You're an ambitious young lady. I smiled and savored the phrase a few seconds before replying. It had come from the old lady who lives in the white stone should've-been-a-garage-instead house whose peculiarities extend to an excess of potted and hanging plants on the porch and a white cement Blessed Mother statue in the low-set, shrub-outlined yard to the left, exactly one right and one left turn away from my house.
My neighbor is on her porch every time I run, her stuffed-doll squishy body sunk into a lawn chair mostly obscured by her suburban jungle. I'm always sweaty and breathing hard, not because I run that hard but because the hill to my house is a half-mile climb at a 45-degree angle. The Blessed Mother statue signals two things: memory of my paternal grandfather, Dante—who in the 80s poured cement statues, including a Blessed Mother who oversaw the wine-making grapevines in his backyard; and the end of my run, where I lift my shirt to wipe my sweaty forehead, consequently revealing a slightly protruding swatch of extra skin, a two-time c-section hangover. Current trend in feminism would urge me to hashtag flourishinmotherhood because this body grew two humans. While I appreciate the sentiment, I can't abide. Hashtag perfectionismprevails.
I told Blessed Neighbor that running keeps me young (although my knees would say that's fiction). Her answer, "I'm too old to be young," was quick and warm. It reminded me of my Nanni—that's the NAH-knee of Italian grandmothers—who once told me, "I suffer from CRS: Can't Remember Shit," which was endearing owing that Nanni almost never cursed. A bad word coming from my neighbor would surely have a similar effect. I told her she'd earned her oldness, she said thank you, and I inhaled, exhaled my way up the last small hill before home, where my semi-tough-looking dog was anxiously waiting by the door, which is what he does even when he's not alone in the house. Private Joker is obsessed with me. I take it as a compliment.
Runners are a serious lot. They know which shoes will correct overpronation and when to pause for a protein-gel pack; they know exactly how fast their mile is and how much faster they need it to be. I've never been a runner, just a girl who felt like running for 18 years.
When I was 16, I traded cheerleading and gymnastics for dumbbells and step aerobics. Following an upbeat, thong-unitard-clad instructor in a stuffy room on days and times set by someone who was not me eventually lost its appeal and gave way to a natural bond with the open air and solitude of running. To whose science do I owe this urge? There's Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who introduced the notion that a habit is formed in 21 days. On that and similar subjects, he wrote a best-selling book called Psycho-Cybernetics, which sounds more like a current-day internet nightmare than a best seller penned during the decade when America was great (unless you count cognitive dissonance). Or there's the research of the team led by scientist Phillippa Lally (say it ten times fast and it'll sound like an underwater aria), who concluded a habit takes two to eight months. Their efforts are presumably for the sake of helping people do things like quitting smoking and starting exercising. My own science tells me that "habit" is an easy label to account for forces immeasurable, sparks that ignite within us as a result of experience and a little bit each of effort and luck.
At age 38, increasingly achy joints and a stroller with an ever-growing load pushed me, begrudgingly, to finally give up running. Two years later, the ocean urged our reunion. A month after my 40th birthday, through the heat of seven August mornings, I ran. Bare feet in the sand. Knees and hips whining in protest. Head and heart in harmony. My beloved ocean is always ripe with metaphor, this year no less as my runs alongside the rising and tumbling waves mimicked, in far more beautiful form, the push and pull of pleasure and pain.
summer reunited me with another a long-lost habit: a friend. We met when I was a 23-year-old college junior and she was a 19-year-old soon-to-be single mom. She could be hard to know. Me too. After our last sparring session and three years of not speaking, I reached out and anxiously awaited her reply, which never came. Another year later, I had no peace about it. Conventional wisdom told me that the answer I needed was right there in her silence, and sentiments from abrasive friends echoed untruths about what exactly is wrong with people like me who are Too Much To Deal With. It all felt wrong. My gut said to try apology a second time. Two days later came her page-long reply. She'd been thinking about me too. A week prior, she had seen me in the county fair parade downtown walking alongside my little boy in his mohawk helmet, proudly pedaling with the big kids from school. She said she wished she could've jumped up and screamed my name like a proud grandma. I wish she had. Inappropriate comic timing was always part of her appeal. In her penultimate paragraph came the heart stopper: You've got serious guts and heart, girl. The person I'd unleashed my worst judgments upon still believed in me. That came a close second to her forgiveness, which I take as a gift in celebration of our crystal anniversary of dysfunctional friendship. For two women who hadn't been able to get it right for 15 years, a permanent parting would be a reasonable decision. Not for us. Not for anyone who knows that some pain is worth the distance.
A man I grew up with ran through his pain—for 2,500 miles. Three years ago, Chad traversed the lower United States, from east to west, in an effort to heal and let others know they could heal too. His dad followed him in a motor home and they documented the trip online. Newspaper and television journalists publicized his journey from its origin in Florida to its finale in San Diego and all the way home to the only state fully claimed by Appalachia. Back in our small hometown, I attended a fundraiser organized by his friends and family, chasing after my then one-year-old determined to join the rock band headed by a former classmate being brutalized under the August sun; enduring the heat was the least he could do to support his old friend's cause. Chad endured too. Accompanied by remnants of a recently broken marriage and the relentless shadow of obsessive compulsive disorder, he found solace in the power of his own body to propel him forward through terrain and trouble. Chad isn't a runner, just a man who knew when to run.
Science shows that excessive exercise, including running, creates oxidative stress within the body, which can lead to a wicked array of consequences, like cancer, Altzheimer's, and heart disease. I've done a lot of running in my life—miles on the ground and over the topography of my mind. The journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise determined that 19 miles per week is acceptable. My busy life keeps me within that range these days on pavement, and things like making peace with former friends helps keep my sprinting thoughts at a reasonable pace. By the way—excessive water intake can kill you too. I've heard about it happening to serious runners. So to evade certain death, don't be too serious. And to get a healthy dose of water, try running beside the sea.