My parents were never happy unless they had spent part of the day exercising vigorously. We took camping holidays so that they could ride their bikes up mountains. I thought this was normal, so as soon as I was old enough to walk, I started walking with great zeal. There’s a story about how when I was five or six I led a hike and actually wore out an adult family friend. Again, I thought this was normal.
How I started running, though, is different. I actually used to loathe it. When I was about 12, the high school track coach recruited a friend and I from middle school, so a few days a week we would train with the cross country team. I know why he chose my friend–long legged, fast–but as for me, shorter, slower, my only guess is that he foresaw a dogged endurance in me that I didn’t actually yet possess.
My first year in high school I joined the track team, of course. I used to listen to Belle and Sebastian’s “Stars of Track and Field” to make myself feel better (or at least a little more indie). It was the most exhausting and miserable thing I had ever done. I’d never been fitter, but I was 14, and this didn’t strike me as much of an accomplishment, really. I was more interested in my first boyfriend, and getting good grades so that I could go to a college far, far away, and in reading as much as possible in as short a span of time as I could. There was a glamour about running track, and every once in awhile I thought I could feel the lure of it (“You only did it so that you could wear your terry underwear and feel the city air run past your body…”) but mostly I spent every day dreading the long afternoon hours spent running in circles and through the tiny towns around the school.
I was never made to be a sprinter, and I would never have wanted to (I don’t know what pleasure can be got in only a few seconds of exertion) but I equally hated the competition of long runs. As soon as I knew I had to run faster than somebody else, I stopped wanting to run at all. This is, if you couldn’t guess, not the best attitude for a competative runner to have. We’ll say this: I was never very good at track.
Halfway through the season, my long-legged friend developed knee problems and had to drop out. Then I developed a swollen foot that I milked for as long as I could, and when it had healed, I went and told my coach that I thought it would be best if I left the team. “Is that what you want?” he said (he was slightly scary and I had spent all day in anxious anticipation of this moment). I told him it was. “Okay,” he said, and that was it, I was free. I joined the lacrosse team. I wasn’t any good at the game itself, but the months of running had done my body good, and I could run far more effortlessly than anyone else on the team. This didn’t matter to me, much. I just wished I looked as cute as the other girls in their little shorts at practice.
The first thing I experienced that nebulous thing they called “runner’s high” was on the beach at home in my second year of high school. I was running over spring break to stay fit for lacrosse, and I was so surprised, and enthralled, by the feeling that running was good, that I actually threw my watch (which I had to hold in my hand anyway because the strap had broken) into the ocean. This is why I remember the day, and though it seemed like a good idea at the time, I now can’t begin to understand what was going through my mind when I did it. In retrospect, it seems symbolic–I didn’t want to run because someone else wanted me to, I didn’t want to compete with a clock–but we’re rarely so self-aware in the moment.
In Boston, running is a serious sport, and I liked going out into the city and feeling a part of something. Even on the muggiest summer day or the iciest in winter you could count on having at least a few other silent, dogged companions.
I’ve not been the most impressive runner, but I’ve been doing it fairly consistantly for years now. The only person I’ve ever found that I can run with is the Man, because I don’t feel the pressure to be competative (he’s faster than me–a lot faster–and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about that), but nowadays I mostly use running as a chance to be introspective and physical at the same time. I like being both a part of the place I’m in and an observer watching it happen. Nobody bothers you if you’re going faster than them.
In Oxford, I think I’ve started to use running as a sort of meditation. One of my regular routes takes me around Christ Church meadow, and though I love the place anyway, it takes on a different tone when you’re breathing hard and your legs are moving fast. Suddenly the beauty–which varies in colour by season, but never in quality–is something that invigorates you, moves you, not just something that you move through. I actually run better on days when the light is doing spectacular things to the trees and the spires. Luckily that is most days, here. And on the way home, going down the Iffley Road, I pass the track where Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile and I think that though I will never run a four-minute mile, here I am running anyway.