To my daughter Zoe who completed her first half-marathon today:
I am a runner. I started running in fifth grade when our gym teacher on our first day of sports class sent us running around the track, and most of my classmates were moaning as they were shuffling along, but I, to my surprise, discovered in that very moment that I loved nothing better than running, any kind of running really, track, hurdling, sprint, cross country races. It was an instant infatuation, like falling in love – only it lasted. I soon found out another thing: kicking off my shoes and running – there was such freedom in that! To think that there had ever been a time when I didn’t know about running! Instant Freedom. Such an abstract concept – but such a specific if elusive feeling. Abstract the concept might be, you might debate whether humans can ever know it, because they so pathetically depend on a complex net of interactions to survive just a few days, and yet, like love, you know it exists when you feel it. Freedom. I feel it if I run as fast as I can, to this day, though there is little accomplishment in kicking off your shoes and running, I grant you that, and yet it’s one of the (certainly undeserved) gifts running bestows on me. The feeling of freedom. I am sometimes running from something, I won’t deny that, but more often I am running towards something.
I am not a strategic runner, I am an impulsive, adrenalin-driven, you might say – stupid – runner. I don’t run races, I 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, loves and disappointments (quite a few), through pregnancies 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 strategic 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 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 the seemingly effortless talent. I did admire (and still do admire) the inimitable Abebe Bikila, who won the Olympic Games running barefoot and who had the kind of dignity and faith that only few people are ever graced with. The great Robin Williams commented on Bikila’s barefoot running it in his own inimitable way in one of his stand-up acts (or so Wiki says): “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 read about Jesse Owens, probably the most accomplished athlete in younger history, the track star who deflated Hitler’s madman vision of Aryan superiority by winning four medals in the 1936 Olympics. And 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 gazelle nera, winning the Olympics in 1960. Rudolph had contracted infant paralysis as a result of polio at age four and went on to be the world’s fastest woman. Talk about overcoming hardship. Wilma Rudolph’s quotes – probably to some degree scripted I thought – 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 anyways. If you are a runner and you have no strength, you run anyways. 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. And you know in your heart of hearts that if you can run this short distance despite – 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.“
I am a runner.