I can remember three distinct times in my life that I’ve had to learn how to run.
In sixth or seventh grade, we ran the mile. It didn’t appear daunting at first, but after one over-zealous time around the track, the wheat got separated from the out-of-shape chaff.
Kaylee Jameson, one of those girls who woke up at 4:30 to go to swim practice every morning, lapped me 3 times during my second leg. My lungs burned, and with each step I felt heavier than my legs could carry.
Those 11 or so minutes mortified me. I wheezed my way around the track while most of the class watched, since they had already finished. Playing the violin and performing in middle school musicals hadn’t built my cardio-vascular endurance.
As I crossed the finish line, Ms. Ronstadt barked my time out, loud enough for everyone in the sixth grade to hear. She recorded the number on her clipboard, shaking her head as she repeated my time to herself. Apparently she stopped doling out “good jobs” somewhere around 9 minutes.
Ms. Ronstadt played the role of stereotypical gym teacher quite well. Her skin was tanned like leather and she sported a short, spiky haircut. Rumors circulated about her former relationship with the lesbian reading teacher. I didn’t like the way my mile time seemed to personally offend her.
I worked on recovering from what felt like dying while the remaining two or three students finished.
Sincerely worried over how people thought of me and not at all worried about my physical fitness, I vowed to myself that next time, I would be ready.
Each week, I ran on our treadmill, which happened to be in my family’s living room at this time. I faced the picture window with jaw set, slowly increasing the amount of time I ran and decreasing the amount of time I walked.
Inner thighs chafed, sweat poured out of armpits, but all the while I imagined shocking my scowling gym teacher, making my way gazelle-like around the track and lunging across the finish line. I’d high five my fellow athletes and watch a much greater percentage of my classmates finish behind me.
I revved myself up by using the Walkman I inherited from my older sister Carolyn. The Supertones, a Christian ska band, accompanied my bi-weekly runs. I wore a sweatband I got as a prize from Pizza Hut when A Goofy Movie came out and a pair of large exercise shorts I bought on clearance at Target that did not fit me at all.
On the day of the second mile run, I came with my Walkman cued up.
Ms. Ronstadt whistled, and I pressed in the play button, starting the blaring horns of the Supertones. I paced myself, not allowing the initial sprint of my peers throw off the cadence I’d rehearsed.
I finished in just under 9 minutes. As I walked a cool-down lap, a true athlete, I kept my Walkman on, enjoying my victory march.
Mrs. Ronstadt’s response: “This is too much improvement, you must have not tried last time.”
I decided running wasn’t my thing.
The second time I learned how to run, I learned how to run longer.
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I trained for a half marathon with my boyfriend. Not long after that, we broke up. I spent my days moving through tangible darkness and wanted to pass most of my life under the covers in my bottom bunk.
But I kept running.
I wanted to prove something to myself and to him. I needed to finish races by myself, longer races, pushing myself harder, taking my depression and anger to the bike path and working it out on winding forest preserve trails; I got faster. I beat my feet against the ground to the rhythm of angry guitar riffs and bitter love ballads. I ran the Chicago marathon on the day we had planned to get married.
And somewhere past the anger, I kept running. I grew accustomed to covering distance, to working out essays and prayers on long runs, and getting so far out on the path that I could sing aloud to the Miley Cyrus songs and show-tunes on my running playlist.
I worked through my first year of teaching and many hopeless crushes on runs down Chicago’s lakeshore. I ran another marathon and a few more halves, finally breaking two hours. When I didn’t run, I got antsy, and longed to carry my body across the miles, to hear my shoes scuffle against sidewalks and to feel the endorphins drip down to my toes.
But after my accident this February, I stopped running completely. I stopped working out altogether. At first I was physically incapable of running. Then I lost one of my running shoes. And then I just couldn’t because I couldn’t.
So right now, I’m learning how to run for the third time.
Up until about 2:15 p.m. every day, I plan to go running. And every day at 2:16 p.m., I decide that it’s impossible. All of a sudden, making it home from work seems a questionable feat.
My counselor and I have been working through the lethargy and depression following the traumatic events of this February. Each week I complain that I still cannot get myself to work out. “I’m so tired,” I moan.
“Have you tried walking?” she asked.
Walking, the obvious precursor to running. The thing I learned to do sometime after one year of age. The way I got home from school for years and how I make my way around the city on summer days.
And yet, I am rarely satisfied with walking. I want to run, to figure out mysteries quickly, and speed through discomfort. I desire the best, most impressive version of me and falling short leaves me standing still.
I heard the questions buried under my counselor’s simple inquiry: Are you willing to be honest with where you are? Can you be satisfied with slow progress and small increments?
It’s bothersome because I already learned to run. I paid my out-of-breath, stomach-cramping, and shin-splints dues.
But she’s right. I haven’t tried walking. Accepting square one gets harder as I age. But it’s never easy.
We played a math version of shoots and ladders in the first grade room I teach in. One of my students, who really likes to win, slid his piece away from the shoot he landed on.
“I’d rather land on a ladder,” he said.
We all would. But for so many things, I must be content to walk today and hope to run later. Whether it is curiosities about my future as a writer and comedian, failing at eating healthy, plucking my eyebrows, or clearing away the rubble in my room, I need to learn to walk because I can’t run right now, and I can’t stand still any longer.
I’ve started making pint-sized goals: pluck 10 eyebrow hairs, put away 3 pieces of clothing, write one sentence.
And somedays, when I start walking, I feel well enough to run for a little. In the motion of moving one foot after another, my limbs remember their cadence and loosen with energy. Trying to walk releases the fear you have that you can’t run.
Yesterday morning I plucked 22 hairs from my eyebrows, a record-breaking day. And several of my “one-sentences” turned into several hundred.
Drew and I did two runs to the grocery store. It’s a short distance away and a feasible destination. We ran to the store and then walked home with fresh bratwurst to grill, sweet corn, and ice cream treats.
Other days, I still grapple with myself to force out even part of one sentence and to pluck out my tenth eyebrow hair. Coping on these days remains a work in progress. Maybe I’ll save these issues for my next time at the shrink. I think its next Wednesday.
So dear reader, do you find yourself on square one again? Have you tried walking?