Ask anyone in my small town about me and I’ll wager they’ll say something along the lines of, “Oh, the runner.” It’s not just that being a running writer and editor is my work, or that I coached their kids for more than a decade, or that I co-directed the local 5K for as long — it’s also the only time many of them see me. I am the one they wave at, running on country roads or town streets, in winter snow or summer heat, morning or mid-day. It is what I do, it is who I am.
This fall, though, I’ve had to wonder if I’m still me. I’ve been injured, a damaged knee that doesn’t have a quick and easy fix, and so haven’t been running. After 43 years of hitting the roads or trails most days, it is not a minor thing.
Recently, however, I discovered that running is imbedded deeper in me than a few months respite can erase.
It had been about 12 weeks since I really went for a run. More than 6 since I took a running step. I’d been getting used to working hard on the bike — enough so that I’d started to think that I might survive as a cyclist (meaning the aerobic exercise it provides could keep from falling into deep depression, not that I’m going to start wearing lycra and shaving my legs). Mostly, I’d been walking a lot.
That day, walking north a mile, I got to the bottom of the one hill and decided that, since going uphill doesn’t hurt my knee and my doctor said I could start playing with things that don’t hurt, I’d try running up it. And I did: I drove one leg back and one knee forward, levitated and floated up the hill, my stride light and fast, my leg muscles firing and limbs moving in oh-so-familiar patterns. I got to the top and laughed, a spontaneous expression of surprise and joy.
It felt like tasting a favorite dish of Mom’s cooking years later, like driving the streets of a childhood town, like hugging a long lost friend. It felt right; this is how I move; this is what I do. I was emphatically reminded that running is not just about effort and goals and escape — as important as those are — it is this movement, so well practiced, so integral to my body. Whatever else I am, I am a runner.
On the way back home, I walked back down the hill, then turned at the bottom and ran up it again. And again I laughed at the magic.
It’s now a few weeks later, I’ve been cleared to run a bit more — and discovered that, after those few hundred yards, I’ve lost much of what makes running a joy. Within a couple of miles I find myself struggling along in a late-marathon shuffle, panting, with my heart rate pushing well past comfortable and legs complaining. I’ll give it time — I have to take it easy on my knee anyway.
I’m still getting most of my aerobic exercise on the bike. And, on foot, I’m still as much a walker as runner right now, as my mile splits will attest.
But when I get to a hill, I can’t help but fly up it. And, as my body synchronizes with the motion and I feel the familiar rhythms of this dance I know so well, I’m confident that I will always be a runner, no matter how much I can run.