When I was a kid, I hated to run. Unless it was between the bases at softball or a necessity like during a healthy game of kissing tag, running was something I did my best to avoid. Like Jessica Hartley, the main character in my first book ARMED WITH STEELE, I’m five-foot-two on a good day. Short legs equal a short stride and, for me, short distances. Hey, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
My aversion to distance running continued on through high school, where I begged my longer-legged friend Sue to help me beat the system. Our annual, mandatory mile runs (seriously—who came up with that?) had to be completed in under a certain amount of time or we’d be forced to re-run it at a later date. So, being the conniver I was, I had it all figured out: if we ran the long stretches of the track around our football field and walked the parts that curved around each end zone, we’d finish just under time. And it worked.
Take that, standardized gym test.
Fast forward several decades years to 2012. My friend Shirley started joining me at our local YMCA twice a week for exercise classes. We burned calories and served as each other’s exercise accountability partner and, God love her, she never once laughed at me. But after a while she got the itch to run, and so joined a running club. And on several occasions, she extended the offer for me to join them.
At that I did laugh.
“Oh, no. I don’t run,” I said. And I didn’t. But darn if she hadn’t managed to plant the idea in my head. So on my own I gave it a try. Figured out the distance of several loops in our neighborhood, even bought myself a pair of running shoes. Eventually I could go a mile without having to walk.
Now laugh if you want, but that was a pretty big deal for me. The girl who hated to run, was actually starting to look forward to it. I only got one run in with Shirley before she moved to Florida, and I know it had to have been the slowest, most “painful” run she had that summer, but she was gracious as always and encouraged me to keep working at it.
So I did. That fall my bestie Kelly and I ran our first 5K—40 degrees and raining. All I can say is BRR!…but we did it.
Second 5K was sunny but 40ish and a brisk wind. Again brr, but we did it. We ran our 3rd race last spring in much nicer weather, her hardly winded while I huffed and puffed most of the race. But each time we crossed the finish line, it left me wanting to do it all again (just…not that same day.) Amazing what a free bottle of water and complimentary pink feather boa can do to perk you right up.
I was all psyched to sign up for more races this year, even started training indoors on the treadmill a few months earlier than usual. One mile stretched into two, and I was working to increase my stride, shave time off my run. Then something unexpected happened:
I tweaked my knee.
At first, it just felt a little funky. A little snap below my kneecap, like someone had hit me with a well-aimed rubber band. No big deal, so I kept going. But then it nagged at me on the next run, and I struggled with stairs at home the following weekend. In a panic I sent a message to my wonderful brother-in-law who knows all things physical therapy and asked what could be wrong. He promptly replied that it sounded like a total knee replacement was in my future. About the time I started to freak out, he sent a second note that he was just kidding, all I needed was to buy a brace and get some rest.
Rest? But, that wasn’t part of the plan! How was I supposed to run all these races, keep reducing my times, make all my new goals, if I couldn’t run? Needless to say, planner-me was not happy.
Oh, I thought about dismissing “the doctor’s orders”, considered sneaking in a run here and there. But every time I’d reach for my running shoes, that nagging jab of pain would flare up in my knee again. After a week or two I accepted that running, for now, was out.
Ironic how the kid who grew up hating to run, now found herself missing it. Missing it! I’d grown to look forward to my runs, to “run to get the crazy out”— even if my runs were actually more like everyone else’s jogs—short girl, short stride, remember? Regardless, the joy of running had been sidelined, and it totally stunk.
Two weeks off turned into four, which turned into six. Over time the jabs of pain had grown more infrequent, the tendons better rested. But still I found myself holding back, finding excuses not to try to run.
Yeah, I’ll admit it–I was scared. I was scared to get back out there, scared to mess my knee up even worse. What if I aggravated it again? What if I damaged my knee the next time out so badly I’d need surgery? What if I could never run for enjoyment again?
But after another being dealt another beautiful Indiana day, I told myself no more excuses. It was time to get back out there, to give it a try. If it hurt, I’d stop. If it didn’t…ah, well, then I could ease my way back into normal again.
I didn’t bother with my running app, didn’t set a distance or time goal. I just ran. Slow and steady, with my ear buds in and my favorite running tunes playing. My stride felt stiff from my weeks of rest, but my knee behaved perfectly. Soon my heart was pumping, my lungs were burning, and my stride settled into its regular groove.
And it was glorious.
Sure, I’ll probably be sore as hell tomorrow, but it was worth it. Because not only did I finally get over my “fear of the unknown”, but I also had an ah-ha moment as I trod along. See, I’d gotten too caught up in goal-setting, too focused on preparing for what was coming next that I had stopped enjoying the here and now of each run.
Slow down to enjoy the sunset? Nope, I was on target to beat the time from my last run. Take an alternate route? Nope, wouldn’t be long enough to get that “x” number of miles in for the week.
What the heck had I been doing? I wasn’t training for a marathon for crying out loud, I was just out running. Jogging. And why? Because I wanted to live up to someone’s expectations, or because I felt the need to reach certain goals? No, I was out there because I ENJOYED it. Only, over time, I’d forgotten how to do just that.
Too often in life we find ourselves getting bogged down in the details, in our schedules, in our self-inflicted goals and deadlines. And when that happens, we risk losing sight of the reason behind why we’re doing the things we do: because it makes us happy.
When unexpected events threaten to take something like that away, we’ve got to realize we all have two choices: to be brave and face adversity head on, or stand back and let fear take control.
I hope that I wake tomorrow and my knee isn’t screaming at me. I hope that running can become part of my weekly routine again. But what I hope even more is that, like tonight, I continue to rediscover the simple joys in my life, not just rush through my days checking off silly, self-inflicted “to do” lists. That I can get out and play, or sit quietly and appreciate all that I’ve been blessed with, because I want to, not because I have to. That I can keep hold of this little piece of normal, as crazy as it might well be. Because it’s my normal, and I want to make every minute of it count.