Dirt. When you run full and hard in the slush of Toronto winter, dirt wet sprays up onto your calves, covers the backs of your leg gins with streaks that show where you’ve been, show fearlessness, badges of willingness to be uncomfortable. The weight of shoes doubled by mud when you plunge deep.
“I feel like a real runner again.”
“What’s a real runner?”
I had that conversation this summer, and never answered the question. Realized, in pondering it, that my experience of my physical self this year has been an encounter with the meaning of mid-life in so many ways.
“Real” runner. Finding ease in the movement, the space between intent and physical response where speed surprises you, bursts of energy and euphoria, where the movement of your feet becomes rhythmic and unbidden, where you are in flow. Since 2000, when I stopped running marathons because of knee problems, I’ve run pretty steadily but casually — 2 or 3 times a week most of the time, when I’m not traveling, short distances, keeping me sane and reasonably fit, but without that sense of flow.
Running for that decade-plus was moments of endorphins and well-being, the joy of feeling my body running somewhere unexpected. Hurling myself at the very end of the Pantanal in Brazil where the road literally tips into an end in the bed of the river Cuiba. On steaming flat suburban emptiness in Houston, scrubby suburbs in western New York. A hot busy road in the Philippines on Christmas Eve, where musicians waited with their instruments for a bus. Through the silent hotwhite streets of a planned seniors’ community in Arizona. Across the forced air heat of the Brooklyn Bridge. Through the sandy silent ancient fields temples of Bagan before full light, forced by wild dogs to backtrack and loop. Through a torrent of rain that drowned low roads in minutes in northern England. Along the seawall of my little cottage in BC. The vast beach and open ocean of Oregon. Down the low broken pathway along the river that I rode my bike along as a child in southwestern Germany.
My body has carried me a lot of places, and in most of them, I try to run, even a little bit, to feel the place through my feet. That part makes me a real runner, that I don’t feel I’ve really experienced somewhere until I run there. And — I’ve never run in Africa — my body feels distant from me there in some ways, way too close in others.
All of this is true, and still, there was something missing about feeling my body at its peak, responding before I signal, that I found this summer. Because I was running and riding, I felt myself a “real runner” for the first time in more than a decade. I trained for a half marathon I was supposed to run mid-October, my first in 13 years, but was sidelined by a lung-compromising, nose-stuffing cold that licked away at my ability to get off the couch, let alone pound away for 21.1 km. I never picked up my race kit, but rode around freezing on my bike cheering on friends. Contemplated the question of “real runner” as I watched a woman nearing the finish, weeping and holding hands with her companion.
And, I was struggling with why I was running this half even before I got sick. I ran 20 km in a training run, and didn’t enjoy it. Didn’t find that flow for even a moment. Just pounding. Most of my runs once September hit were like that, long or short — always a slog, always a testament of will more than coming together of effort and response.
On the surface, I wanted to do this half because I could. I didn’t think I’d ever be fit enough to run that far again, and reclaiming that this summer, through the combination of cycling and running and lots of stretching, was really powerful. Echoes of a self that I thought I’d had to leave behind — the one capable of pushing myself physically, surprising myself and everyone else with speed, endurance that was a metaphor for many other things. Finding this more than a decade later, in my late 40s, was a gift that I’m grateful for as people around me deal with debilitating, life-changing illness.
And, running 21 km at 48 is different than doing it at 35. My effortless flow 13 years ago, the last time I ran a half, resulted in a blazing time 20 minutes faster than I could possibly hope to do this time. I realized I didn’t know how to set a time goal in my current body, life, and that I didn’t know how to mentally prep for something without that kind of framework. How do I know when to speed up, slow down, what’s reasonable, what will burn me out?
Yes, that’s a metaphor for mid-life ;-).
Running at 48 is about physicality, but it’s also about what’s possible in mid-life, and learning to read and interpret what that means. For my body, but for so many other aspects of life too. Choices are not endless when you’re nearly 50. More is behind than in front, and we don’t know how much that is. Learning to be present to and grateful for what is real right now sounds like a truism, but is an active, complicated practice. Learning to be truly grateful for a body that lets me carry myself on my feet, fastish, for 20 km, even if a slog, when a good friend is grateful to walk up stairs without having to sit down. Learning to think about money and work as not an endless river of possibility, but needing some shape, some intent, some recognition that there are only so many earning years left, so many years to find voice. Learning that love at mid-life is full of hope and is as infused with where we’ve been as much as where we’re going.
Learning how to think about limits without experiencing them as limiting. Edges that aren’t constraints. Awareness that my dad died at 50, and my intellectual father in his 60s, holding that awareness loosely to infuse the now with full presence.
I kept my first pair of running shoes for years after I last put them on my feet, and before I finally turfed them, ceremoniously took a photo. These asiics took me further and faster than I ever imagined my little bookworm body could go.
Those shoes counted out 1000s of steps, possibilities that created an entirely new identity for me. I’m looking to my slower slogs, my body at 48-almost-49, to help me flow out the next version of that.