The first time I went running, I ran in a high school theatre t-shirt, a pair of my brother's flag football shorts, and an old wire bra. I didn't know what I was doing, nor did I understand why I was doing it in the first place. I couldn't finish half a mile, and I was sore for days. When I tell this to friends who are just picking up running, they look at me in both recognition and bewilderment. Why, they ask; why oh why did you ever keep going?
I've been trying to answer this question for years now. Here's one answer: it's not in my nature to tolerate being bad at something. I didn't learn to ride that bike I followed my dad on while he went on his runs until I was 8 or 9, because every time I fell off of it, I'd get so angry I'd cry, kick at the accursed thing, and swear I would never ride again. Still, I learned.
Here's another answer, although it may be less a reason and more a requirement: to run, you have to be just a little bit fucked up. I've known some peaceful, Whole-Foods-loving, earth-between-your-toes runners who run like butterflies fly, but in my experience, they are outnumbered by their harder drinking brethren, the latter of whom I count myself amongst.
For example: early one morning towards the end of my freshman spring, I was running in a neighborhood off behind Kalamazoo's West Main Avenue when I came to a hill that had always bested me. As I ran closer, I got so anxious I wondered if maybe I would throw up. I thought about the play I was in that night: it terrified me. I thought about my family. I thought about the man who had "taken advantage of" me (such a quaint, Victorian phrase) a few months before; I knew he would be in the audience. Suddenly, that hill no longer represented everything that hurt within me: it was the hurt. At its foot, I started to cry, because I was certain that I couldn't do it: he was going to win, I would never succeed at anything, fear and worry would rule my life forever.
I was also certain that this morning, I would not stop until I was at the top of that hill, looking down at what I had just climbed. Let me tell you why I run: because there is nothing like standing on top of a quiet street on in May, looking at your arms and legs glow with the light of a Michigan morning's sun, and knowing that whatever happens, you are going to survive it. You already have.
Running hurts. Sometimes, it hurts for no good reason whatsoever. In this way, it mirrors life, and as in life, we all must find our reasons to keep going.
I run because of what it teaches me. Once, I told someone that I had run 18 miles earlier that day. Joking, he asked what I was running from. Without a thought, I said, "My deep-seated fear of failure." It got a laugh, but the funniest thing to me is the loving irony behind that thought. It is running which has taught me to fail, has taught me that if I want something bad enough, I will fail--I will accept and endure failure--to get it. As my main man Jack Gilbert says, "[A]nything/ worth doing is worth doing badly." I cannot exaggerate the importance of this lesson; I cannot tell you enough of the joy this lesson has brought me.
Running taught me to love my body and celebrate what it can do for me, to inhabit it when what I wanted most was to disappear. Running has also allowed me to disappear: quite literally, I've run away from my problems. Then, when I was ready or merely exhausted, running taught me to come back, to find my way home once more, wherever that home may be:
- In New York, I ran down 11th Ave and passed a sleeping man I would later bring a bagel and a plum.
- In Limerick, I ran a night race with a man named Liam, who has survived so much cancer that it changed the shape of his face. He wore a wonderful eyepatch. Together, we crossed over the River Shannon.
- In Ohio, I got lost doing a 4 mile loop around my then-boyfriend's grandmother's farm, so I stuck out my thumb. Within minutes, a dainty car had pulled over to pick me up. Inside, two old ladies smoking long cigarettes shook their heads and hollered at me to get in. I was scolded whole way home. They told me the world was a dangerous place. They called me sweetie.
- In Michigan, I ran barefoot down the beach, up the pier, and back again, stopping to pick up beach glass and odd rocks, careful to skip over the dead fish washed up from the storm the night before.
- In Kolkata, I was chased my wild dogs until a ferocious old woman wearing the white sari of a widow suddenly jumped between us, waving a stick and shouting until the dogs cowered and slunk away. Turning to me, she paused for breath and pointed at me. "Good girl," she said, and turned to point at the retreating hounds. "Bad dogs." She then turned back to me, looked dead into my eyes, and said, clearly: "Go slow."
The night before my first marathon, I was so scared I couldn't sleep. I watched the minutes tick down into the a.m. on the hotel clock, and loathed myself for still being conscious. A back rub and a podcast featuring the dulcet tones of Mr. Ira Glass helped put me down, but three hours later, I was up and muttering "Oh, fuck. Fuck. Where are my socks?" as I futilely searched my overnight bag for the only thing between me and 26.2 miles of blisters.
I was going to run the marathon alone, but then, I didn't. Three sockless miles in, I was settling in to my pace when voices up ahead caught my attention. It turned out I knew who they belonged to. Here is what running does: it allows you to be alone in a sea of people exactly when you need to, but when you need it, it is the common tongue that all people speak. I ended up running the race alongside acquaintances I hadn't seen in years, but by the end of it, we were dear and close, because nothing rekindles friendship faster than peeing in public (because the portojohns are all full and who cares, anyway, this is the RACE).
I ended the race with a group of men, all pacers. At mile 20, one asked me my name and I huffed it out while also managing to communicate the farthest I had ever run was the point we were at right now. He turned to the rest of his compadres and shouted, "Alright guys, this is Katie. Every mile after 20 is a new personal best, and we're taking her to the end. Katie, you're sticking with us."
The race is life. The runners are old and young, fat and thin, all colors, all monies. The race doesn't give a shit about where you're from or what you look like or who did what to you the week before. It cares only about one thing: what you can do.
There are so few acts that human beings can come together and do that are so pure, so elemental. Running is dancing, and it is mourning. God knows I've cried while running, which should surprise exactly no one who knows me. I've also laughed. The picture at the top of this post is me at mile 18.
Yesterday's horror is particularly insidious because it took one of the best displays of humanity that we've got going and tried to poison it. The news hit me right in my heart, but so did the news of the people who kept running towards someone who needed help. I know that plenty of yesterday's goodness came from non-runners: volunteers, bystanders, medics. To me, these instances of kindness prove what running proves: we can, in fact, be our very best in the face of the very worst. It is running which has taught me that; running and the people who did it before yesterday and will do it again tomorrow, because they can, because they must, because it is a reminder of all the good things we don't yet know we can do.