I am a runner

Giuseppina_leoneI am a runner. I started running in fifth grade in the very first gym class in the new school when our gym teacher sent us running track and I discovered in that very moment that I loved nothing better than running, which I was to find out very soon applied to any kind of running really, track, hurdling, sprint, cross country running. It was an instant infatuation, like falling in love – only it lasted.

Kicking off my shoes and running – that to me is freedom!  An abstract concept it seems once you start talking about it, freedom – but it is a very specific if elusive feeling. Some say that humans can only know degrees of freedom or doubt there is such a thing at all, and yet, like love, you know it exists when you feel it. I feel it when I am running as fast as I can, to this day, and though there is little accomplishment in kicking off your shoes and running, I don’t question freedom is at least possible when I run. Sometimes I am running from something, I won’t deny that, but more often I am running towards something. But I am always running by choice. It’s what I do.

I am not a strategic runner, I am an impulsive, adrenalin-driven, you might say – stupid – runner. I don’t run races, I just run until the road turns blue . It’s my very own personal race against the odds. I ran right up to graduation, I ran through law school and my law degrees, love and disappointments, pregnancies and the toddler years of my children and divorce. I always kept running. It served me well.

Reckless Steve Prefontaine, Pre, is one of my favorite runners of all time, his best running happened when he wasn’t running strategically but when he just ran as if there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately he also lived and died like that, but then again, can you run in any other way than in accordance your true self? Maybe you can, but not if you are either a dilettante like me (every weakness, every pretense of self-aggrandizement falling away as you are straining against your very own narrow limits) or a – seemingly – effortless talent. I did  so admire (and still do admire) Abebe Bikila, who, years before I was even born, won the Olympic Games running barefoot and who had the kind of dignity and faith that only few people are ever graced with. The comedian Robin Williams commented on Bikila’s barefoot running and hit the point as usual: “Bikila won the Rome Olympics running barefoot. He was then sponsored by Adidas. He ran the next Olympics; he carried the fucking shoes.” I am sure he would have carried Vibrams too instead of wearing them.

I also admired Jesse Owens, probably the most accomplished athlete in history, the track star who deflated Hitler’s madman vision of “Aryan superiority” by winning four medals in the 1936 Olympics, an undeniable individualist, a runner.

And as I was a nerdy teenager despite my love for running it goes without saying that I read all I could find (not easy to find all that much at our local library, the days before the advent of the internet) about Wilma Rudolph, la gazella nera as the Italians called her, winning the Olympics in 1960.

Rudolph had contracted infant paralysis as a result of polio at age four and went on to grow up to be the world’s fastest woman by sheer will power. Talk about overcoming hardship.A Wilma Rudolph’s quote – probably to some degree scripted I thought back then – taught me the one lesson that applies to running as well as to the rest of “it”, life. If you are a runner and you have a bad day, you run. If you are a runner and you have no strength, you run. If you are a runner and you are being told that you can’t run, for whatever reason, you go out and run. Even if it’s just a short distance. You go out there and you run. So simple. And you know in your hearts of hearts that if you can run this short distance despite whatever it is that attempts to keep you from running (most likely your own laziness) – you can somehow manage to do the rest, too. This is what Wilma Rudolph said: “I ran and ran and ran every day, and I acquired this sense of determination, this sense of spirit that I would never, never give up, no matter what else happened.“ And that is what made me run. Made me kick off my shoes and run,  just run. I am not a jogger. I am a runner.

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