I’ve always hated, hated, hated running. Did I mention that I hated running?
That terrible, uncomfortable feeling I would get in my chest and legs when I would run more than a block. The embarrassment of falling so far behind the tall girls in junior high during gym class. The scorn I had for those self-satisfied lithe runners I’d see bounding past my house.
This meant that as an adult, I would never break into anything more than a trot. Which doesn’t quite fit me, or my idea of me, because I love to exercise. I always enjoyed those painful aerobic classes back in the nineties and was a yoga enthusiastic before everyone and their New Agey aunt trolled the neighborhood with their irritating eco-friendly yoga mat holder self-righteously slung over their shoulder.I spent my years in Paris always on my bike, once riding from the Loire Valley back to Paris during two, twelve-hour days when I found out my boyfriend John was cheating on me.
I liked the pain and sweat and catharsis that came with excessive effort. But pain and effort for running? Never.
Until about eight months ago.
For the past 11 years, ever since Sam was born, I stopped doing much of anything physically. We live on a hill in San Francisco, and I’m not macho enough to power up and down it with 30 pounds of toddler behind me on a bike. Classes of any kind – yoga, Pilates, aerobics — average out to cost about $35 an hour if you figure out the cost of the class and the babysitter. As a freelance writer, I never made quite enough money to justify the money to spend regularly on such a luxury. And I usually felt too guilty asking my husband Steve to watch Sam so I could jet off to a Saturday or Sunday Bikram yoga class.
But this year, at the age of 46, a few things at the same time happened in my life that turned me into a runner.
I had been doing The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book on tapping into your creative self. Just as I had pooh-poohed running for so long, I’d also discounted Cameron’s book as too “New Agey,” too narcissistic, too pretentious, too too. But then my writer friend Hazel, who is as smart and sensible and non New Agey as they come, told me the book had changed her life as a writer.
I was looking to change my life as a writer, so bought the book, again, after having given it away only months earlier. I began doing Cameron’s morning writes every morning, and at week five in the 12-week self-directed course, had one of those rare epiphanies you pay a brilliant therapist to arrive at. For years, for most my life, I had been caught up in my own self-designed “virtue trap.”
For as long as I could remember, I made sure I was a good girl: a “good” mother, wife, daughter, employee. But in being the long-suffering “don’t worry about me” strain of your average fallen-Catholic martyr, I realized, you lose yourself, you lose your direction. And worst of all? You are secretly, silently seething, and blaming everyone around you – your fabulous husband, your adorable children – for not letting you live your life as you’d like to. But it wasn’t them who was stopping me. It was me who was stopping me.
When I realized trying to be Mother Mary Leslie, Holiest and Longest Suffering of All Mothers on the Block and Surrounding Environs, that’s when it hit me with the clarity and force of a religious epiphany what I needed to do: Stop blaming everyone else.
So right at the same time I realized this, thank you Ms. Julia Cameron (former wife of Martin Scorsese, by the way), I also looked in the mirror: Straight on, in my underwear, without squinting or flinching.
I’m a thin woman. But just because you’re thin doesn’t mean you don’t have fat. Weird fatty areas around the underarms and especially at the waist. And it was newish fat. Blobs of skin and excess I hadn’t noticed, and certainly hadn’t reckoned with, since my thirties. My waist had disappeared. I’d turned into a human refrigerator: A square torso with skinny legs and arms sticking out.
That gift of psychic self-awareness along with the stunning, startling realization that my body had gone all squishy middle-agey brought me to the divine realization that my time of reckoning had come. Time to stop being a martyr. Time to find time for myself. Time to fight the blobs.
And just around this time I read an essay in The New Yorker by Haruki Murakami, entitled “The Running Novelist,” which was an excerpt from his new memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
What surprised me was how sort of ordinary, almost lacking affect, Murakami’s essay was. As opposed to his lyrical, almost mystical novels, his writing wasn’t inspired or beautiful. It was matter-of-fact and sort of rambling and almost boring. But it got to me. He wrote about how one day he had his own epiphany: He had been running a jazz club and had been at a baseball game when suddenly, at the moment the bat hit the ball, he thought: I could be a writer.
He began writing, but was getting heavy, and then decided to start running. For Murakami, running meshed perfectly with writing. He would sit and be sedentary for much of the day, but running gave him the emotional and physical outlet he needed to stay balanced and fit.
For decades now, he has run and written with equal intensity and dedication. They are his two passions, and one passion feeds the other.
“Leslie, you idiot,” I thought. After all these years as a freelancer, after those many days when I’d feel all stiff and fuzzy-headed, I could have done something so simple, and free, as to go for a run.
So the next day I ran. It was terrible, but also inspiring. I ran a block. Then I walked. I felt mildly uncomfortable. But then I’d run a little more. The next day I’d do it again. I surprised myself at how driven I became. Not driven compared to an accomplished runner, or even a garden-variety runner. But compared to me. Compared to the old me. The squishy, martyr me.
My knees started giving me problems and I talked with my next-door-neighbor Mick, who is a scientist-cum-marathon runner, who told me I might want to invest in real running shoes rather than wear my 10-year-old tennis shoes. My knees got better. And of course, after a few weeks, I found myself getting incrementally stronger and better at longer distances.
I’d wake at 6:00, zip out of the house before anyone – my husband, my son, my daughter – had a chance to wake and ask something of me. (Confession: Plenty of mornings I’d hear my three-year-old daughter wake, she usually wakes crying, and I’d escape from the house with my shoes still in my hand…then put them on a half block down. The old me would have felt too guilty doing this: Poor Molly crying. Poor Steve having to take care of her. Now I know we’ll all be okay. Better than okay. Molly learns Steve can take care of her. Steve learns he can take care of Molly. Leslie learns she can take care of herself.)
San Francisco, despite or because of the hills, is a wonderful city for running. Because of the hills, there are odd little hidden staircases I discovered; remarkable, living here for 20 years and just finding them now. There are plenty of undeveloped hills where, after laboring to the top, I stop for some push-ups and a few Maria von Trapp twirls as I look out over the city, just waking up. There are gingerbread houses and Dr. Seuss trees. There is silence and birds and just my own self huffing and puffing. And so often, so often, I think of me here running and it feels ridiculous: Me, a dyed-in-the-wool running hater. It’s like I’d been one religion and switched. I’d recreated myself, in my own stealth, middle-aged, unremarkable way.
For my last birthday, my friend Kim – who has also had a recent born-again fitness experience, thanks to her very ripped goddess personal trainer Kelly (who writes about getting in touch with “your inner baddass”)– gave me an IPOD Nano with hours of running music. Kim felt sorry for me because I told her when I would run with my IPOD, more often than not “Elmo’s Song” would come on, because it mostly had Molly’s favorite songs on it. God bless good friends.
Through See Jane Run, this fantastic women’s running store down the street, I’m now training for a half marathon, which really, isn’t that much, when compared to most serious runners. But compared to me, it’s something.