Though I’ve run with training groups and human and hound running partners from time to time, running has always been a largely private matter for me. My running for running’s sake began when I was 13 in the summer of 1995 as a means to reconcile the very adult problems my parents were having in their marriage in ways that I could not on the couch of the child psychologist I was shuttled to and from each week. While the topics to sort out have evolved, there has never been a dearth, and even long training runs with racing end goals have been sacred mental spaces that I am careful to retain.
I consider my running habit to be both selfish and selfless. Running escorted me through my stumbling teenage years, sub-zero Maine winters in college, the dust of Botswana in an ankle-length skirt, California, Pennsylvania, a home renovation, a catastrophic break-up, Michigan, a 180-degree career change, graduate school, diagnosis-surgery-ongoing-treatment of a chronic disease, and Oklahoma… so far. Running has proven to be the one thing I can depend on. I’m fiercely loyal if you’re worth it and running has never let me down. On the flip side, the running habit I value as private and self-healing is the same habit that allows me to give my best self to the external world.
But recently, brick by brick, a wall began going up in the middle of my life and I realised that my running habit was responsible for its construction. After relocating to Oklahoma for graduate school, I stayed and took a job here. My position is a new one in which I work independently. As far as my colleagues know, I hail from a faraway land and I have a curious habit: running. Presented with a mandatory lunch break for the first time in my professional life, I decided logging a few miles around midday was a great way to increase the efficiency of my afternoon tasks, not to mention help preserve my evenings. As the days funnelled toward the winter solstice, my lunch runs became the vitamin D boost I needed and a welcome reprieve from my desk job.
Many of my co-workers battle growing waistlines and shrinking vitality. I attribute much of my own health and weight management abilities to an upbringing that encouraged healthy eating and activity. I’ve had only to maintain those routines, instilled by my parents, to stay on track. During my first week of college, I rebelled, marvelling at the option to choose a soft drink as the beverage accompaniment to my dinner. But after a few nights of wild soda freedom, I shrugged off the option in favour of what I was used to and returned to water. Historically, Oklahoma food culture does not promote health and my colleagues, many born and raised locally, have spent their adulthoods battling the habits instilled during their childhoods.
Weight, especially for women (the majority demographic of my office), is a charged topic. Everyone watches what’s in that Tupperware you toss in the microwave and what you self-serve at lunch-meeting buffets. My fitness and healthy eating met with judgmental looks and even questions about my portion sizes and exclamations about my wasting away (for the record, I am a healthy weight, in the normal BMI range if you adhere to those sorts of metrics).
When I started changing into running clothes and heading out the door at lunchtime, people talked. I acquired a nickname, “Bootcamp” – a joke, sort of.
I don’t ever run for show and I don’t run at lunch to provide myself with 50 colleagues who will see me and feel guilty that they don’t.
One of the most valuable lessons running has taught me is self-care. And so I ran on, despite the awkwardness, the strange looks.
I thought that my discretion with the whole routine was the most polite way to go about the lunchtime outings. It’s not something we have in common, I thought; it’s something that makes people uncomfortable, and that is uncomfortable for me to share. I’m never sure how to explain the way running has persevered through the past 20+ years of my life. Explaining to someone you know only from working in the same office for a few months that this motion of one foot, then the other, of breath and warmth, has been the only constant for two-thirds of your life, is something that just seems like a giant overshare that will only lead to more questions I am unprepared or unwilling to answer.
In late December, just before the holiday vacation, when I hit the six-month marker at work and the people were not so new any more, I passed some colleagues as I headed to change after a run. Someone called out: “There goes Bootcamp!”
It’s not always effortless, I said. I smiled. I hoped she believed me, knew I was being truthful, not trying to patronise her.
Well, you make it look that way, she said. It’s beautiful, really.
I thanked her.
I realised that running, among so many other things that it’s been to me, is also perhaps the truest expression I’m capable of, especially as a writer who knows what it is to labour over a heap of words on a page that rarely make meaning and even less often reach the public eye. As a runner I toil with my body and mind on a stretch of road, lost in my own thoughts and seemingly invisible, but often in plain sight.
Whether hidden or visible, a run is always in-progress, not a finished product.
But perhaps there is something transcendent about the visibility of a work in progress that I so seldom display in other areas of my life, especially when it comes to my writing. Running gives us no choice in the matter. Exposed, raw, a body seen running down a street by another is irrefutable in its existence, is all on its own – transparent and truthful – art, in one of its purest forms. The expression of running, like anything else we make ourselves and put forth into the world, is something to be interpreted wholly separately by its perceiver compared with how it is experienced by its performer.
And really what huge relief and unexpected joy I found in that moment as a runner, with a non-runner (or a not-yet runner), that I could say very little about my running, but that it was still something I was capable of giving, that through a mile that might be painful inside, but look effortless outside, I might share the greatest thing I can possibly hope to, that which is sacred to me.