Last week I clocked a mile 41 seconds faster than my fastest mile in high school.
Afterward my lungs felt liked I’d been punched in the chest, but still. I am no sprinter. I was pleased.
The best part, though, even after so piddly a distance as that, is never the time, for me. Unless it’s the first week or so after I ran it (or, clearly, if it was the number attached to me on a high school track team), I tend to have to look it up when someone asks me my marathon PR, or to compare it with my former PR. I have enough numbers ruling my life that I cannot escape; the running I choose to do in my free time will not devolve into mere digits emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids.
The best part, instead, is the feeling you get a few days after a major exertion, when your body is starting to heal enough that you feel something other than sore, and you roll up onto the balls of your feet to wrestle with your dog and realize that, yes, those things are your legs. Those things that feel (however overconfidently) like you could do this or this or this. It’s a moment of strength.
It’s a moment of strength, but of physical strength, which it had made sense all my life to distrust, question and scorn. Because even from the earliest age you are told it doesn’t last; that nothing physical does–your elders saying how much more energy you young whelps have than they do now, advertisements despairing about wrinkles and singing the praises of plastic surgery, studies latching onto the diets of this or that ethnic group, trying to mine the secrets of their vitality. I know everyone knows of these things and chooses to see them or to not see them in terms linking them to the decline of society. But I deliberately chose to define myself chiefly with words and nothing physical, nothing tied to my body, because as everyone makes so abundantly clear from the moment you’re old enough to understand them, that won’t last. I thought that if I made myself matter to people because of what I wrote rather than what I weighed or lifted or ran, I could defy the decay attached to failing bones and bad hips and just the general decline that everyone is so set on bewailing all the time.
Even now, actively pursuing a sport (though I may not participate in it as a serious competitor) that calls on my muscles and bones to perform, I am distrustful of it. I am wary of taking so much joy in a thing that the perfectly plausible sudden loss of that thing–whether due to temporary or permanent injury, or weather incompatibility and the lack of funds for a gym membership–could render hopelessly beyond my reach. I am wary of enjoying my body because I am reminded every day through the blaring foghorn of media focus that it will head downhill. Is already heading downhill. Was always heading downhill. Hell, maybe The Watch by Rick Bass just stuck with me too much.
But of course–if it didn’t always circle back to this I wouldn’t always bring it up–circumstances in my family make somewhat difficult the perpetuation of the illusion that we will all remain in good-natured possession of our full metal faculties until our respective passings. If Rick Bass’s character in The Watch was driven over he edge by the loss of his ability to race, how much worse the occasional lapse into clarity of the dementia patient who used to write novels or surgically-targeted reviews? If I spend my life assiduously avoiding putting time into, or taking pride in, whatever my body can accomplish, constructing instead an identity entirely wrapped up in words and their tactical deployment at key points in time, am I really averting anything? Am I really protecting myself any more than if I took pleasure in both the physical and the mental capacities we are born with, and build upon to the best of our abilities, even knowing that both will ultimately collapse?
Well, I’m still running, so obviously I’ve arrived at my answer. I suppose this is the point at which many people turn to organized religion, and despite the catastrophe writ large in the news every day by organized religion I try to remind myself that seeking that kind of communal affirmation of one’s beliefs isn’t to be derided. But I ask your leave to understand how one’s body and mind, and one’s willingness to put time and value into either, is something more personal than it seems to me any abstract association of fables coupled with centuries of top-down factional warfare should ever be able to affect.
Once, the man who became my husband described to me once a conversation he had with his best friend as teenagers in the throes of teenage religiosity. They were talking of having children and the friend said how he’d want to take his child to the seashore for the first time and show him the expanse of sea and sky and say to him, “Look, look what God made!” And my husband replied, but isn’t the sea and sky enough? Why do you have to bring a god into it? Isn’t the great sweep of all that magnificence enough? At which point in the telling, unbeknownst to him, I decided I could love this man for the rest of my life.
When I read Natalie Stavas’s story of her Boston finish this year, I reminded myself that she had been through much. That she was physically and mentally exhausted, and that she’d seen things happen to people that I hope never to see secondhand much less to experience myself. But despite these precautions I was unable to grind to dust a tiny seed of disappointment when I read of her finish line religious conviction. Because you sell us all so short with your need to ascribe what is great in the world to something else, some nebulous being you can then assign likes and dislikes to as your governing body dictates. Granted, you saw mankind at its worst, ripping each other apart with tiny bits of ordinary objects–but I don’t just mean mankind here. I don’t mean the people pouring intact across the finish line, or the people cheering them, or the doctors putting those ripped to pieces last year back together.
I mean everything. Sky, stars, wilderness…running and the ability to run. To write. To laugh. Must you attribute the greatness of these things to something else? Something other than the stuff of which it’s made? Wind and sunlight; blood cells and good feeling? If we get to be responsible, morally and spiritually, for the ripping of each other to pieces, can we not also be responsible for the reconstruction, the celebration? Must it belong to something else?
The reason I signed up for my tiny little one-mile race wasn’t practice or a sudden desire to run really short distances really fast: it was its location. It didn’t shuffle off to the side of town or to a neighboring village; it planted itself right in the heart of the place I’d called home for years. The place where my adult life had begun and where most of it had occurred since. Just before the turnaround, dodging around a gash in the pavement still left from winter’s plowing, I realized that I was running right over the spot where I’d been hit by a jeep nine years ago. He had run his light, and I was pedaling along on my bike trying not to be late for work, and he plowed into me. The bike was totaled, but I leaped off, and while I momentarily dislocated my arm in the leap, I got away (walked away, in shock and embarrassed, refusing an ambulance and only later going to the hospital when my arm seized up) with only a few bruises to my legs, and a broken bicycle. It was here, I thought wheezing over the spot, remembering my mother’s fury when she discovered I’d failed to mention getting hit by a car, while not wearing a helmet, until I’d already been to the doctor. I could’ve died here. I was young and stupid and helmet-less and could’ve easily been rendered paralyzed or a vegetable or dead, had I not jumped away, or caught myself once I jumped. It was right here. I ran faster.
But when I crossed that finish line my thoughts weren’t for someone’s idea of a god; or of my next race; or even of my mom, the imaginary curing of whose disease I sometimes fantasize will be my reward, if I can only run faster than that truck or train or other runner. My thoughts were only two words: I’m alive. And it was enough.