to escape the insistent heat. The streets were laid out in mile grids, so my black plastic Casio watch could measure, exactly, how quickly I was running each mile and, over time, I could run more miles, more quickly, down straight black roads lined by strip malls and brown stucco homes. I ran until my shirt would tuck into my Levis 501s across a flat stomach and I walked the junior high halls feeling, if not confident, at least not always tentative.
We moved three times between 8th grade and my sophomore year in high school – new schools, new friends, my body changing, new emotions as my adolescent brain kicked into high gear. Every day I would head out before dawn or late at night and run along grey sidewalks or irrigation canals, framing each new home, school and group of friends with miles and movement. My legs became solid and defined, and I loved how that made me feel. I was a rock. Impervious. Strong. Running became identity. I didn’t run; I was a runner.
So I ran cross country and track in high school, and every time I toed the starting line I would twitch with anticipation and a bit of dread – races hurt, in the end. Anticipating the battle with pain and new in faith, I would make the sign of the cross – forehead, heart, shoulder, shoulder – before the gun sounded, hoping this ostentatious act marked me as serious and uniquely pious. But most often I ran alone and quiet, my breath and the soft pad of shoe on dirt or street the only sound. When I ran I was easy in body and mind, tireless and eternal and sweat covered my body like a baptism. If I just kept moving forward, I knew, all could be new again.
That was almost forty years ago. At times the drumbeat demands of adult life, and sprained ankles, and my own self-made chaos kept me from, what was for me, a grace of movement. But now, sometimes, I can run again, where the only thing in front of me is the trail and the wind blows cool while the trees, they clap their hands, and the sun and shade blend with sweat and breath, and for a moment I’m weightless, without limits, and my body will never fail, and joints won’t hurt when I stop, just the next step around root and rock and push off with a firm foot on soft dirt until legs and arms and trail and leaves all blur into one, and the bills and worries about kids and the “dying of the light” slip away and I can imagine there is such a thing as glory that moves like liquid through it all, through me and the hills that sing out their joy, and more is waiting to be revealed, just around the corner, just few more miles.