There are few things in this world that are more simple than the act of running. All you really need to run is already within you. The only requirement is that you move your legs faster than you walk. A little faster, a lot faster, doesn’t matter. I prefer the additional comfort of running shoes, but some get by without even those. Of course we’ve complicated the act of running, commercialized it, like most simple things. There is an endless supply of gear such as watches, apparel, shoes, socks, gels, fabrics, heart rate monitors and hair accessories available these days. But running at its core is quite simple: move your legs faster. I love that it can be done nearly anywhere on earth: around the neighborhood, on a trail, at the gym, up and down a grid of city streets, on winding country roads, along the seashore as waves crash beside you, or even in a parking garage when you’re desperate (around and around and around to the top, around and around and around back down, repeat). I’ve called myself a runner for 10 years now. In those years, I’ve been an eager runner, a slow runner, a faster runner, a runner with specific goals, a runner with no goals, a charity runner, a pregnant runner, a solo runner, a runner meeting a weekly group, a running partner, a runner on a-very-long-break-from-running. But I always come back to it. I always come back because I remember a feeling that can happen when you run, when your breathing and your legs and the air and your feet and your mind are all as one. Just remembering that feeling, that powerful sense of flow, always calls me back to running.
So, having recently been a runner on a-very-long-break-from-running, I suited up in my gear: black tights, light jacket, running shoes, and headed out the back door. I knew better than to start off fast as I plodded down the sidewalk. I’d tried that days earlier and found myself gasping for air before I hit a quarter mile. That was my first post-surgery run and it was appropriately titled “That Sucked” in my Strava app. This was my second run. I was hoping to achieve the title “Less Horrible Than Last Time” on today’s run. I took it slow. I heard my feet drum evenly against the sidewalk. My ponytail swished back and forth behind me as I lightly bounded along. The sun shone and a cold wind pressed against my face. The air felt refreshing in my lungs. I crossed the street heading toward a loop near the YMCA.
I thought about how winter has always been my favorite time to run. Often people are perplexed by this, but I love that after the first few cold minutes your body settles into the perfect temperature. Each exhale leaves a puff of condensation that vanishes before you even have a chance to waltz through it. Overheating is not an option even though your skin is buried under multiple layers of wicking garments. The world feels still and quiet and waiting. You feel brave and rare all at once. It’s a lovely combination.
As I shuffled along, I thought about how slowing down has long been on my mind. While I’d hoped to slow my schedule, my life, I was now learning that “slow” would find me in more than one way after surgery. I would run slowly. I thought about how often we choose to fight against ourselves instead of accepting ourselves as is. We try to fix situations to suit our own agenda. We seek control of the uncontrollable. For years, when I’m worn and tired mid-day, I first think of drinking a cup of coffee. I want to override my exhaustion, to control it instead of accepting that my body needs more rest. Instead of choosing to catch a nap or embrace an early bedtime. Slow running felt right for my body that day. I worked to embrace that feeling within. To offer myself much needed acceptance.
I ran past the entrance to the YMCA and checked in with my body. I was still breathing evenly, though I noticed the beginning of strained inhalation. Legs felt good. No gasping yet. Better than last time, I thought.
With fingers now numb, I thought back to the first time I ran fast. Really fast. I was meeting my friend, Mike, on the Huckleberry Trail. I had first met him while he was a coach for Team in Training. He helped me finish my third marathon and after it, I was eager to improve my time. The terrain was mostly flat as we cruised past trees and benches, other runners and walkers. We turned onto Ramble Rd. and continued up toward the Corporate Research Center. I was huffing and puffing as my muscles worked fiercely to keep up, while Mike seemed to glide along the path effortlessly. Eventually, we turned around and headed back to the library. When we got back to the parking lot I was infinitely relieved. I had brushed against my limit and felt the unpleasantness that running can unveil. My chest ached and my biceps felt heavy from a build up of lactic acid. I stood tall, taking deep breaths and asked him how fast we’d gone. He glanced at his watch. “Three miles at a 7:29 pace,” he replied. What?? 7:29? I’d never in my life gone that fast while running a single mile, let alone three. I was thrilled. The moment just after those twenty two and a half minutes was one of the first times I thought about trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if just maybe I could finish 26.2 miles in under three hours, forty minutes. I knew I had to try. That was nearly seven years ago. I still wonder if I’ll ever make it.
I headed across Lynchburg Turnpike and into Sherwood Burial Park. I sometimes feel strange running through a graveyard. I wonder if it’s a bit morbid. But I’ve decided it’s not. I like to think if it were me in the ground, I would welcome the sound of life parading above me. And there is so much life within its gates. Beautiful magnolia trees. Oaks. Hundreds of birds sitting in the highest branches clamoring away. Without warning, they take flight at once, all together. Soaring seamlessly through the blue sky, curving and winding, painting a motion picture. Two squirrels scamper across the grass. I run by gravestones and say the names I read quietly out loud. Agnes S. Whitlow. John Paul Grant. I consider how each of these people has a story. Really, a million stories that filled all the days of their life. I see a blanket of flower bouquets stretching far and wide and know that their stories are still alive and in the hearts and minds of so many.
Up ahead I see a gravestone with helium balloons flying above it. One says “Happy Birthday” and the other says “I love you” and I’m surprised that it brings me to tears. All at once my heart experiences the loss and sadness that come with death. I ache for the ones who are missing sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, parents, grandparents, family and friends. I stop and walk for a bit while I wait for my tears to stop falling.
I think about my Grandma Alice. I remember the day she passed away in 2009. I was getting ready to meet Mike for a run and I was heart sick from the news. I still met him that afternoon and we ran a few miles along the hills of Plantation Road together. I never said a word about her passing to him on that day because I wanted everything still to be the same, for her still to be here. I wondered if I didn’t speak the truth out loud if it could change things at all. Of course it couldn’t. It was so windy that day. Strong gusts pushed and pulled the air around us as our hearts pounded, as our legs carried us up and over steep hills. To this day, I still feel her in the wind.
Eventually, I start running again and as I do, I think about my Grandma for a bit. I remember going up to Michigan as a child. I spent an entire week throwing Koosh balls down the narrow hallway with my cousins, hitting heads and legs and missing completely. I remember everyone gathering around the dining room table to play Pinochle and Hand and Foot for hours on end. Cards were serious business in the UP. I remember giant tubs of ice cream tucked away in the basement of my grandma’s farm house. There was a barn out back with ladders to climb, dusty stalls and endless places to explore. There were tiny wild strawberries that my dad would pick and share with me on walks down the long gravel driveway. Much later, I went back to Michigan as an adult. We took tractor rides through the back wooded lot and sat together with family around a fire pit telling stories and laughing together all evening. I remember the pies that Grandma would bake. She’d take the extra dough and roll it out on a cookie sheet. Then she’d sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top and bake it in the oven. I’d break off pieces of it throughout the day, savoring each flakey bite. She was a fierce dominoes player. The best. I remember her sitting in her recliner with her ankles crossed. She wore tall white socks beneath beige shoes. I remember the way the seam curved along the top of her shoe forming a little ridge above her toes. I remember making beautiful bells with her in my parent’s kitchen. Together we used tiny beads and a needle and thread as she taught us how to do it each step of the way. She made handwritten directions for each of my sisters so that we would always know exactly how to make them. Each Christmas, those bells adorn our tree. I remember holding her hand on my wedding day while we took pictures before the ceremony. I remember her being quiet and gentle, much like my father. She was a teacher before she got married and lived much of her life on a dairy farm. I imagine she woke early each day and had unending chores to attend to, all while raising her four children. She had an incredible memory. Never missed anyone’s birthday. Just then, the wind rises across the open lawn and kisses my red cheeks. I know she is right there with me.
I’m thankful at once for this slow run with my Grandma. For time to feel her in the wind and in my heart. By now, I was finishing the back side of my running loop, heading toward my house again. While a fast run can be thrilling, a slow run can allow your mind to travel and unwind in any direction it chooses. Thoughts can mingle together and then disperse. The mind is open and accepting of all that is, all that was, and all that will be. I breathe. I feel. I live. When I get back home, I stop the watch on my phone and title my outing “Running with Grandma”. I couldn’t have had a better person in the world to run with on that lovely windy winter day.