I have had a strange quasi-vicarious relationship with running since 1980. It terrified yet attracted me. I heard stories from my mother about having to run cross-country in college along the Volga embankment. Given that I was second slowest only to the much heavier girl in my class back home, I dreaded the humiliation a decade in advance. Even at age ten or so, I was occasionally giving myself pep talks that in college, everyone else will be too mature to tease the unathletic girl. Of course, history showed that in the US, the university I attended did not have a phys ed requirement. Go Blue and God Bless America!
In sixth grade, when I secretly quit the art studio that I was attending at the Young Pioneers Palace, I did so for several reasons. One of them was that there were too many girls (they were all girls, if memory serves) who were much better artists than me. And I hated getting paint all over myself. I was quite a sloppy artist. And I longed to paint with watercolors when all we were allowed was gouache, for reasons that are still passing understanding. But most importantly, I got a better offer. I was old enough to ride the trolley after school by myself, without my omnipresent and ever vigilant grandma. My BFF decided to go to the track and field school with “Olympic reserve”. She asked me to come along. Apparently her father was some kind of a coach there, and he got us in—his tall, lean, fast daughter, and her friend with zero athletic prowess but a game attitude.
The school was fun. I was terrible, of course, but since the exercise was neither mandatory nor graded, and gave me a chance to spend time with my friend rather than with grandma or the pretentious girls at the art studio, I went regularly. The thing is, I am slow runner, but knowing that you have no chance at winning can be kind of liberating. At the art studio, I tried and failed. At the track school, any attempt was a win for me. And then came hurdles.
No, not hurdles as in virtual obstacles—real hurdles. Here is why I loved them, even if I did a faceplant the first time I ran at one. You don’t have to run as fast as the runners, or jump as high as the jumpers (that’s another thing I am really bad at, jumping). I mean, of course Edwin Moses runs fast and jumps high (am I dating myself, mentioning Edwin Moses? Al least I did not say David Burghley), but in the track and field school with “Olympic reserve” in 1980, the friend of the daughter of some dubious coach whom we never actually saw there had some mild fun with the hurdles.
Once my grandmother found out, I don’t remember how, that I was hurdling rather than painting, there was a huge row. There was always a huge row about something at our house. My grandmother is of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” parenting philosophy, but this is not about her. Soon thereafter we left the country. And my friend stopped going once I left. That still strikes me as sad.
So this was 1980. In 1982, a huge beautiful film about 1924 Paris Olympics won the Best Picture Oscar for 1981. I was living with my mother in Jackson, Michigan at the time and had no idea what an Oscar was. My mother, who was in her Americanization phase then (to be fair, it lasted about three decades), took me to the cinema behind Paka Plaza (now defunct) to see this award-winning movie. I instantly fell in love with Nigel Havers, a quintessentially English actor who played the part of the hurdler Lord Andrew Lindsay (David Burghley in real life). This led to a lifetime love of British entertainment, especially PBS and BBC America. And as for Nigel Havers, I actually saw him live on stage in Norwich, as Serge in “Art” a year ago. How things do come full circle—and how can I write this and not feel like the luckiest girl in the world?
Briefly inspired by “Chariots of Fire”, which I saw over 25 times in the cinema alone and Lord knows how many times on VHS once we acquired a VCR, I did try to run then. My mother bought be a book on running, or maybe I borrowed one from the library, and took me to a back road behind our apartment complex. I might have run for a minute as recommended for beginners, spent another 30 sitting in the grass, and went home not to run again until 2016.
Despite my lifelong tendency to overthink, the decision to run was never a plan. I say that it was an uncharacteristically swift decision for me, but I have been known to make those on occasion. Some resolutions are just easier made and kept than others. When you know, you know.
Sometime in late 2015, I went on an 8k walk with a casual friend who runs. She is not a conventional fitness model-looking person such as the ones one sees in videos, but a regular fun loving beer drinking gal who is but a few short years younger than me. Yet clearly, she runs. And that’s when I said to myself, if she runs, I can run. The 8k walk was no trouble, and I said to myself—in a year’s time, I will run a half marathon. The long and short of it, I did. And then another one, a year later. And another one, on my 50th birthday.
Going back to “Chariots of Fire” as inspiration, the one thing that continuously strikes me as funny is that when I think of myself as Harold Abrahams or Eric Liddell, well, they were not marathoners. They were sprinters. Harold Abrahams was “the fastest man on Earth” in 1924. Speed is still not my thing.
Running is a pretty cool thing, though. I run barely faster than I walk, but I have seen some amazing sights as a runner. It is a new identity that I have tried on for size, and after three years, yes, that is who I am. I am a runner. I am #oldladyrunning.
3 thoughts on “Run Your Own Race”