Friday, February 8, 2008

Running on Air

I had a perfect run today. I was fast. I ran without effort. I was one with the air. I had an outer-body experience watching myself and feeling nothing but awe at the the wonders of my human body. Crowds were cheering somewhere in the distance or maybe it was just the sound made when I broke my own speed barrier. It's not always like this.

Often, I've felt I was simply shuffling along forcing myself outside because I should. The stresses of life crowd my thoughts and I lose touch with the marvelous world around me. Instead of experiencing the joy of the landscape and wildlife, I'm worrying about time, the day ahead, and wrangling kids. When it's a particularly terrible run people die. I've had runs where the body-count was up in the double digits. I'm running and killing off characters left and right, even the good ones. But today there were no deaths. There was no stress. It was just me and the rhythmic sound of my breathing and the crunch of my sneakers on the road. This was my moment of Zen.

On my way back home I thought about the days when I decided to take up running. I'd been going to an all-women's gym near Grand Central Station. I worked out on the stair master, the bike, the treadmill, lifted weights and took step classes. I'd race to the gym from work desperately trying to get there before it got crowded and you had to wait on the dreaded lines while the sound system pumped out its generic club music which had been focus-group tested to keep the mood light and the bodies moving. I tolerated the crowds, the lousy music and the constant smell of intensified ladies' sweat; after all I was doing the right thing for my body.

What I couldn't tolerate was the abuse my fellow women heaped on themselves. They would pick apart their bodies in front of everyone-

"Isn't this disgusting, have you ever seen anything like this?"

"I'm a pig, a pathetic pig. Do you know I ate an ice cream cone this weekend?"

"If I don't lose ten pounds by the end of this week, I'm scheduling the surgery."

This kind of talk was too much for me. I hated the way women would stare at each others bodies with this intense jealousy which would be manufactured into self-loathing. It was corrosive and when my contract was up, I was out of there. I went to the bookstore searching for something and found running.

I wish I could say my first steps were without ease. Hey, I was the kid who ran everywhere. I was like Laura on Little House on the Prairie. I was actually afraid that this whole running-thing wouldn't be challenging enough. I woke up early for my first run. I'd start out with an easy ten minute jog and then push into a harder workout. I could do this; I'd taken Advanced Step Classes. I'll spare you the gory details but I was horrified in the aftermath to discover I could barely manage two minutes. How did this happen? Something happened to me as I headed home out of breath and sore, I refused to accept these two minutes, I pledged to work my way up to running 20 minutes straight and a runner was born.

It wasn't always easy or fun but I did it. I reached 2o minutes and aimed for 30. Each time I pushed myself a little more. Soon the homeless guys in the East River Park were waving and calling me "Flo-Jo" as I whizzed by. I started running races in Central Park. I even completed the marathon in 1997. I ran through pregnancies and through a divorce. No matter what chaos swirled around me I could always lace up my running shoes and go.

I don't compete anymore. I haven't run a marathon since and sometimes I'll let life intrude and go days, even weeks without running. Then I come back to it and have a run like today and I am filled with this one pure certainty- I am a runner.

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