Putting one foot in front of the other

Running is like any relationship, except that it may feel more intimate. It involves sweating and smelling and grunting, for the most part in unflattering clothes. It’s reliable in the sense that it’s always going to be there, unconditionally, waiting for you. Nothing is required of you except that you start. 

“The miracle isn’t that I finished,” writes John Bingham. “The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

I think we have these myths in our heads about “real runners,” the ones that you see striding up the mountain without shirts on, or at the grocery store with long, sinewy limbs sticking out of mesh tank and lycra tights, perhaps holding a basket filled with broccoli rabe, coconut water and dried apricots. They have cool bumper stickers reading “13.1” and “26.2,” and acronyms for things we commoners don’t understand. 

Advertisement

In our minds, runners are young and fast. They are as graceful as gazelles. They seem to enjoy running, and even seek out physical pain. 

Maybe they’re just feel better than the rest of us feel. They have discipline, lean bodies, good arches, gregarious smiles and ponytails affixed on top of their heads even when it’s raining. 

Yes, some of those people do exist, just as supermodels exist. So what? Their relationship to running might look different than ours is, but it all comes down to one basic tenet. Runners are people who run. It doesn’t matter how fast they run or even how far they run. It doesn’t matter whether they’re wearing a tracksuit from the 1970s with Converse high-tops or ultralight sneakers and a backpack with a bladder. 

What all runners have in common is that they make the decision to lace up their shoes, walk out the door, and go. Whether running once around a gravel track or over a ridge and back, they’ve brave enough to start. They keep on starting, despite the burdens they may be carrying and what low points may befall them. They have a trust in themselves and in the universe. They are carried a few steps at a clip.

We’ve been living in a confounding time where we’ve been instructed to “shelter in place,” avoid crowds or gatherings, wear masks, and wash our hands all the time we’ve been forced to compress our daily three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional digital, sedentary world dominated by computer monitors, smart phones and flat-screen TVs. Stepping outside back into a world that we can see, smell, taste, and move around in will feel like the most liberating thing we can do. 

Running is more than exercise. It’s a sign of hope, a reconnecting to our primal selves. Not only does it stave off obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, but it also engages all our senses and motor skills. It and jumpstarts our immune system, heart-rate and brain activity. It allows our eyes to travel and our lungs to expand. 

As you run, the repetition of motion allows the mind to drift: narrating stories, recalling conversations and images, tracing the outlines of buildings, noticing a neighbor’s garden gnome, counting cracks in the sidewalk, watching clouds form and break apart in a patch of sky that seems as close one’s own breath. 

Do you get the impression that I’m one of those people who loves running? You’re right, It’s an old friend and a good friend. 

Sometimes we have to part for a while because I’ve got an injury or an illness or I’m having a baby, but we always find our way back to each other. For me, running is like a worn pair of jeans that I can’t give up and don’t want to give up because they thread together the different parts of my life, even the painful ones, where the holes form and the tattered edges drag in the mud. They feel well-lived.

Most runners want to live better, not longer. They want to pay attention, they want to explore, they want to feel the air, sun and wind on their bodies. They want to feel their feet connected to the soil or the pavement or the stairs or the rocks – to all the things that carry them back to themselves.

Here’s the good news. You don’t have to love running, or even like it to be a runner. You just have to want to bathe in the afterglow, that delicious flood of endorphins that turn air into chocolate and sweat into honey. 

Will the activity suck in the beginning? Absolutely! It always does. The more you know, accept, and acknowledge that, the better off you are. At he beginning, you’re likely to feel more like you’re lumbering and waddling around rather than running or striding, the better off you are. 

It doesn’t need to be pretty. No one is looking at you. They’re too busy looking at their own imperfections. if they are looking in your direction, at all, they’re probably thinking as I do: “Way to go! Keep it up!”

I have one friend who was so self-conscious about being “seen” that she would run up and down her driveway at night with a head lamp on while the kids were sleeping. When she graduated from the driveway she moved to an old, over-grown cemetery early in the morning and equated her progress with how many headstones she passed. “I got to 17 graves today and almost made it to the mausoleum!” It’s all about progress, not perfection! 

Some people crave the solitude of the woods — the intoxication of running water, the freshness of forest ferns and pine trees and meadows dappled with birds, butterflies and wildflowers. Others feel more secure on roads where footing is more stable, miles more easily measured.

If you don’t want to be seen, fine, run around your house or your apartment, that unpopulated part of a rail-trail, or up and down the same dead-end street until the boredom hurts more than the chub-rub your thighs are working on. Just get moving. Don’t let vanity get in the way. We all have to start somewhere and that somewhere is right where we are. 

There are a zillion apps, virtual runs, and online training programs a click away. They can help you set up a running plan with short- and long-term goals. They provide accountability and connection to a larger community.

Advertisement

By all means use the technology that’s out there to help you. But nothing will replace that internal decision to become a runner or to reunite with your running self. The power is in the decision. Start shuffling. 

If running requires some suffering, soreness and struggle, so does almost anything worthwhile in life. I’ve run along strip malls in Long Island, getting my three miles in behind a Walmart and Petco. I’ve also learned my way around Boston and Dublin, one curious run after another. It can ground you in time and place and give you a point of entry. 

Haruki Murakami writes in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

That running sweet spot comes, eventually, feeling like diving into a good movie or book or laughing with a friend about the absurdity of it all. There are the troughs and also the peaks. Ah, the peaks, when you feel like a superhero, graceful and strong and weightless and immortal and like you could run forever. The ailments will pass but the benefits stay with you every day all day. Be consistent. Form a foundation of strength, freedom, and resilience. Wonder whether you can take that feeling with you anywhere at any time. 

 There is no magic number or formula or training plan or body. Just do it.