The Walk sign came on. I started to move into the crosswalk. So did the white Honda. Frightened, I stared through my wet glasses at the driver. Instinctively, independent of conscious thought I thrust my arm out and pointed to the Walk sign.
Throughout the day, I’ve had this nagging guilt about the exchange. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t yell expletives (or even think any). I wasn’t angry, just scared. Still I have nagging guilt.
Guilt is a funny thing. Guilt doesn’t always make sense. As I’m prone to do I’ve been reflecting on the encounter. Why has it nagged at me off and on throughout the day?
This is it: I was able to communicate my feelings (he stopped) but I did not hear the driver’s perspective. More, there was no reconciliation between us. I don’t know who the driver was or what he looked like because of my wet eyeglasses.
I saw her up ahead. In her bright reflective pink-purple jacket she was hard to miss even in the early minutes of dawn. Of course, that’s the point. Runners want to be visible to traffic.
Like me, she ran by herself. As I was about ten feet away, she veered away from me on another trail, and picked up her pace.
This was not competition. This was caution. Solo runners, especially those who are women, need to be cautious in a way that those of us who are men do not. A recent Runners World survey revealed that 43% of women and only 4% of men have been targets of harassment mid-run. (See Running While Female.)
I confess it wasn’t until several women in my online running group shared their experiences of harassment that I considered the risks of the solo run. (Their conversation was in response to last summer’s murder of several women while running.) Whether in my rural community or the suburban and urban areas I often run, I have never personally experienced harassment or threatening behavior from others.
I simply had never thought about it.
Once the women in my runners’ group brought up the topic I paid attention. I noted the watchfulness when I encountered women on my runs. Running alone was not nearly as common among women as men. Group members talked about never running the same way twice and carrying self-protective devices. Many women lamented they no run less often because they feel unsafe running alone. Others described frightening encounters.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I taught college my women students were careful to call security or go with friends after night classes. The young male students brazenly marched into the dark without fear. That’s been awhile, though, and my own sense of security deprived me of appreciation for my fellow runners.
How had I been so oblivious to the experience of so many of my fellow runners? Now that I was aware, I noted the alert looks i got from women especially in more isolated areas. Maybe my big smiles were a little creepier than I imagined. In response, I began giving a wider berth as I would pass to assure others that I have no ill intent. I drew back the magnitude of my smiles, sometimes just nodding.
In an era when our politics validate lewd or worse behavior as locker room talk, those of us who feel safe running alone (or walking to our cars alone) have a responsibility. We must make it clear to our male peers that any talk or action that degrades and belittles others is unacceptable.
I still run alone but I hurt for those who cannot. I am awed at the bravery of those, like the woman in the reflective pink-purple jacket, who run solo but must remain ever-vigilant because of the sins of my gender.
I was disappointed that I was unable to significantly exceed my goal, a goal that seemed insurmountable a year ago. I recall saying as I signed up for the challenge, “I may not make it but I can try, can’t I?” I ran 1000 kilometers last year. (Actually, 1037k which is equivalent to 644 miles.)
Running 1000 kilometers in a year was a significant accomplishment for this fifty-seven year old man. I didn’t win any races (or run more than one) but I cannot forget the feelings of accomplishment intertwined with physical exhaustion on that hot summer morning when I ran 13.31 miles in less than two hours. For non-runners, that’s a half-marathon. That’s better than a nine minute mile.
So, why was I disappointed that I did not significantly exceed my 1000k goal? I think my disappointment was tangled up with my injury discouragement. Between mid-September and late December I was on an injury-enforced hiatus. I lost one-quarter of the year to an injury I didn’t see coming. It felt like a personal attack.
Running continues to teach me about balance. It teaches me about being.
My natural inclination is to do, do, do, and do. Until exhausted. This inclination is something akin to a compulsion but is also a learned behavior. As a child, I absorbed the internal belief that my value as a human being is related to what I do. This is a “works theology” in which hard work gets us love.
My journey over the last decade has enabled me to be more and to do less, but my embedded inclination is still a powerful force. Yes, hard work can and often is a good thing but it is not the source of my worth. It is not the source of love. Love is only love if it is given freely and without strings of expectations.
And I love running!
I love running! (To be sure, I hate running during the first mile or two of every run but after that, I love running.) I love running under the big skies of rural eastern Oregon. I love running along Portland’s suburban footpaths. I love running in the rain! And I’m learning to love running in the cold.
Running requires balance. I must pay attention to my body. Like my faith that dictates a regular sabbath, running requires rest days. It requires time for adequate recovery between runs. It requires pacing and kindness to myself when my body and, sometimes even my spirit, needs a day off.
When I miss my body’s signals, my body can become injured. My love of running allowed me to push myself too hard through the summer months. It was time for a vacation. A week or two off from running before my injury might have prevented the long healing period at the end of last year.
Running is metaphor. Just as my body needed a break to prevent physical injury, something I failed to give it, our spirits need rest. When I fail to take adequate sabbath or insist that hard work will get me more love or prove my worth, I am harming my spirit just as I injured a tendon in mid-September.
Goals like my 1000k goal last year serve a purpose. It is reasonable to set goals that require effort and provide purpose. However, goals and New Year’s resolutions can cause us to harm ourselves. If the goal becomes more important than ourselves and the people around us, we fail to be who we are created to be.
Yes, I was disappointed but I am learning. I am learning to be. This year, I’ve set a personal goal of running 1000 miles (equivalent to 1609k). In addition to the distance goal, I commit to paying closer attention to my pacing, not just the speed I move but to take weeks off here and there to rest my body.
Because running is metaphor, I also commit to the 1000 mile journey of the new year by pacing myself. I will take care of my spirit, taking adequate sabbath and vacation to avoid injury to my core, my soul.
I am an American, which is to say that our culture of goals, work, outcomes, and more work is well-written in my brain. Too often I measure my worth by the things that I do rather than who I am. My struggle to worry less about doing and focus on being is a continuing area for growth.
Running is about being of the earth with each footfall. It is about being as my spirit soars as the sky opens up. Running is the sacred entanglement of the Imago Dei within, my physicality, and the Gaian whole.
And so being sidelined by an injury impacts my mind, body, and spirituality. This unwanted segue off the gravel, trail, and pavement is about being. Letting go of doing more distance, more speed, or more runs is miserable as I yearn for a good run like non-runners yearn for chocolate. The American cultural drive to perform and achieve trifles and philanders with self-worth.
Though I do not believe that the one I call God tests anyone, all moments and experiences provide the opportunity for learning. I can choose during this time of healing and rest to idolize goals, work, and outcomes. I can wallow and strengthen the brain synapses that support our unhealthy culture within myself.
Instead I choose to sit in the moment with those unhealthy feelings, neither wallowing or fighting, but letting them dissipate. I recall the lessons I learn running beneath transcendent skies and through embracing woods. I opt for being.
Costumed in a kelly green tracksuit with yellow stripes down each leg and arm, I left our tiny apartment for a run. I must’ve been a sight! I didn’t get into running consistently in college despite that green polyester jogging suit.
My feelings of conspicuousness coupled with the memories of public school gym classes led me to abandon running in a few weeks. I associated exercise with being targeted, taunted, and ridiculed.
Running was a punishment in junior high school.
In my thirties and forties I dabbled in running, never getting serious. Still, I couldn’t help myself in my pre-dawn walks, often shifting to short runs. Because no one could see me, I was free to move my body. Those adolescent feelings of negative self-image die hard. Today, the taunting of my poor athletic skills and my husky childhood body still lurk within my psyche.
In the last few years, as my running became frequent and regular, I’ve begun to identify as a runner. That identity is qualitatively different than previously.
My aging body is certainly not qualitatively more graceful or attractive. You will not see me on the cover of Runners World. I am, however, healthier and more comfortable in my own skin. Major surgery coupled with the natural aging process, has changed my mind and spirit. I care less about what others think.
I am healthier and happier because I run.
Re-starting this kind of intensive activity in your fifties can and did lead to a few injuries. I listened to my body. They were minor and I recovered well. As I set personal goals, I challenge myself but am respectful of my limits. Despite craving the daily endorphin fix, I’ve learned my body cannot handle running more often than every thirty-six to forty-eight hours.
I choose to learn from the experiences of others, but I focus on health and self-care rather than anything close to competition. Maybe that’s why I do not participate in group running events. Others say they are about personal challenge, not competition. I have no reason to mistrust other runners but for now races do not appeal to me.
Runs are physical and spiritual journeys that mirror life. Some days I meet goals and challenges. Other days I struggle and run slower or not as far as I’d hoped. Some days I just want to go home.
Running is embracing the imago dei within myself. Created in God’s image, I have nothing to be embarrassed about the limits and skills of my body. My mind, body, and spirit are all facets of who I am.
And so I run. I sweat too much, my fat jiggles with each stride, and maybe I look a sight! This is me, as beloved by the divine as the fittest athlete. But run I must because it heals past hurts, strengthens me in the present, and fortifies hope for the future.