The conductor announced “All Aboard!” and the train doors closed. She wasn’t on the wrong train but she wasn’t on the right train either. In fact, she didn’t know where she was going.
It was Sunday afternoon, the day before President’s Day and she was siting on the Amtrak train, bound for Albany, or some other destination on the Northeast corridor. She still hadn’t fully decided where she would get off the train and now, it seemed like it had been a foolish idea to take the train heading north – getting on a southbound train would have given her more options, more people to talk to and befriend and perhaps, even leave the train armed with a recommendation of where to go and what to do next. Maybe she would have met a charming southern gentleman, an older man, who would have seen her picking nervously at her fingers so he would strike up a conversation with her and offer to buy her a drink in the dining car and maybe when he heard her story, he would have given her his business card, offered to make some phone calls on her behalf and help her establish a new life.
Or maybe she would have met a friendly young woman, who would have shared her seat and ask her where she was going and when she said “I don’t know”, she would have asked more questions, trying to tease out answers that were already on the tip of her tongue, waiting, desperately for the right cue or the right question.
But on the northeast bound train, it seemed there was no such person to come to her aid. The man who had plopped down in the seat next to her had not removed the large “Beats” earphones from his ears and she could hear the beat of the Latin music that pulsed from it. The man had ignored her so completely, ignored everything around him, seemed so jaded by his surroundings that he had almost missed his stop and had had to run out just before the train pulled out of the Yonkers station.
So it seemed that all the while, she was literally or figuratively alone in her seat and so, because unlike everyone else around her, she had no smartphone or fancy gadget to command her attention, she had fidgeted with her hands and then her hair and then she had rummaged through the contents of the seat pack in front of her.
Finally, her fingers landed on a slightly dog-eared copy of “Competitors” magazine and her eyes glazed over at the sight of the scantily dressed man on the cover. The poseur was wearing short shorts, the kind of shorts a woman could wear into a bar and get free drinks for the night for herself and her friends, but the kind of shorts a man could only wear if he was about to do something medal-worthy. The words “half-marathon” and training plans” were just above the masthead of the magazine and she realized it was a running magazine. For a moment, she couldn’t remember the last time she had run, and then suddenly, there it was. A flashback!
She was 16 years old. After years of seeing only blurred images out of the window, she had just gotten fitted for glasses and finally realized that it was possible to distinguish shapes and colors from anywhere further than across a room. For the first few days, she had been stepping high, almost as if the world had changed around her, instead of her evolving in her ability to see it. And finally realizing there was so much to see, the myriad of sights now available had overwhelmed her and she had stopped focusing on the things that were closest at hand, the things that she needed to pay the closest attention to. It was on one of those first few days after the glasses, when she had gazed into the distance, lost in the beauty of what lay out yonder, and neglected to see the car that was racing towards her, and it wasn’t until the car screeched, barreling down on her that she realized and tried to run, to flee the danger, but it was too late.
The last thing she remembered was the screams of the people around her, before she sank into darkness again, only this time, it was an all-consuming, blinding darkness.
She had woken up with bandages on her face, on her eyes, and it seemed, everywhere else on her body. She had fractured her right arm and both legs, crushed her pelvis, and she had a couple broken ribs. The doctors told her it would be a long time before she would walk normally again. And it had been.
She had spent months in therapy, learning to walk like before and trying to correct the residual limp that the doctor said wasn’t caused by the injury but by her mind hanging on to the memory of the pain. She had done every exercise they had recommended, every torturous repetition, until she had finally become physically well.
But the years of surgeries and cosmetic reconstruction on her face had removed the physical scars and left psychological ones instead. And as her body had healed she had started to avoid anything that reminded her of the accident and all that had ensued as a result.
And finally, when the stitches from the last surgical procedure had been removed and she was whole again, she had felt unable to face life without the medicine that, for all this time, had helped her to forget.
So when she had healed on the outside, she had set about to destroy herself internally, perhaps to prove to her doctors and herself that she still needed the medication.
And two years later, on the day before her birthday, she had hit rock bottom when, in a drug-induced haze, she had gotten into her car and hit a young woman pushing a baby stroller.
And when she realized that she had irreversibly changed someone’s life the way someone else had changed hers all those years ago, it was more than she could handle. She welcomed the jail sentence and the chance the physical bondage gave her to escape the psychological prison of the prescription drugs.
And when she was finally freed from both sets of shackles, her strongest desire, maybe her only desire was to go far away and start over. She wanted to be someplace where she could do something that she had never done, even if she didn’t yet know what that was.
During the seventeen months of her sentence, she had discovered that God had a plan and a purpose for her life, and the fact that she was still alive, meant that her purpose had not yet been fulfilled. She wanted to find the place and the opportunities for her to live out that purpose.
So with the small bag of belongings that she still owned, and the open ticket she had purchased, she had found herself on the Amtrak train, headed everywhere and nowhere and all stops in between.
It was another Sunday afternoon, the first Sunday in November, and she was sitting on the Amtrak train, bound for Albany. She had just checked out of the small hotel on West 74th Street and Broadway. It was the hotel that members of her running club had suggested, because of its proximity to the Central Park finish line of the New York City Marathon. She could have spent the night in New York City, the finisher’s medal she wore around her neck guaranteeing her at least one free meal in one of scores of restaurants in the city. She could have joined the other members of her running club, a big group of finishers, eating complimentary meals or toasting with free glasses of champagne, as mindless of the bill as though they were on a business dinner with all expenses paid for by their generous corporation. But she had chosen instead to toss her sweat-soaked running gear in a plastic bag, and pack her small suitcase and head to New York’s Penn Station, and get on a train to head home.
It was the same train she had taken almost nine months before and she marveled at how similar but how different everything was.
It was the same train, same schedule and the same direction. But this time, she knew where she was going and she couldn’t wait to get there. This time, although she had a destination, she also wanted to get off the train at every station between Penn Station and Albany’s Rensselaer station, and deliver the good news to all her friends and running partners and sponsors in person. Because her running the New York City Marathon nine months after she started running was nothing short of a miracle, and it was nothing she could have accomplished alone.
She had run the 26.2 miles and she had the blisters and chafe marks and tired muscles to prove it. But it had taken so much more than her endurance to get to the starting line and she knew that she owed this feeling of accomplishment to all the friends she had made since she had started running.
And it had started on the train, when somewhere along the way, a woman had leaned over from across the aisle and beckoned to her, a woman who had seen her reading the running magazine and struck up a conversation with what she probably assumed to be a fellow runner.
“Isn’t that a great magazine? I read it too. Do you run? What’s your distance?” the woman had fired off three questions before she even paused for a response.
“No. I don’t run” she had replied.
“Everyone should run, if they can. It’s the best thing you can do for exercise. You should give it a try.” The woman was a talker but she made her comfortable. This is exactly what she needed. Someone who would speak first and make it easy to talk back. The woman was continuing, “I like half-marathons but I started doing the Ironman Triathlon a few years ago so I do more cross training than marathon training these days. I swim and bike a couple times every week but swimming, you need access to a pool and bikes can be pretty expensive when you get into it. But running, you can just go outside and run. No gym, no equipment, nothing but yourself. You can just run. I could give you some information about running groups if you want to give it a try. Most groups have different waves so you can go at whatever pace you’re comfortable with. Do you live in New York City?”
“No.” She didn’t really know how to respond. The woman, this stranger, was offering what she wanted.
“Oh, you’re in Albany?” The woman was persistent. She must have read the need in her face, despite her short answers.
She didn’t know how to respond so she had said, “Yes.” After all, Albany could be her home. At any rate, she had decided that if nothing else happened, she would get off the train in Albany and take the southbound train instead or make some other decision.
At that, the woman had gotten animated. She lived in Albany too and as soon as she had heard the affirmative response, she opened her purse and produced a bright card. She belonged to a running group in Albany, she explained, and this was where and when the group met 3 times every week, to run the streets, in snow or sleet or rain or, less often, good weather.
And the woman, who she now knew as Stacy, Stacy of the RUNWRIGHT running group, Stacy who had intended to give her directions to a running club and ended up leading her to her new life.
She hadn’t known what she was looking for until she found it. Running had given her the purpose she had been seeking and here she was today, nine months later, and a new person. In the time it would have taken to have a baby, something completely different had been born inside her. She had become a runner, a marathoner even, and like an excited parent, she wanted to announce her new status to the world.
Just then, her iPhone vibrated in her pocket. It was a text from him. Her him.
“Congratulations, you”, it read. “Heading home?”
She smiled and tapped out the letters for her response. “Yes, I’m on my way.”