I was always the slowest runner in the class, never an athlete. I always got laughed at. Always picked last for the team. Even though our family put emphasis on physical fitness, it wasn’t the competitive kind, like baseball or soccer. We did hiking and skiing, canoeing sometimes. We stayed in shape, but I felt like I was the wrong shape in the puzzle of the schoolyard.
When I left home, I rode my bicycle out of necessity, frequently riding ten miles or so to my destination, and this kept me in shape. Over the years, I used my bicycle on and off for transportation, and found it an effective way to get around. Never was I bothered by the mess the helmet made of my hair, or the street grit on my face and clothes, or the biting wind and salt and sand in winter.
But when I took up running, at age 40, late 1998, I discovered Heaven. It started at 3am. I told Joe the night before, “Honey, I’m going to try running tomorrow morning when I get up. Just around the neighborhood. So don’t be alarmed if I make a little noise coming in and out.” He was staying over that night.
I recall he said, “Be careful, Jules. Are you sure you want to go out in the middle of the night?”
So I did. I ran around about three blocks in maybe an inch of snow. I carried no cell phone, no whistle, nothing. Just the silence of the night and the sky above me and the whiteness below me and the cold of the air kept me going. I came back in, showered, and got to my writing and school assignments, and worked until Joe got up.
“Did you actually go running,” he asked, “in the snow?”
“Yep. It was awesome. I’m hooked.”
I increased my mileage after that, running a mile, then over a mile. It was easy, because I was already in shape from bicycle riding. I brought my dog, Tiger, until I found that she couldn’t keep up with me because of her age. The vet recommended that I leave her at home, so I did.
After a short while, I wore out my running shoes, and bought a new pair. Then I wore out the next pair, and the next. By then, I had established a route that I liked, and had enough sense to run at a reasonable hour. I ran every morning, early, for a half hour, showered, then walked the dog. It was my favorite exercise ever.
Then, on November 1, 1999, I broke my leg.
I was walking down the street and tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. I was just unlucky, I guess. I was carrying a heavy load on my back. I hit my knee the wrong way, at the wrong angle. My bone was sliced clear through. It didn’t help that I had osteoporosis from years of having an eating disorder. I ended up with three screws in my knee.
Eleven years later, I am running again. The parallels kind of freak me out. When I took up running in 1998, I had just come out of a really bad time. It had been a year since my amazing turnaround on my 40th birthday. When I discovered running in 1998, I felt like I was very, very young, like I was just learning to live again.
You all know, readers, that this is exactly how I feel now. And I am running again.
So when I started out on my run today, I kept thinking of all the runs I did when I was 41, and the fact that I am wiser now for sure, and am taking more precautions, perhaps out of necessity simply because of my increased age. I thought of where I was then, and where I am now. I thought of Joe and I asked myself if I had ever grieved for him.
I thought about what I had eaten before my run. I felt okay with it: peanut butter on whole rye bread, a banana, and orange juice. My digestion seemed to be working all right and my energy level was high. It was 44 degrees out. I was dressed in two fleece jackets over a t-shirt, a hat I knit myself (non-wool), and leggings. My running shoes, Adidas, are new. My shoes were tied just right. I had my cell phone in my pocket and my keys. My MP3 player was loaded with music I had chosen especially for a 40-minute run. I planned to play it loud!
I arrived at the track and set my watch to “chrono.” I adjusted my clothes. I started my MP3 player and adjusted the volume, then clicked on my watch and began my run.
I was surprised at my first lap speed. It seemed faster than usual. Generally, I like to take it easy at first, but this time, I couldn’t help but run a little faster than I usually move. Ffran May’s “Stered Aour” was playing. It is in French and English. I can’t understand the French, but I know the song is joyful.
Next song: Vertical Horizon’s “You’re a God.” I discovered Vertical Horizon by accident while surfing for something else entirely. I’m still hooked. All this was around 2005. Oh, 2005…this was when I was on 900 mgs Seroquel and gained so much weight that I could not walk without gasping for breath. I gained 50 pounds in six months. I hated my body. I wanted to hide myself and never be seen. I remember 2005 was when I met Simon, via the Internet. I flew to England to meet him. When he saw me, and saw my overweight body, his face fell. I will never forget this. “You deceived me,” he said.
But now, I can listen to Vertical Horizon’s music and not think of Simon. I can run and think of the feel of the track underfoot and the coolness of the air in my nostrils. I can feel my body parts flexing and working in synch. I can feel the beat of the music propelling me forward. I can remember all airplane trips I’ve taken–not only to England, but to Seattle from Boston to attend the Goddard residencies in Port Townsend, Washington, twice every year while I was studying for my MFA. While I was on the plane, I knitted dog sweaters for Puzzle. Vertical Horizon’s music means “journey” to me. And as I ran the next couple of laps, my journey moved on.
The next song, Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” I find deeply disturbing, and I’ve heard cover versions of it that brutalize it because they trivialize the song to the point of rendering it flat and lifeless. At this point, I was at a slower point in my run, or so I thought. But when I heard, “I can see you…your brown skin shining in the sun…” I thought of Joe and my speed picked up. I remembered how he introduced me to Don Henley, how he had his favorite music. I thought of the early days of our relationship, when he would pick me up in his Buick, and we rode to old abandoned parking lots….I felt the strength in my body and the lightness in my step at that moment as I rounded the far end of the track, and I sped up.
There weren’t too many other runners on the track today; there never are, really. I suppose it is more populated on weekends. Today I saw a racewalker; or, rather, she was walking fast, and a woman runner, and a man runner, both slower than me, and a young sprinter, perhaps 17 years old, male, awkward with a shock of black hair and sunglasses and a sweatshirt. He kept going back and forth on the track, very fast, checking his time, stopping, dashing, glancing, darting this way and that, but always vigilant, so I wasn’t afraid of bumping into him. It is some of the more idle walkers that worry me, the ones that do not seem to stay in lane. My concern is that they’ll weave into my lane and I’ll crash into them! Needless to say, it hasn’t happened yet. I see young mothers with strollers sometimes. There were a couple of them today. Also, there were two elderly women who walked several laps each. The most annoying problem I encountered today was some sort of athletic team warming up on the track. They decided to seat themselves right on the track, leaving only one lane open for runners to pass through. What was their coach thinking? Why didn’t he have them warm up in the center field inside the track, instead of right in the lanes? I ran through the one open lane, hoping no one faster than me was passing through at the same time, and ran on.
When I reached the end of four or five laps, it was just that–had it been four, or five? I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t recall if perhaps I’d forgotten to count the last lap I’d done. Frank, who has encouraged me and helped me so much and in many ways is my cybercoach, has suggested that I count off the laps on my fingers. I find I lose track if I don’t do this, especially since I listen to music. But now, I wasn’t sure–had I run four, or five?
Thankfully, I had my watch to tell me. I swung it around my wrist, while running past my start point, to check my time. This would tell me. To my shock, I had run four laps–a mile–in under twelve minutes. It was 11-something. This was the fastest I’d ever gone.
All my “self-doubt,” as Frank says runners call it, went out the window at this point. Into the second mile, Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” came on. The sun came lower down on the pavement, reddening it, building it up, making me fly further and higher than ever before. You may think this song is misogynistic. I grabbed at this notion and immediately stated my opinion to Joe. “No, you don’t get it, Jules,” he said. “It’s about one person appreciating and loving the other.” Joe, perhaps my ways have softened now. Perhaps I’m less angry. Perhaps I’m more angry. Perhaps I just don’t talk about it anymore. “Hey, she looks all right…she is all I need tonight….”
I sometimes get a surge of confidence once I’m past the halfway mark, into the seventh lap. Here, I’ve run a mile and a half. But my pace sometimes falters here. Bruce Hornsby’s “Every Little Kiss” helped speed up my pace. Always aware of my breathing, I had gotten nose-breathing into synch now–in through my nose, out through my mouth. Frank and I had discussed this earlier. He said this was the most advisable method of breathing for runners. Today was my first time trying it, and I’m sold on it. In…out…in…out….It takes focus, kind of a centering, like using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and burn a leaf. Slowly, it burns, and a great fire burns and warms me, and fuels me on…”and the day goes down on the water town…and the sun sinks low all around….”
The beginning of my ninth lap, that is, the beginning of the third mile, and also the beginning of the tenth lap, are the time of the big surge for me. My pace begins to take off here, as does my energy level. I am really soaring now, as I do on every good run. Nothing will stop me now. I am moving and the track is moving me along, pushing me forward, and my body is doing just what it is supposed to do. Dar Williams’ live track, “As Cool as I Am” comes on and I feel the joy of my present-day life and I push forward and leave the past behind.
I eat now. I eat to live. I live and I feel the joy of life and I run and hold onto this moment, for life is short. I eat because I want to live. I do not starve myself anymore. I will be kind to my strong, powerful body with all its incredible machinery, at least for today, at this moment, here on the track.
Faster and faster now. I know I am breaking all my records. Dar Williams comes on with another song, “I’ll Miss You Till I Meet You.” Why the heck did I put this sad song in here? Then I think of the sadness I feel over the miles of distance between Frank and myself, the way we have to rely on the Internet for contact, that I cannot look into his eyes for real, or hold him, or hug him for real, and how much I want to keep him from harm’s way through my touch….Maybe that’s why I put a sad song in there, even though I’m close to the end now, and I’m flying ’round the far end of the track, pushing ahead, and hardly anyone’s left walking or running up here now, just me and the waning sunlight, now farther and faster than ever before.
The third mile is nearly over. “Big Love”–Lindsay Buckingham–live. Faster and faster furious guitar. You can hear the sweat on him as he strums, the sweat on me as I run. Brief pictures of Joe flash through my head–the night dreams I had of him after he passed away. I remember my favorite of these dreams. I don’t recall when I dreamed it. Maybe two years ago, but it’s like yesterday. He’s wearing his red shirt. He says to me, “Jules, Jules, you gotta see this place! The food is great, and they have shows every night!”
He’s talking about Heaven. And now, running, I’m the one in Heaven. Because here in the third mile, my body is doing just what it’s supposed to do. I am cooking on pavement. And Joe, I know I never grieved for you, I know I never had a chance to say goodbye, I know I just ran off to grad school, and tried to forget, and tried to be strong. Perhaps my anorexia is a way of stuffing that grief. Perhaps my anorexia is something else entirely.
What would Joe have said, if he had seen me, shriveling up, not eating, wasting away? I do not know. Maybe he would simply have ordered a large pizza, eaten half, and made me eat the other half.
Back in those days, I was so lost that I pretty much did anything anyone told me to do.
Joe, I have to lay this to rest. I miss you, but I must finish this run. I must move onward. At the end of the eleventh lap, I start to run faster. I am going to burn now. Everything I ever believed I could do, I can do right here, right now. At the end of the twelfth lap, I check my time. Thirty-five minutes! I have one lap to go. This will make it just over 5K. Here, Rockapella sings, “Eye of the Tiger.” But I don’t care what the music is. Fuck the music. I am going to fly. I am going to make this lap the fastest I can go.
I lengthen my stride. I imagine it is December 19th, at the Winter Classic 5K, in Cambridge. People are cheering and clapping for all the runners. I am wearing a bib with a number on it. A very lucky number. The cold nips at my face and my eyes tear up from the wind but I’m wondering if maybe I’m crying a little, just weeping from the excitement of the moment, and knowing that it wasn’t long ago that I was starving myself, and now I feed myself, and what a miracle this is. And then I take another last few leaps, and cross the finish line.
My time: 37:47.
The Winter Classic 5K is on December 19, 2010 in Cambridge, MA, at 10:30AM. I’ll see you there.
My wonderful new book, This Hunger Is Secret: My Journeys Through Mental Illness and Wellness is now available from Chipmunkapublishing–click here to access. To read more about it at my home site, click here.