Here’s a story I wrote recently about running. Today, on Valentine’s Day, I want to share it with you, because today of all days, we should celebrate the people we love and the things we love.
I love lots of people but I also love running. So here goes…
Marge was a runner! Or at least that’s what she wanted people to think about her. It was why she spent hours on Sundays browsing the Roadrunner store, trying on the newest Nike and Saucony running shoes, researching Garmin products, trying on fuel bands and examining the newest spandex offerings on the racks. It was why she had bookmarked the Runners World magazine website and blog, but even without the bookmark, it was usually the first tab on her Top Sites because it was the site she visited most frequently. It was why she spent, although she preferred to call it invested, money from her dwindling checking account into membership fees for the Road Runners club and why she had paid for race bibs with large numbers that sometimes seemed to match her place among the finishers.
So maybe Marge wasn’t a great runner, maybe she wasn’t fielding calls from companies trying to sponsor her next event. But when Marge turned off the alarm on her iPhone in the morning, before she checked emails, she checked the weather to see whether it was warm enough or (in the summer) cool enough for her to go outside and run. So Marge felt like a runner. True, she often walked three minutes for every minute she ran, and she still couldn’t run all the way over the Central Park hill, but on a summer afternoon, after she had coughed and sputtered like an old car with every foot of the climb, when she finally crested the hill and started the glorious descent, she could feel strength in her legs and she felt like she was flying and that was the feeling she had been chasing all that time. That was when Marge felt most like a runner. And she loved it!
When she had turned 30 years old, Marge had started struggling to button her jeans and because she hadn’t used a dry cleaner since she stopped working at the TV station, she couldn’t blame the less-roomy clothes on them. So she wore her big, black pants all the time, the pants she called her fat pants, the pants formerly reserved for that time of the month when she was bloated. Now she wore them all the time because she always felt bloated. She wore them as any times as she could before she finally had to buy another pair, this time two sizes larger than normal, and Marge resolved not to buy another piece of clothing with such frightening numbers on the tags. But every time Marge tried to wear something other than her new black pants with the frightening size, she felt squished and squooshed and fatter than ever, so she found her wardrobe now divided into two very uneven sections – clothes that fit and clothes that didn’t. And because the more populated side of the closet contained some really stylish clothes from the days when she worked at the TV station, she didn’t feel ready, she didn’t think she would ever be ready, to part with those clothes, and the corresponding proof they offered of what she used to look like and what she used to be.
So although she had firsthand knowledge of what really goes on behind the scenes of television productions, Marge had turned to the TV for inspiration and guidance, and when she found footage of the Cross Fit Games, she was so enthralled by the feats she saw others performing, she convinced herself that she could do the “varied exercises at high intensity” and lose the twenty or so pounds she figured that she had to lose, even though she had stopped weighing herself quite a few pounds ago and now had no idea what that number really was.
But the first day she attempted one of the benchmark workouts she found on the Cross Fit website, she couldn’t manage the first burpee, in fact the only thing that she managed was a large burp, more like a belch that made her think her most recent meal was just now being digested. She was momentarily disgusted, because she had already started feeling hungry and while she had been preparing the living room floor to accommodate her yoga mat, she had been distracting herself by planning her next meal. So she returned to the yoga mat she had put down and tried crunches. She thinks she managed two, but couldn’t bring herself to try a third, fearing that she would indeed hear a “crunch” sound resounding from one of her bones, revolting at her latest fitness attempt.
So she tried to do a push-up and when she lowered her body to the floor for the first time, her wrists couldn’t support her weight and she collapsed on her stomach, and Marge found herself finally celebrating the fact that her stomach was now protruded enough to cushion her fall.
And then one day, Marge had discovered the joy of running. It wasn’t like she was Christopher Columbus discovering the New World but perhaps like Galileo discovering that the world was ROUND, not FLAT like EVERYONE else thought. Marge had an epiphany and she felt probably exactly like Christopher Columbus and Galileo did – that from this day onwards, everything was going to be different and that some people wouldn’t necessarily understand or agree and that it would be hard to prove but that in the end, you had to do what you know you should.
Marge was sitting in Central Park drinking the remnants of a can of Pepsi, because although she had been trying to give up caffeinated drinks for years, she was still addicted to the stuff. It was the middle of a typical New York summer, another scorcher, and she had decided to go for a walk instead of sitting in her apartment constantly applying for the same jobs on the same websites from which she kept getting email responses that contained the word “Unfortunately.” And as she turned onto Central Park West, even from outside the park, she could already see athletes in brightly colored clothes, stretching their muscles on the benches that adorned the park entrance and she thought of tropical birds, preening and priming for flight, and she felt transfixed, hypnotized even, with a strong desire to be like one of those birds, as if they belonged to a special sorority that she wanted to pledge for. So Marge had walked into the park and chose a bench that looked onto the running track and even as she drained her soda and snacked on the Cheetos that had spilled in her purse, she decided that the next time she entered the park, it wouldn’t be to sit, it would be to run.
And she had tried. And like anything else that Marge was interested in, when she got involved, she went all in. So she bought running clothes and checked out running books at the library and bought a membership to the New York Road Runners and signed up for some local races, all in the first afternoon. She wanted to do this. She wanted to run. And she wanted to do whatever she needed to do in order to ensure she stayed committed.
So Marge put on her new gear and gave it her best go and the adrenaline kept her as she ran out of her apartment building to the corner and across the street and then she had to stop because her breath was coming out ragged, as though she hadn’t been breathing automatically for the last 30 years. And Marge realized that this running thing was harder than she thought. But then a man who was walking in the opposite direction said, “Run, girl!” and she didn’t know whether she felt motivated or offended but whatever the emotional response, it was enough of a boost for her to take off for another hundred feet or so. And every time she did it, it became a little less strange and, even though it didn’t always feel like it, she started feeling less like she was trying to commit suicide by running and more like she was building her strength. So she ran. She ran on the sidewalk and she ran in the park, but no matter whether she ran straight from her apartment or took the train to the closest park entrance and then started, she still hadn’t quite been able to run into the park. She wheezed and panted from the time she finished her first city block distance but she had decided long ago that she would stop and walk and then keep on going. So she was on the loop now. And she was a runner. She looked like a runner, dressed in the neon pink tech-shirt, black spandex tights, pink sneakers and black socks, color-coordinated and styled by the well-meaning Modells’ clerk who had sold her her first athletic outfit, along with the running belt that even so many months later, was still pulling double duty to contain her keys, ID and phone, as well as reining in her bulging stomach. As Marge stopped for what felt like the two hundredth time in the last few minutes, she reached into the running belt and pulled out her phone to discover that she had received a new text message from her former network manager. “Just saw you running in Central Park and tried to catch up with you but you were going too fast. Call me when you’re done. I think I have a job you might be interested in,“ it read.
And then, because running had slowly transitioned from feeling like torture to feeling like a way to celebrate, to feeling like love, for that reason, Marge ran.