Going the Distance

I’ve known for 20 years that regular exercise made me feel happier, but I didn’t get serious about it until I found myself needing to rebuild my entire inner world after a long, brutal, and losing battle with a beloved husband’s alcoholism and schizophrenia. After our final separation left him homeless and me hanging by a razorwire of unfathomable guilt, exhaustion and terror , I began the painstaking work of re-assembling the parts of myself that had survived the cataclysm. Barely able to sleep or eat, I recognized the value of the advice I kept hearing: slow down, be gentle, take care.  I started going to the office early in the mornings to walk on the treadmill, in silence the first few weeks as my mind fluttered and raced incessantly, and then with music playing.  At first I only walked a mile, then two, then three, fast enough to break a sweat, but not enough to ache afterwards.  Then I started to jog a little, one minute in every ten, then two, then five, until I was running for a half-hour every day before work.  Leaving my empty house in the cold dark, walking into the warm building, feeling my heart and lungs and muscles warm up and my mind slow to a gentle, lilting, wordless ebb and flow became the rhythm of those tentative, exploratory days. 

As the holidays approached, and the world erupted with reminders of how my attempts to build a family and home had failed, I clung to work as an anchor and a distraction.  My weekdays were spent in a cubicle as a case manager for the mentally ill and addicted, awash in a sea of documentation and phone calls.  On weekends I worked hospital shifts on the oncology unit where I had worked as an aide during nursing school and then as an RN when I passed my boards.  Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my best friend suggested that I try to run a half-marathon.  I scoffed, but something about it caught my attention. I looked at training schedules, thought back about how much progress I had made over the previous months, and decided to do it.  That decision, to devote myself to a goal that would take months to prepare for, and that belonged to nobody else but me, was an enormous milestone in my self-awareness, and one that I’m quite sure saved my life.

As the dust continued to settle, as I then commenced another equally ill-fated but blessedly brief courtship and marriage, as I came finally to understand that my peace and freedom truly mattered to me more than sharing my life with any one particular person, I was running.  Week after week, month after month, I gradually built my mileage, started running on the roads, learned to listen to my body and gradually pushed it to new levels.  5 months after I started training I ran my first half-marathon, with my friend at my side to help me navigate the unfamiliar crowds, the mysteries of pace corrals, gear stowage and timing chips.  I ran faster than I had hoped, and didn’t have to walk—my first exposure to how much cheering crowds, irreverent signs and musicians on the corners can improve a race.  More importantly, I kept on running.  As the briefest of marriages peaked and fell, I ran another half-marathon and paid the price for letting the stresses of failure keep me off the roads…I had to start walking at mile 11, and felt like I crawled over the finish line.  Since then I have tweaked my training schedule dozens of times but never let it lapse again.  I signed up for a third half-marathon the following spring and managed to injure my Achilles mere weeks before the race, which I had to cancel.  The same friend spoke up—why not run a marathon? Plenty of time until the fall! A marathon? 26.2 miles of running? Impossible! But something about it felt every bit as right as that initial nudge to run a race.  So I registered and trained for a whole, hot Ohio summer, punctuated by the return of the beloved now-ex-husband, sober and psychologically stable, who is now my cherished friend and roommate, although no longer my romantic partner.  At 46 years old, I ran those last long training runs before the marathon—18 miles, 20 miles, then three weeks of tapering ever-lower mileage until the race itself.

That was a grand day, my first marathon day.  I had spent the few days prior with a new beau whose unfailing support for and delight in my excitement made him the perfect answer to pre-race jitters.  I sent him to the airport before I left for the finish line, though, and ran the race alone, buried deep in the rhythm of my footfalls, the song of my breath, the sunrise and the energy and the ache in my legs and the steadily increasing brilliance of endorphins. Running that entire distance was an amazing feeling, but its meaning was the months of training that led up to it.  I was hooked. I immediately started training again, and despite injuries and working too much and a wealth of fine and joyful distractions, I haven’t stopped since.  Running is the daily reminder of how I have learned not only to survive but to thrive.  One foot in front of the other, slow down if it’s too hard, let your body set its pace, don’t lose sight of form, let yourself relinquish everything except what is right here, right now. The lessons aren’t really about running, they’re about where you’re going and how you want to be when you get there.  Life’s long distances take incremental training, the flexibility to adjust but not abandon the attempt when complications arise, the mental resilience and commitment to persevere. Long lives, like long runs, take lots of water, plenty of sleep and a regular flow of good meals. Shortened mileage one week means renewed effort the next; a strong run today provides mental fuel for tomorrow.  Watch your footing to avoid falls, but don’t forget to lift your eyes to the horizons and take the long view every so often.  That’s the whole point of running, after all, to get where we’re going.

©Mary Braden 2015

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