- Alleviation of loneliness and anxiety.
You get divorced and move into a large apartment. Even though you were lonely for the entirety of your eleven-year marriage, this is a different kind of loneliness. There is no one to come home to except the dogs, and they don’t talk to you. You wish they would. You married at twenty-two, and you have never lived alone.
You don’t know how to be with yourself.
So even though it’s February, you get the idea to go for a run. You ran track in high school, but haven’t run since then; you’re not serious, this is just something to kill time. That first time out, you run for ten minutes, just a few blocks. This is ten minutes when the itch under your skin subsides, when your allergy to yourself disappears. It is ten minutes passed without wondering how you will fill the gaping holes of time that now construct your life.
- Weight loss.
At the same time this running habit is budding, you also essentially quit eating. You call a cup of fat-free Greek yogurt topped with three orange slices a meal. You probably consume less than a thousand calories a day, and when combined with the two miles you are running every other day, the weight you gained over the course of your marriage—all twenty-five pounds of it—slides off of you.
For a decade, you have hidden in cheap gray sweatshirts and ugly jeans from Old Navy, but now none of these dumpy clothes fit, either literally or figuratively. You go out and buy a whole new wardrobe from glittery mall shops; all your new clothes are a size six, and you are thrilled when even these begin to fall off of you. You see your ob/gyn for your annual, and she tells you flatly, “Don’t lose any more weight.”
- Sense of accomplishment. And, the power to impress others.
You run when it’s snowing. You run in the 4pm, 95 degree July heat. . You never run more than 2 ½ miles—this is an obligation, not a hobby—but you enjoy the quizzical looks from your friends when you tell them you nearly passed out on a run because of the heat. You are certain they are impressed by your fortitude, your wherewithal.
You run three or four days a week, no matter how tired you are, or if you’re sick, or if you don’t feel like it. You allow yourself no excuses, and you are most pleased when you get your run done and out of the way. Afterwards, you have earned a reprieve for one more day before you must do it again. You do not consider running optional.
- Connection with others and appreciation for beauty.
After more than a year of single life, you travel to Italy with two friends, one of whom is a serious runner. She runs seven or eight miles every day. While you are in Florence, you go for an hour-long run with her. You cross the Arno and run alongside grand old palazzos that serve as embassies for obscure countries. You run high up into the blue-green hills, passing a clutch of cyclists who yell out “Ciao, bella!” This makes you laugh and blush. You pause for a moment with your friend at the crest of a hill so you can admire the patchwork of olive groves and vegetable gardens perched at 45-degree angles on the hillside. At 8am it is already nearly 90 degrees, and you are drenched in sweat. You have never experienced this brand of exhilaration. You are breathless with joy—look at your life!
The two of you run back to the pensione, where you shower and then wolf a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, croissants and fruit. Running has also given you this: the ability to eat, just this once, without guilt.
- Feeling attractive [to the opposite sex].
All this time, you’ve been dating someone. Your first date with him was two weeks after you moved out of the house you shared with your husband, before your divorce was even (legally) final. It was final in your heart for many years before the physical separation occurred.
Your new, thin body is well-appreciated by your new man. He makes comments about how little you eat, how he doesn’t like that he can see your ribs along your back when you are topless in bed next to him, and though he voices these comments as concerns, you are secretly thrilled. You are also fairly sure—no, you are 100% certain—that he would not love you if you gained ten pounds. You don’t feel like anyone would love you if you gained ten pounds. Also, you tell yourself that you have never—not once—felt beautiful in all your life, and you’re not about to give it up now. You are determined that nothing as pedestrian as nourishment will ruin your happiness.
- Restoration of self.
You get pregnant and get married, in that order (you are in love; you are happier than you’ve ever been). You stop running the very day two pink lines appear in the window of the pregnancy test, and while you feel a sigh of relief at the excuse to quit running, you are also terrified at the impending weight gain you know is coming. You do not want to become one of “those women”: the ones who can’t get the weight off after having a child. You judge them, and you are certain you, too, will be judged. You are momentarily buoyed by the fact that your own mother is thin after having three kids, despite the fact that she eats like crap and considers a walk to the car to be exercise.
You gain forty pounds during your pregnancy.
You give up running while you carry your son, but you do not give up exercise. You walk—no, waddle—your way through those final summer months in 90-degree heat and suffocating humidity. Every evening you slowly make your way through your neighborhood for twenty minutes at a time, and you tell yourself this means you are not giving up on yourself entirely.
Your son is born on September 1, and you sort of lose your mind. No, you really lose it (new motherhood is not for the faint of heart). Your body is no longer your own: it leaks, it cries out for sleep, it aches. You feel as if you are a service animal, conscripted for the sole purpose of ministering to this little human. You can both love your child more than anything in the world and also feel like a flesh-eating organism is consuming you.
At five weeks postpartum, once the sutures have finally stopped falling out and washing down the bathtub drain, you go for your first run. Your doctor has not yet cleared you for hard physical exercise, but you don’t care. You need to start working the weight off, now.
Oh, those early weeks of running! They are nothing like you remember from your old life! You move through sludge, your feet weighted down by concrete, your lungs grabbing for oxygen as if something is strangling you. You are sweating before you’ve gone a quarter-mile. Your memories of feeling light and fleet-footed are so sharp in contrast to what you feel now, like a knife’s edge to your throat, that you wonder if you will ever feel that way again.
It takes ten months to get the weight off. But you do it.
- Time to oneself.
Even though you sometimes take your son along with you in the jogging stroller, you prefer to run alone. When it is time for a run, you don’t leave the house so much as you escape. You also don’t have to respond to anyone’s cries or whining or demands for milk or dinner or being held. You don’t have to look at the dirty laundry or think about what you will make for dinner. You get twenty or twenty-five whole minutes to yourself. And just as you begin to truly appreciate this, to think of running as something more than a means of calorie expenditure, just as you begin to think about running a half-marathon and start increasing your mileage, just as you begin to actually love running, it happens.
- A sense of gratitude for the competencies of one’s body.
You get a nasty sinus infection when your son is a year and a half old. Your allergist prescribes a heavy-duty antibiotic you’ve never taken, along with a steroidal nasal spray. The antibiotic is a member of the same drug class as Cipro, the medication used to treat anthrax poisoning, but you won’t learn this until later. Your allergist also makes a serious error while writing the prescription, a mistake she will later deny: she doubles the dose you are supposed to take.
By the third day of taking both medications, your knees are in so much pain that you are unable to get off the floor after changing your son’s diaper. You must use your hands and arms, which are also newly weakened and painful, to hoist yourself up to a standing position using the crib rails. All the joints in your body are on fire. You call your mother, who is a nurse practitioner, and she tells you that the antibiotic you are taking has a “black box” warning, meaning that the FDA has deemed that the medication carries a substantial risk of serious or life-threatening side effects. Your mother tells you to stop taking it immediately.
You go online and discover a torrent of horror stories about this antibiotic. It is especially devastating when combined with steroids; it causes tendon damage and even tendon rupture, and many people have been left permanently debilitated after taking it. This is why your knees hurt: the antibiotic has literally attacked your tendons. Athletes of all stripes suffer a greater rate of rupture because of the strain they place on their bodies.
Barely able to get off the couch, you feel a creeping sense of panic at the thought of never being able to run again. You can’t help but wonder if you have permanent damage. And for the first time, maintaining your weight doesn’t occur to you when you think about running. You think only of how you’ve come to love it: the expansion of your lungs, the soft, repetitive thump-thump of your shoes on pavement, the scents of wet earth and hot asphalt and cut grass. The thought of all this being taken from you plunges you into mourning.
You spend the whole summer walking and doing slow, short test runs where you stop immediately the instant you feel the slightest pinch of pain in your knees. Because the antibiotic can cause spontaneous tendon rupture for up to six months after you have stopped taking it, you are extremely cautious. As badly as you want to run, you are not willing to risk a rupture. You want to be able to run forever, not just today. And when you do run, many days you can’t even make it a half-mile before you must stop running, walk home and then ice your knees.
But you do heal. And as you fight your way through that summer, holding yourself back when you want nothing more than to go, each run becomes its own small miracle. You feel the preciousness of your very ability to move. You are filled with thankfulness at your ability to put one foot in front of the other, to sweat and to use your body well.
By the end of the summer, you are able to run your first quarter-marathon. You do it easily, with a smile on your face the entire 6.55 miles.
- With time, it becomes a gift to oneself.
You are pregnant now with your second child. You ran another quarter-marathon when you were five weeks pregnant and didn’t know it; you shaved four minutes off your personal record. It was your finest running achievement to date. You ran until your sixteenth week but had to stop when even slow running made you start having contractions. This time, you haven’t even kept up with walking.
You know what lies ahead in those early newborn days: exhaustion, long nights, slow, painstaking runs while carrying an extra thirty pounds you want gone immediately, a year spent feeling flabby and ungainly as you run off weight. You see other runners out on your routes and you have to swallow hard and look away—you miss the act of running with a physical ache.
And right now, you are counting down the weeks until that first run, until you can lace up your running shoes and strap your Garmin onto your wrist and spend thirty minutes in the chill air and sunshine, doing nothing at all except moving your feet, breathing hard.
Amy Collini’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Soundings Review, Literary Mama, The Ilanot Review, Mulberry Fork Review, The Evening Street Review and others. She lives near Columbus, Ohio with her family.