Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A runner's chronicle

Plink…plink…plink… Every fourth step, the house key that I laced to my left sneaker is jostled so that it hits against the eye of the shoe, creating a tiny metallic sound that no one could possibly hear except for me. It’s not loud, but knowing and expecting it as sure as the downbeats of a piece of music written in common time—my body’s metronome—makes it pop out like the resonating beat of a tympani drum. An annoying sound, to be sure, but more than that a comforting sound. Comforting because as long as I can hear its tiny clang, I know that I will be able to get inside the empty house after my evening run.

I had to untie my left shoe so I could thread the key on securely. I don’t know that my shoe has ever been untied before, since the very first time I laced it up. That’s the kind of person I am, I guess. Silly, really, to think I’m saving myself so many precious minutes by tugging pre-tied sneakers on and off my feet rather than taking the time to tie and untie them properly with each use. But when it comes down to the moment that the shoes must come off, I never find it a habit worth trying to break.

Now, as I run, I can feel the tongue of my left shoe rubbing awkwardly against the top of my foot—I’m not used to this precise position. I could let that drive me crazy, bring a premature end to my run. But instead, I try to focus on something else. Not much else to think about though, that would be any better. Nothing but the green, thick heat makes any impression upon me from mother earth. That—and these hills…

What an awkward summer it has been. Some of the highest peaks of my life I have seen in these recent weeks, and at the same time some of the worst frustrations. It all goes along with being in a new place, at another elbow in the road. Believe me, I would know. My life has taken so many one-eighties over the past several years, and each time I feel like I’m getting off at yet another unfamiliar station. So here am I again, standing amid an alien set of circumstances and just plodding along, new kid at a looming new job, wishing with all my heart that my husband weren’t so far away from me. “Your internship’s only X more weeks,” he tells me again and again. Should I be delighted? Depressed? Because right now I feel both—or maybe neither. Maybe this uphill climb has just deadened me through and through.

My legs muscles are burning. Lactic acid just coursing through them. Clearly I don’t practice on hills often enough—but I truly dread them. I can see the top of the hill about a quarter of a mile in front of me. Car after car drives up the hill, teeters at the crest for a moment, and then slips into a hidden descent down the other side. My body is really pushing to turn around once I reach the top. Just think how nice the downhill cruise will be, going in the opposite direction! But the cars slide so effortlessly down the other side of that hill—I want to see where they’re going. I want to see what’s at the bottom.

This is how I get into these cycles. While I’m running furiously uphill, I hate it. But I don’t hate it enough to forgo the chance to run down the other side. In Savannah I was never faced with such choices—flat, soft land, as far as my feet could take me. Wasn’t until Athens that I developed this love-hate relationship with running. A classic catch-22: When I’m in great shape, I love it. But when I slip out of my habits and lose some stamina, then I begin to despise it as I puff my way, red-faced, up these hills like the little engine that just barely could. Soon, I run out of steam. No more running, no more hills. My endurance deteriorates a little more. Then it’s just that much harder to get up and put rubber to pavement.

So many runners out tonight. It’s good, at least, to know that I’m not the only one who was eager to endure the stifling, torturous heat. I wonder, as I look into each splotchy, shimmering face, how each of them will deal with this heat once they end their evening jog. Me, I’ll probably lie in the floor of my shower and let the cool water pelt me like my own personal thunderstorm. The thought of that, at least, is enough to keep me going, though I hug the right side of the road where all the trees drape nicely over the sidewalk. I run beneath a nicely box-shaped magnolia tree, which had apparently thought it would claim the air space over the sidewalk, though someone with powerful pruning shears must have thought differently. On the one hand, it makes me sad to see the tamed magnolia cowering alongside the walkway. But because of the pruner’s hand those thick leathery branches are not there to whack me in the face. So I feel a twinge of gratitude, followed swiftly by a twinge of guilt.

Another runner, this one a woman about my age, red-headed with a shirt to match. As usual I glance up at her face as I pass by. She didn’t look into my face, but I saw her sneak a glance at my thighs. Checking them out, no doubt, to see if they are firmer or flabbier than hers. All women do it—it’s inherent. I wish I knew how to cure that urge to compare myself to other women, but after I passed her all I could think was, So maybe your thighs are more toned than mine, but boy, are they pasty! But gosh, I would love to have your hair…

These are the kinds of thoughts I want to escape from when I run. But sometimes it’s just useless. I remember when my family thought I was anorexic; I was under constant pressure to gain weight, even though I knew that I was in great shape. But every time I ran, I would have to wonder, Is this bad for me? If I went home and ate a few spoonfuls of ice cream I would ask myself, Is this bad for me? So driven by pressure… When all I really want is to know my own body.

And I do. I know my metabolism, my breathing cycles. I know how my left foot hits the ground harder every fourth step, jostling my house key. I had to learn these things, so I could sustain a run for longer than a whim would carry me. I love listening to the meter of my breath, the metronome of my feet, taking cues from my body as I run. But why must I pack along all the junk that I take with me everywhere else? For once, I want to leave it at home.

Home. Now that I’ve stopped running, my face is pounding—in fact, I can almost see my pulse hovering inches in front of my eyes. I lean against the column on the porch; yes, that’s joy. That’s satisfaction. It’s all flooding back now. This is how living should really feel.

Rather than untie my shoe to retrieve the key, I opt to yank my entire left sneaker off my foot to unlock the front door. That’s just the kind of person I am, I guess.

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