I always wanted to be a runner. That’s why I invested in good running shoes and a heart monitor and an iPod Nano. I read Born to Run, the bestselling book about the greatest distance runners in the world. I bought summer-weight leggings and cold-weather pants, lightweight gloves and a thick pair for winter mornings. I even got a runner’s beanie.
I’m not sure why or when this notion of being a runner got lodged in my head, but my yearning to be athletic dates back to childhood. When I think about the girls I admired in grade school and at summer camp, they were athletes. They were the girls who could dive into the lake like a dolphin or do back handsprings across the gym floor. I wasn’t completely uncoordinated or chosen last for teams, and I had other strengths, especially in the classroom. But there was something about their natural athleticism, physical confidence and innate competence that made me feel inadequate and envious.
It’s easy to tell who’s good at sports just by looking. It’s not so easy to tell who’s smart. Maybe I wanted a more obvious attribute than braininess; maybe the insecure part of young me, the part that felt painfully invisible, thought the key to validation lay in the visible realm of athletic ability.
I’ve given it a couple of good shots. About 15 years ago, I enlisted my friend and co-worker Susie, a prolific runner, to show me the ropes. We’d meet in Riverside Park and hit the path, she at an abnormally slow (for her) trot and I at an awkward, struggling-to-keep-up cantor, like a baby giraffe finding its legs. Occasionally, we’d sneak out of work early, slip on our sneakers and go for a late afternoon run, ending up at the Hippo playground where our children were romping under the watchful eyes of their sitters.
Susie and I had an agreement about talking while running: She talked; I listened. This was due to the fact that I didn’t have the lung capacity to simultaneously speak and propel myself forward. Every so often, I managed to grunt out a topic for discussion.
“Your hair looks…gasp…cute…where did you…gasp…get it…cut?”
Susie talked (and talked) and we kept moving, eventually pushing the distance to five miles at a clip. Sounds great, right?
Not so much. Because despite my progress, I was miserable every single time. My ankles hurt and my lungs always felt like they were about to burst. And while I love Susie, I’d rather have been doing just about anything else, including laundry. But subconsciously, I needed to be a runner, a notion fueled by the misguided thinking that this was what would once and for all make me feel good about myself. So I kept at it for months, mostly suffering in silence, though Susie might remember that differently.
I’m fuzzy on the reasons I stopped this first time. Maybe it was that Susie ran herself into an injury that permanently sidelined her; she wore away the cartilage in her knees until bone was rubbing on bone. Or maybe I decided that I preferred spin classes, which, while no walk in the park, were preferable to those runs in the park. Whatever my rationale, I hung up my sneakers. That was Running Retirement #1.
A decade or so passed. I remained fit through a combination of strength training and cycling. But despite being in good shape, and despite my professional accomplishments and happy family life, I still harbored the fantasy that I could and should be a runner. Never mind the fact that I’d hated it the first time around. Maybe now I was different; maybe now was my time.
I found a new running partner in Dave, a gym friend nearly a decade my senior who, in preparation for climbing Mount Rainer, had recently committed to a full-on fitness overhaul. I had watched Dave spend hours on the stairclimber, often with a 50-pound knapsack strapped to his back. Perhaps his dedication was contagious, or maybe I just thought he could push me the way he pushed himself. So when the subject of running arose one day, I decided to give it another go with a new buddy.
We ran on the road, the bridle path and through the woods of Central Park; we did pacing drills at the track. We stretched and foam-rolled and took rest days. Surely, with such attention to doing this right, I’d be a real runner this time.
I was not. For one thing, my body rebelled big time. Every morning my hips hollered and my feet shrieked. But more than that, I realized that as much as I liked chatting with Dave about movies and books and our respective children, and as much as I loved being outdoors, I still didn’t love running. I never felt that runner’s high I’d heard so much about. I never felt like a natural — I was always more water buffalo than gazelle. And while I pushed myself to some seven-mile days, I still wished I were somewhere else, doing something else. Even the post-run feelings of accomplishment I experienced weren’t enough to complete my conversion. So as I considered my beat-up body and meandering mind, it became clear that it was time for my true Running Retirement.
That was three years ago. Today, Susie and I walk our dogs together on the same promenade where we used to run. I sometimes see Dave in a yoga class or wave to him on the stairclimber. My workout regimen now consists of yoga, spin classes, strength training and weekend cycling when the weather is nice. I don’t run, though every so often I’ll hop on the treadmill and clock a mile just to make sure I can. And each time I do, my hips hurt the next day, a palpable reminder that while some people are born to run, some are not. And this time around I realize that doesn’t mean a damn thing.