The first time I voluntarily decided to run—not being forced to run during gym class or running while clutching my kitten and being chased by a Great Dane—was the summer after eighth grade. I walked down to the track at my junior high school to jog a few laps. It felt like a grand experiment. Having never done such an insane thing, I wondered what would happen to my dumpling, preadolescent body.
I was wearing a track suit. I had on a sun visor. I was all set. I pictured myself running hour after hour into twilight, thinking angular, runnery thoughts.
The first thing I learned was that all I could think of while running was how running was pure misery. Jogging at a pace that would embarrass a tortoise, I dragged myself around and around the asphalt zero for most of a mile, but the effort left me heaving and breathless. My lungs could not keep up with my legs.
“Oh no,” I thought. “I must have asthma.” It was the last time I would willingly run for almost two decades.
My self-diagnosis was the end stage of a process. As a small child, I’d zoomed everywhere. Then in elementary school, I took gymnastics for a while but quit when the coach said I had power but no grace. I spent the following year as a majorette, wearing only a spangled sleeveless leotard with ankle boots and a cowboy hat, but I left after marching in my first winter parade. What was wrong with these people, I wondered, that they wanted to freeze to death?
In 1970s small-town West Virginia, where girls were still expected to be young ladies, I made a terrible girl. But when it came to physical activity, I became a world-class quitter. By the time I was 11, I wouldn’t even throw a Frisbee. My classmates were a year older, and when adolescence hit, we looked like we belonged to different species. It didn’t help that life at home had become a nightmare in recent years. I learned that the safest things to do were keep my head down, draw as little attention to myself as possible, and cultivate an internal life.
Before I’d tried my solo run, it struck me that running was something I could do by myself, on the sly. My junior high school attempt at the track was a last-ditch effort to see if, away from classmates and family and every other member of the human race, this exercise thing might be for me. But it wasn’t, after all. I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t meant to run.
A decade later, years after I had moved to Washington, D.C., I spent a cozy night in the emergency room with a kidney stone, believing I might die. Resurrected, I emerged the next day determined to get in shape. I borrowed a bike from my brother and started riding twice a week. Later that summer, I saved up and bought one of my own. Within a year, I was riding round-trip from D.C. to Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, some 120 miles—no great distance for serious bikers but a rewarding weekend challenge for me.
Dragged to a self-defense class by a friend the next year, I found I liked it. I started studying karate and kickboxing and eventually was teaching multiple kickboxing classes back to back, three times a week. I learned to lift weights from my karate instructor. My workout routine included both free weights and machines, along with interval training on a stationary bike. I rode my own hybrid daily to work from Virginia, through D.C., and into Maryland.
Running entered the picture again in 1998 as cross-training for my black-belt exam. I was already in shape, so I knew my results would be different this time. After all, I had learned how to fight with a six-foot staff. I could leg-press 500 pounds. I could do dozens of push-ups on my knuckles and fingertips. I was willing to bet that asthma wouldn’t be an issue.
To my shock, I was still a horrible runner. And I still am today. I’ve run regularly since 1998 on sand, stairs, streets, tracks, sidewalks, and treadmills, and I’ve never gotten any better. In fact, even during the seven years I taught martial arts full-time for a living, I consistently deteriorated and have only occasionally managed to claw back some of the ground I’ve lost.
During my 2,000-year running career, every agonizing jog has been etched into memory, like pathetic slow-motion footage from some disaster that happens over and over but can’t be averted. The phrase “sucking wind” approximates the experience but doesn’t capture the lit-torch-in-the-lungs ambiance of that moment in outer-space movies when astronauts run out of oxygen right before they die. Breathing while running has never taken on a natural rhythm for me.
But running is a fantastic workout precisely because I’m terrible at it. Nothing but boxing is as efficient at getting my heart rate up and pushing my cardio limits in such a short amount of time. And whatever can be said about running, people (well, most people) won’t try to punch you in the head when you go jogging. I’m 50, and I still leg-press as much weight and do as many bizarre push-ups as before. But running has become my most invaluable exercise.
What does it mean to embrace an activity you’re awful at, something you know you’ll never get better at, and love even though you hate it? There’s a scene from the old Batman TV show that aired a lot when I was a kid. The Dynamic Duo are climbing up the side of a building in Gotham City when Robin asks Batman why they can’t just take the elevator. Batman says, “Because, Robin, we never do things the easy way.” Maybe it’s unwise to adopt campy dialogue as words to live by, but sometimes there are good reasons to choose the hard way.
After a childhood void of any physical talent, it was tempting to put a lot of stock in the pyrotechnics of karate, to show again and again how good I was, in the hope of proving to myself once and for all that my body was proficient at something. But in the end, I found it a relief to do a form of exercise in which not only was I not trying to impress anybody else—or even myself—I couldn’t if I wanted to. Running fit the bill.
When I was at home with an infant and a toddler a little more than a decade ago, my kids would often cry or come get me even when I was in the shower. On some days, a short run in the neighborhood was my only time alone. By the time I moved to Boston for a year in 2007, my pace was so slow that my running partner, who was preparing for that year’s marathon, lapped me on the loop around the reservoir at Fresh Pond.
The thought of slipping on my running shoes still stirs a whisper of dread in my stomach. Every time I run, I have to fool myself into thinking I’ll quit as soon as I’ve gone five minutes (then ten, then fifteen). I rarely run faster than six miles an hour now, and I’ve spent whole years going as slow as five. During the times I dipped below five, I found myself wondering if some weird quantum shift was underway, in which I would soon be able to walk faster than I could run.
I go out three times a week and tend to cover no more than three miles. Occasionally, at the gym, I see people running twice as fast as I can, and I’m amazed every time. They might as well be flying.
As for me, I’ve learned that you can run just about anywhere, except aboard a ship in the Arctic. You can run while visiting relatives in Kingwood, Texas, though without your phone you might get lost, since all the houses look the same. You can run laps on the stairs at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles early in the morning. You can run after a funeral, though it’s probably best to change clothes first. You can run after you fail at something. You can run with a broken heart.
My neighbor died in March of this year at 91, shortly after falling during the walk she’d taken every day for half a century or more. It felt like the death of a samurai in battle. Personally, I’d be all right with a sudden collapse while clutching a barbell at the gym, but after all these years of feeling like I’m dying while running, it might be more appropriate if running actually kills me in the end.
In the meantime, running keeps me honest. It’s my way of reclaiming that kid who thought she had asthma, and saying, “It’s OK that it’s hard. It’s OK if it never gets easier. It’s OK to be terrible at things. There’s so much joy in having no expectations.”
A sharp cinder trapped in a shoe. Pollen like smog in the air. The acid smell of everything that gets sweat out along the way. I’m not qualified to teach it. I’ll never be good at it. I don’t even think of myself as a runner. I just run.