Early Run

If one is lucky enough to be out for a longish run on a September morning in Ohio, it’s all about the sky.  It starts out velvet black, spangled with stars so low and bright they appear to rest in the treetops.  With luck there’s a moon, saturated with light and seeming near enough to reach.  Running is an act of absolute faith, one foot following another along a path familiar enough that sight would be redundant.  The eyes rest on the sky, seeking and finding constellations, geometry, order on a scale far beyond the quiet footsteps and warm breath of the runner.

Gradually the road appears, and the stars begin to fade as the day gathers itself towards dawn.  The hush gives way to hesitant birdsong; raccoons rustle in the thickets and flashes of lesser black betray the buoyant tails of deer and rabbit as they shy away from running footsteps.  The air starts to move, and wafts of warmth come off of asphalt parking lots whose sunheat still lingers.  The sky becomes an inverted bowl, silver along the eastern horizon and shading up and over into the last inky shadows in the west.  Skin and shoes are shades of grey, ghostly and indistinct in motion.

Coming down the first hill into the beginnings of sunrise, the color of parchment against an achingly dark blue sky.  Legs and lungs working in concert, not too hard, breath coming easy and regular.  The morning star hangs low and luminous in the brightening sky, outshining the fading moon and just paler than the golden bellies of the strips of clouds.  Below them, the faintest wash of rose clings to the horizon, sending fingers of color out into the pearl.

No sun yet, but it’s a relief to turn aside and run under a tunnel of trees, where the darkness lingers in the shadows and the light is visible only as a lacy filigree between the leaves.  They are green now. and dark gold and orange, and the bright hues of shirt and shoes stand out against their cool, quivering backdrop.  Beads of sweat, soft and salty, glow on cool skin, but the dew on the grass is still invisible, shrouded by the last blanket of night.  It’s very quiet.

Where the road slices the forest, the eastern sky is visible for a moment, blazing now with gold and red, the clouds halfway to the zenith painted with radiance.  Above the trees, the sky is dawning blue and clear, glowing as if backlit.  Everything shines: the road, the headlights paired like glowing eyes, the trees stooped towards the verge.  The hills are blocking the sun’s appearance, its fire reaches high into the heavens but its face is still hidden.  The world is saturated in color, the sky flames almost blindingly scarlet and gilt, but still there is no light on the leaves, no dew to be seen on the grass.

Time to turn away from the panoply of light and run the long, slow hill to the west.  Legs are tired now, but shortened steps and quicker breathing accommodate the slope.  The world is less bright, less impatiently brilliant in this direction; only the faintest shimmer of  gold at the tops of the trees shows that the sun has finally shown its face.  The hill is a mile long, rising more and more gently as it climbs, and by the end of it the sun is above the horizon.  The newly-changing leaves catch its rays and toss them back in a thousand reflected ripples of light.  The first rays strike the grass and pick out the heavy drops of dew, lighting up runways of crystal across the fields.  The air is heavy and moist, trapping the sunbeams in long, sloping triangular lightshadows of gold and green.  The sky is as pale and blue as at midday, all its darkness gone.  There is no urgency in air or light; the day is launched.  The warmth of the sun bathes weary arms and legs, fills the air with freshness to fill tired lungs.

These last two miles are the only ones run in full daylight.  They drag, without the loveliness of the dawn to compel the eye.  The footfalls blend together and blend with the breath until running is just the mind and the sunlight absorbed in one another.  The cool air glows with the promise of afternoon warmth, there are cars and dogs and children and other runners all seeming to be in a hurry. But they’ve missed it.  Their hurry is run by clocks, not by the great curved patterns of the sky; they only know that they are late. The runner has stepped within that ancient dance that raises the new day; the runner is right on time.

©Mary Braden 2014

First Run of Winter

The first real snow of the season fell overnight, and I woke to a chilly wind that was busily scrubbing a golden sky free of the last shreds of cloud.  I wrapped up warmly to go for an early run, but soon the exercise took the chill off and I was able to peel off my gloves and unzip my jacket while the cold air leaped and curled over my skin, turning drops of sweat into tiny pockets of fast-fading chill.  It was nearly dark when I left the house, the road muffled by shadowy drifts of leaves and lit by the gleam of streetlights off the snow.  By the two-mile mark, the margins of the last puffy white clouds were golden and aflame against a sky so silver-clear it seemed backlit.  The fields of corn stubble lay still and brown, surrounded by the black lace of bare thickets, the surrounding trees still dropping an occasional silent leaf into the wind. My shoes crunched the frozen leaves as I ran, and I found myself listening to the rhythm as if it were music, punctuated by the deep, easy counterpoint of my breathing as the cold air filled my lungs and then poured out again, visible in the half-light.

By three miles, the world was fully-colored again, the bright gold of gingko and maple standing out bravely against the increasingly-neutral hillside palette.  The road was nearly dry, but faint traces of ice where draining water had puddled against the leaves gleamed flatly against the pavement just enough to make them easy to avoid.   The wind streamed strong and steady from the north, with enough force that I had to lean into it to keep moving forward.  That was a slow mile, but immensely invigorating.  The clean, frosty taste of that cold air was like wine, the smell—rich with the fading scents of forest and field, but diluted by pure, bright emptiness—equally intoxicating if less pure.

My route turned away from the wind a little past the four-mile mark, and I headed uphill through the village, where both coffee shops were bustling and the grocery store was doing a brisk business in doughnuts and muffins.  Car tailpipes coughed and belched white vapor as their mittened and scarved drivers nestled into their seats with travel mugs steaming.  Aroma trails of cinnamon and butter wafted into the street, and an ongoing chorus of “Good Morning,” and “How are you?” accompanied me up the hill with many a smile and a wave.  One of the best things about living in a very small town is that all the faces are familiar.  Those of us who are out and about early in the morning are an especially cheerful crew, and all those smiles make it easy to run up any hill.  They take the sting, too, out of the inevitable glimpse of myself in the shop window, where my imagined pantherlike grace is forced to yield to the visual evidence of a dumpy, middle-aged woman working much too hard to be moving this slowly.  But hey, it’s better than sitting home on the couch, right?

At the top of the hill is a sharp right turn, two blocks of quiet residential streets and then home.  The last minutes flew by quickly, as I checked pace and distance against my GPS phone app, scanned my body for new aches or twinges, strove for a perceptible burst of speed at the finish and kept an eagle eye out for unexpected patches of ice.  Nothing felt cold at the end of 5 miles, but the chilly weather prevented even a moment of feeling overheated.  Wide-awake and breathing hard, body wired and alert but not hurting, I was ready to face anything this day could throw at me.  Worth every minute.

©Mary Braden 2013

On The Run

On the brink of my 45th birthday, after a lifetime of Olympic-calibre inertia, I am astonished to find that I am, in fact, a runner.  In the last year, I have somehow turned into one of those people who puts on their shoes and hits the road in all kinds of weather and actually enjoys it!  After several months of walking, then walk-run treadmill workouts and finally running outdoors regularly, I ran my first 5K at the urging of a beloved running friend in November and was ecstatic to see my 11:36 overall pace.  In January that same friend suggested I join her for a half-marathon in May; instead of collapsing in giggles of disbelief, I signed up.  I ransacked the Internet for training schedules, bought really good running shoes (and cushy, moisture-wicking socks), started cross-training on the circuit at my local Curves, and cleared my weekend schedule so that I could devote Saturday mornings to gradually-increasing long runs.   I downloaded GPS-driven running apps to my phone so I could keep track of how far and how fast I was running. I learned that my left knee gets impossibly sore if I skip cross-training, but that it responds beautifully to exercises that strengthen my hip abductor muscles.   I iced and elevated that knee and took ibuprofen after long runs and found that it performs better and better over time, the stronger I get.  I ran the half-marathon and loved every minute of it; my average pace was 11:16 over the whole 13.1 miles, not a racer’s speed by any stretch, but I was pretty darn proud of it then and I still am!

This summer I’m trying to maintain the conditioning I built up for the half-marathon. I run 20-25 miles a week, 10 in a single Saturday long run. My average pace over 5 miles has dropped to about 9:45.  I’m going to try to run a 5K in under 30 minutes later this month, and plan to register for another half-marathon in October.  I want to incorporate yoga into my running routine to improve flexibility, mental focus and core strength, and to establish a routine of walking a couple of miles on my cross-training days to give my legs some variety.  I don’t think I’ll ever win a race, slow and easy runner that I am, but I intend to finish a whole lot of them.  I don’t mind a bit not being competitive with other runners, because external competition is the reason I’ve avoided sports my whole life.  I like beating my own PRs, but couldn’t care less what other people are doing out there.  When I’m passed on the road by a runner with 20 years on me and a graceful, effortless stride, I’m inspired, not crushed.  Hopefully someday I will be one of those!

Every day I bask in the rewards of running. I fall asleep within moments of my head hitting the pillow.  I get to enjoy a healthy, widely varied diet without gaining weight, my energy level is higher than I remember it being even as a child, my skin looks fresh and healthy, and I handle stress better than ever before. And of course my body is beginning to look more like a runner’s body; leaner, stronger, more compact, more resistant to the pull of gravity.  My body is accustomed to the rush of endorphins, the fabled “runner’s high,” that accompanies prolonged intense exercise, and it likes it…I actively look forward to it even when the weather or my mood or life’s other complications make it difficult to fit into the schedule.

It really never is too late to start to run, or to call yourself a runner.  Bodies are made to run, to ease into that gentle, loping stride that feels like it can go on forever, or to lunge forward in a burst of speed that energizes every fiber of muscle, joint and senses.  Our sedentary, stress-filled lives are crying out for something active to burn off the anxiety, for time in the open air, for chances to reconnect with the natural world, our thoughts, our bodies.  Running doesn’t have to be fast to be beneficial; my favorite running mantra, stolen from an unremembered article, is “No pace is too slow for a training run.” Common sense prevents the vast majority of running injuries:  take it slow, don’t increase mileage by more than 10% in a week, stop doing what hurts, be generous with rest days.  It pays off.  I’m here to tell you that it can be done, even in midlife, and that it can change your world for the better.

©Mary Braden 2013

Old Woman Running

25 years ago, I was a total non-athlete. I was a reader, a conversationalist, an observer and a student rather than a participant. Other people lived in their bodies, connected with their worlds through breath and stride and resistance, but that was not for me. “Exercise” was just one of the things I was told I should do and didn’t.

Fast-forward a quarter-century and I’m on the eve of attempting my first half-marathon. The odds of success are good; it’s a 13.1 mile race and I ran 12.04 miles a few days ago without problems. Has my image of myself changed? Not really. I’m still a thinker rather than a doer, an audience for other people’s acting. But I’m having to wrap my mind around the fact that I am now also a person who makes time and space in their life for this thing called running. And that is quite a change.

I’ve never battled a serious weight problem or been given a chilling, “wake-up call” diagnosis. My blood pressure is fine, my blood sugar is fine, my cholesterol is fine. I’ve been overweight as long as I can remember, but never labeled “obese” or unable to do what I wanted because I was unfit. I’ve been able to find clothes, fit in airline seats, keep up with my kids. So I made excuses, wrung my hands occasionally and let my body slowly decondition while I lived life in my head.

I was handed the opportunity for a fresh start about 14 months ago. For about 2 years before that, I had been reading and thinking about ways to make my life a more accurate reflection of my own self rather than an attempt to avoid conflict or fulfill the expectations of others. So I finally did that. I ended or changed the boundaries of relationships that were toxic and oppressive. I began investigating my own ambitions and desires and figuring out ways to realize them. And I began to look at and think about myself in a holistic way, as an entire person rather than a discrete collection of strengths and weaknesses and habits.

The first thing I did was to start reaching out into the world to spend time with people and activities that engaged my interests. And when my timid efforts bore fruit, I felt a surge of confidence. Suddenly I became interested in seeing what I was capable of in a host of ways, in testing myself against my own goals and learning what I could really do.

So I started walking on the treadmill in the fitness center at my office. Then I started run/walking. Then I started running outside and discovered one day that I could run the entirety of my favorite long walk, some 4.4 miles. My workplace offers incentives for wellness activities, including running, so I began tracking my mileage/speed first with a pedometer and then with an iPhone app. And then a friend suggested I run a 5K and I did, and she suggested that I train for a half-marathon and I agreed. The notion of “racing” never did and still doesn’t appeal to me. The challenge of gradually training my body to be able to cover that distance is addictive; figuring out how finally to sidestep my excuses and do what is best for me is a puzzle worth lingering over.

I wonder if perhaps I spent my life as a non-athlete because I was afraid to be judged, or to fail, or to look like an idiot. I suspect the answer to all of those questions is some degree of yes. That doesn’t really matter now. What matters now is that somewhere in the fog of figuring out who I want to be during the second half of my life, it occurred to me that I want my body to be strong, and my mind to be disciplined and dedicated enough to keep it that way. I’m a nurse; I see and hear every day how people’s lives are compromised by their bodies’ failures. I have lost friends and family members to bad genes, bad lifestyle choices, bad luck. I felt like a hypocrite smoking cigarettes, eating junk food and sitting on my couch.

So I quit smoking nearly a year ago, started exercising and, more recently, began eating a near-vegan wholefoods diet. I feel great. I look good, even to myself. And most of all I feel competent. It takes work to get the basics of life–food, water, sleep, exercise–to flow in a healthy way on a regular basis. And I accomplish that work nearly every day. That’s why I keep doing it. Because for the first time ever, I am the champion of my own health, my own mental stability and clarity and creativity, my own feeling of wholeness. Running is cheaper than therapy, and it makes everything work better, from my digestion to my spiritual life. I’m a slow runner, and unlikely to gain much in speed, no matter how hard I train. I’m okay with that. Slow means less risk of injury and more time to think.

Tomorrow I’m likely to cross the finish line and be proud of myself for accomplishing the goal I set for myself months ago. Today, looking back over the long swath of time that I ignored or even abused my body, I’m grateful for having found a happier path. From now on, the effort to keep my body healthy, strong and capable will be part of who I am. I will revel in the rhythm of breath and footfall and heartbeat. I will feel the connection between myself and the trees and rocks and animals I share my world with. I will let the anxiety and frustrations of my inner life be dissolved and balanced by the flow of endorphins and the deep oxygenation of prolonged exertion. I will sleep like a child and wake with confidence because that’s the gift I finally got around to giving myself and thank God it’s not too late.

I may never define myself as an athlete. But I define myself today as a runner, and I’ll be out there running for as long as I can.

 

Mulling and Meandering

It was beautiful outside this morning, which made it a no-brainer to go for a long walk.  The birds were singing their little hearts out, squirrels were frolicking, flowers bursting out all over in waves of color and fragrance.   The breeze was still cool, swirling around the dew-drenched greenery of garden and thicket, but the air was lush and moist enough to suggest definite sultriness to come.   The sweetest perfume of all was from the heavy banks of lilacs standing in the places where old houses used to be:

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I walked along my regular running route, which takes me past Antioch College, through quiet neighborhoods with a wide mix of architectural styles, out into farmland, back in along the rails-to-trails bike path along the edge of a nature preserve, and up through the heart of downtown.   It’s deeply familiar territory, but there’s always something new to see, particularly at walking pace.  Like these proud papas defending their territory:

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Passing through the “suburbs,” it looked as if another kind of avian skullduggery was afoot.  The “You’ve Been Flocked” yard sign made me giggle for a good 100 yards.

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Long (45-60 minutes or more) walks are a wonderful centering technique for me.  They re-establish me in my body and environment, pulling me out of my own head where my thoughts too easily become self-referential and obsessive.  It’s a great time to practice focused observation and attention to my surroundings, and also a fine opportunity for thinking things over without getting stalled or stuck in a rut.  There’s a palpable harmony about traveling on foot at a comfortable pace; the long deep breaths and warm muscles create a physical comfort and relaxed alertness conducive to mellow thinking.    There are unique satisfactions about walking a familiar route, too.  It allows me to appreciate the slow, incremental changes—foliage, angles of shadow and sunlight, abandoned buildings aging, trees blossoming or fruiting—as well as the smaller, more specific alterations—home or garden improvements,   birds and animals, passers-by, unusual cars or dogs or costumes.  Being of a philosophic turn, I like to observe the inner conversation that accompanies the myriad of sights and sounds and smells.  This conversation is like a waking dream, images and words and ideas flowing unfettered, sometimes in rational lines of premise to conclusion, sometimes in lilting, unbidden notion-sculptures of unexpected beauty.  As I was in the midst of one of these reveries along the bike path this morning, I paused to admire this splendid Yellow Springs landmark, whose whimsical practicality (or possibly the other way around) captured exactly my interior state of mind.

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A little further along, coming into downtown for the final stretch, it looked as if this little tree was blossoming beyond its wildest dreams.

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What a splendid thought for someone to have and then to execute, adding new loveliness to an already lovely thing, gilding the proverbial lily to yield two delights instead of one.  I scanned the early morning foot traffic of coffee-seekers and schoolchildren to see if I could see in any of them the germ of the spirit that had devised that pretty scheme.

The final few blocks of my route are through the central part of the village where every house is different from its neighbors and the styles range from curvy Art Deco stucco to low-country southern cottages wrapped in verandah.   These are houses where I know the inhabitants and their children, remember which ones have endured death  and which have welcomed new babies.  This is where my home begins, the haven where I am known and accepted for myself alone.

The red cottage on the corner has been thoughtfully restored by a woman whose eye for design is matched by her extraordinary green thumb .  She likes old-fashioned flowers and my favorites are blooming now, forget-me-nots.

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Because, after all, isn’t that really the point?