I start to run in 1973 on a track above the basketball court at the McBurney YMCA in New York City. Twenty laps to a mile. T-shirt, cutoff jeans, denim sneakers with orange laces — flat and heavy, like low-cut basketball shoes.
The Y sells a lap counter, a metal gizmo that fits into my palm: one click for each time around. Using it means I no longer have to count the laps, and my mind can wander while my legs do the work. I can be both of my body and apart from it, present and far away.
Before I stepped onto this track, I thought of myself as unathletic. Hadn’t ever played sports. There were no teams for girls in my big suburban high school, only gym class, with its daunting pommel horses I could not mount and ropes I was afraid to climb. Never the absolute last to be chosen but one of the stragglers, a restless, fumble-fingered klutz in an ugly blue gym suit.
Now it’s as if a switch has been flicked, and the whirring restlessness inside me has turned into purpose. I can run!
I buy real running shoes — white Adidas with three green stripes — and run in the street. Never again will I run indoors.
A woman runner is a rare sight. Men call out when I jog by: “Where’s the fire?”
They run beside me for a few steps or trot in an exaggerated way, pumping their arms.
“Who’s chasing you?” they shout.
Marriage. In-laws in Florida: “She wants to what?”
My father-in-law watches me lace up my running shoes, then follows me out of the house, warning me about the rattlesnakes that slither in the sandy far reaches of their development. He stands on the doorstep when I leave, shaking his head and chuckling, and when I return, he’s still at the door, still shaking his head, still chuckling. “That takes the cake,” he says.
All that week he keeps shaking his head and chuckling in benign disbelief: “That really takes the cake.”
My husband’s former girlfriend Ginger asks if she can join me on a morning run in New York City. Too shy to say no, I agree to meet her on Bleecker Street, midway between our Greenwich Village apartments. We head southwest, toward Canal Street, run up the ramp onto the remaining stretch of the elevated West Side Highway (closed to traffic), exit at the Battery, and continue home.
Our short Saturday runs become longer, more-frequent “training runs.” We continue down to City Hall and over the Brooklyn Bridge, and later around the lower perimeter of Manhattan. We run on the East Side and the West Side, and sometimes we join a group that runs a seventeen-mile course at night up Riverside Park to the George Washington Bridge and back. Ginger and I log hundreds of hours of conversation, running side by side, talk that grows more intimate as the miles pass.
The first time we meet for dinner, I barely recognize her in street clothes. Our conversation is awkward and disjointed. We’ve never sat across from each other, never looked in each other’s eyes. It takes a while to adjust.
First road race. Ginger and I stand at the starting line in Central Park with fifty or so others on a frigid fall morning.
My husband cheers for me at the finish line.
He wants children badly, but I’m ambivalent. “No matter what,” he says, “I promise I’ll always make sure you can run.” This is how he gets me to agree.
What can a pregnant runner wear? In desperation I buy a tennis outfit — a sleeveless, empire-waisted top and bloomers with an elastic waist. It’s all I can find.
“You look like a float in a Memorial Day parade,” my husband says.
There is no cheering when I galumph down the street, no tubas or drums or applause — just the occasional dumbstruck pedestrian pausing to watch. I imagine him thinking, That really takes the cake.
First daughter: Charlotte.
First marathon: New York.
First line of first published novel: “Lydia ran.”
My heroes in those days:
Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon. She wasn’t looking to make history; she only wanted to run. But in 1967 the marathon was closed to women. So she entered as “K.V. Switzer” and ran in disguise for four miles until the race director, Jock Semple, jumped off the press truck and shouted, “Get the hell out of my race!” The picture of him trying to rip the number off her chest made headlines.
Grete Waitz, the first woman to run a marathon in under two and a half hours.
Miki Gorman, who won the Boston and New York Marathons twice each.
Toshiko d’Elia, who was born in wartime Japan. “We starved,” she told a reporter. “My mother would stand on food lines all day and come home with a cucumber to feed a family of six. I dreamed of being a bird so I could fly away.” She started running at the age of forty-four, waking at 5 AM to set out before work. I remember seeing her: tiny, hair in pigtails, flying beside the earthbound others.
I loved these women, who were not encouraged to run; loved watching them float, fly, set records — gracefully, silently, defiantly.
The 1980s are the boom years. Everyone is running. Sweat-wicking fabric. Shoes with gel cushioning and waffle soles. Sports drinks. Orthotics for every ache below the knees.
Men wear running shoes with tuxedos.
Running can improve your sex life, body image, and mental health, I read. Run to feel centered and empowered, to shed extra pounds.
I don’t know: I just love it. I need no other reason to run.
Our move from New York to New Jersey is wrenching and inevitable. There’s so much I’ll miss about the city — most of all my regular runs with Ginger.
Tamaques Park, in the town where we move, is like a bus depot on Saturday mornings: groups of runners leave every fifteen minutes, starting at 6 AM. I fit into a pack made up of middle-aged men, including a psychiatrist who tells all his patients to run.
After a long run in the winter, tiny balls of ice hang from their facial hair like Christmas decorations. In the summer their nipples bleed from rubbing against their shirts.
My second toe is longer than my first, a condition known as Morton’s toe. If the toe box of my running shoe isn’t broad enough, the toenail pushes against the shoe, bruises, blackens, and falls off.
How often has this happened to me? Ten times? Twenty?
In Maine, where we have a cottage, I call the local sporting-goods store to see if they know of any women who run long-distance. They put me in touch with Evelyn, who was co-captain of the cross-country team at Bowdoin College with Olympian Joan Benoit.
I run with Evelyn and her fiancé, a lobsterman, and with their friends and cousins. I run with carpenters and fishers of Irish moss and sometimes with strangers. “Where are you running?” I ask. “What’s your pace? Can I join you?”
“I saw you running,” people say to me often.
“Yes!” I say.
And that’s it. Nothing ever follows this exchange.
My husband keeps his promise, even after the marriage begins to fail.
Now, though, if I linger too long around him, he says in irritation, “Go running, will you?” Translation: Go straight to hell.
You cannot cry and run at the same time. It’s one or the other. Crying tightens your chest and makes your breathing jagged. You can either give in to the grief or let it go.
In this period, when there are no arms that can placate me, nothing to make me feel better, all I can do is go outside, take in the familiar streets and woods, and run. After a few minutes I begin to feel a heightened awareness of the world around me, a sense of connectedness.
And pleasure. Something sweet that cuts through the grief.
Then they stop, most of the runners I know. Their reasons are many:
My knees gave out. (“And so will yours.”)
My back went bad.
A torn meniscus.
My sciatica was killing me.
Surgery for my ACL.
The arthritis in my toe.
Who has time?
And then I fell.
I got hit by a car.
So I gave it up.
The unspoken message: And so will you.
I cannot imagine it. I cannot imagine the day I will sit on the floor to lace my running shoes for a last time.
It’s 1995. I’m in a new city: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A single parent. Divorced. I have a couple of running friends, but mostly I run alone in the city’s big woodland parks.
I no longer designate a single day of the week to do hill work. Every day is hill work.
The woods become my holy place.
Maybe it’s because I am alone. Because I’ve stopped keeping training logs. Because I am older. Because these hilly parks are so beautiful that I become exquisitely aware of my self on these rutted trails: the rustling leaves, the sky, my breathing, the hill I mount, the squawking crow — all of it part of the same fabric. This is what I have loved above all else, only now I feel it more fully than ever before.
My daughter Charlotte is a teenager, and rebellious. Later, when she recalls these years, the punch line of every incident will be my turquoise spandex tights:
She leaves a note to tell me she’s run away from home. I figure out she’s at a coffee shop called the Beehive, and when I stomp inside and find her with a backpack full of beer, I’m wearing my turquoise spandex tights.
She’s forgotten to bring a check for her high-school ski club on the last possible day to register, so I tuck the check in my pocket and go by the school on the way back from my run. She is standing beneath a tree, smoking with her friends, when she sees me running toward her in my turquoise spandex tights.
Fifty years old. Sinewy. I keep tights, a T-shirt, and a spare pair of running shoes in the trunk of my car. You never know. Like the postman, I run through rain, snow, and sleet. But not ice.
On wet leaves, on ice, on roots, on broken sidewalk.
On cement, years back, when I was seven months pregnant with my second daughter.
On the bridle path in Central Park, where I slid on the dirt like a baseball player trying to steal a base.
Always stunned. Always getting up and saying, “I’m OK! I’m fine!”
On the metal grate over the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. A medical student sits on the curb with me while her boyfriend runs to get napkins for the blood that spurts from my chin and knee. My hand throbs.
“I’m fine!” I insist. “I’m OK.”
They pay for a taxi to take me home.
I ice my knee, try to stop the bleeding, think as I always do: One day I will fall, and that will be it.
And then: I wonder if I’ll be able to run tomorrow.
By 2003 running is no longer fun. The problem is my ass, my tuchis, my keister, my behind.
It has a name, this not-at-all-funny pain in the butt: piriformis syndrome. Common among runners and people who sit for hours — bus drivers, writers, cops.
Sitting hurts worse than running. The radiating pain makes me feel like an animal with a limb caught in a trap. I want to chew off my leg.
I get MRIs, physical therapy, cortisone shots, new diagnoses.
I buy a wedge cushion, more-cushioned running shoes. I give up desk chairs and running on asphalt.
I wait to feel joy. Run, limp, wait some more.
I think of Jock Semple shoving and clawing at Kathrine Switzer — and she ran on.
I think of all the injuries that plagued the women runners I admire, all the tendons and muscles and ligaments torn and repaired. I think of my friend Ginger’s countless surgeries — and she ran on.
I think of Toshiko d’Elia, eight months after a cancer diagnosis, completing a marathon in under three hours, setting a world record for women over fifty.
A year passes. In this limping, aching period I buy a new house three minutes from a 644-acre woodland park with plenty of hilly trails.
Start doing yoga every morning.
Carry my wedge cushion with me when I travel.
The pain begins to dissipate.
And then one day an awareness: I ran and nothing hurt.
Sixty. In running clothes I look like a plucked chicken.
“I saw you running,” an acquaintance says.
“Yes,” I tell her.
Slowly, I think.
But the joy has returned.
Until close to the end of her life, Toshiko d’Elia was in the pool every morning at 7 AM. She swam a mile, ran in the water, did yoga. Then, in the afternoon, she ran three to five miles. “That was her day, until the day she couldn’t,” said her daughter in her New York Times obituary.
Sixty-seven. I am still running.