Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Only Thing Running Around Here Is My Watch

It's the time of year when people make grand commitments to do or not do things for the next 365 days, usually related to eating and drinking or, ahem, not freaking out at Oakland parking meter attendants. (Seriously? You're ticketing me as I'm standing at the ATM taking out money with which to plug the meter?) But the biggest draw for New Year's resolutions, from my informal and unscientific  observation, is exercise-related. Everyone I know seems determined to speed up their heart rate in 2011.

Not me. After years of trying to fool myself I've found my gait, and it's walking. Just like God and Darwin intended.

It wasn't like I really ever wanted to start "jogging," back before it morphed into the currently fashionable "running." It was just trendy in high school in the '80s, like wearing thick Fair Isle sweaters and reading the Preppy Handbook. My primary internal motivation was a desire to say "Move over, lemmings, me too!" 

Perhaps inevitably, the first time I went jogging I spent more time getting dressed for it than I spent actually moving. It was dawn when I pulled on the oppressive sports bra, thick tube socks that reached my knees, and my shorts and t-shirt from the Champion Knits Factory Reject Store (think Alabamma State University, Amshert College, etc.) On that first fateful day I made it to the end of Branford Road, hooked right onto Ashbourne, began to falter, turned left onto Hillside as a stitch knit itself up my side, and promptly barfed onto someone's lawn.  You could still see the roofline of my house from where I knelt. I hoped no one I knew had pulled back the kitchen curtains, morning coffee in hand, to see me slumped on the dewy grass.  I slunk back to my house with a face as red from embarrassment as it was from exertion.

I kept at the jogging, though, especially once I got to college and was surrounded by people richer, taller, and thinner than I. Couldn't do much about one and two, but maybe about number three? By that time I could go two or three miles without pausing, and I began to look forward to my daily run as movable flirtation. I'd pick some route through the gritty streets of West Philadelphia where I lived and hope that along the way I'd see a cute classmate who would be impressed by my athleticism.

Why I felt that the sight of me lurching along at a nine minute per mile pace would excite male attentions that everything else had failed to muster, I can't say, but hope never dies. When I was a senior there was a classmate, a star lacrosse player, who asked me out and said admiringly, "Oh yeah, I've seen you out running." Maybe he thought he'd found a fellow athlete with whom he could share his cultish devotion to proper nutrition for optimal sports performance. But after two dates during which he scolded me for putting mustard on my Philly cheese fries because of its impact on my sodium levels, I realized even I wasn't that desperate for a boyfriend.

I ran while living in Germany for my first job, a crazy American amidst the slower-moving natives; I ran in grad school, timing my run so I'd pass the guy I liked as he left his apartment complex for class; once I married that guy and moved to DC, I kept running, sometimes being passed by Bill and Hilary as they sped by in their motorcade. I ran a few 10K races, mainly so I'd have some new t-shirts (correctly spelled) to wear while running, but never much improving on my pace. One day I ran a 10K in my Georgetown neighborhood and finished with a time that was, even for me, remarkably slow.

"Let's stop at the drugstore for a minute," I told my husband as we walked home. There, I bought a home pregnancy test. Thirty minutes later, I bounded down the stairs of our tiny row house. The miracle I'd hoped for had occurred.

I finally had a medically plausible reason to quit jogging.

Once the baby arrived my aversion to running grew even stronger. I figured out that I could go out for a jog and cover 3.5 miles in 30 minutes; or I could walk the same distance and have a whole hour to myself. For thirteen years now, that hour is when I do my best mental unpacking, sorting through the sludge and chaos of my day and coming home to feel cheerier and less burdened. The last thing I want to do is shorten the interval. As Wallace Stevens once wrote, "perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake."

So I applaud any and all of you who are making a commitment to run a marathon, cycle a century, or try a Tri in 2011. I will stand in awe of your effort and training, and cheer you as you reach your goals.

And then, without even a twinge of envy or ambition, I'll amble away.


  1. Wait, you have coin meters in Oakland??

    The Austin City Council spent $650 million dollars to equip our fair town with solar-powered, credit card kiosks.

    They are earning the money back by stopping everyone who drives more than 3 mph over the speed limit, dragging them from their cars, beating them soundly, and emptying their wallets.

    Frankly, I'm surprised that Oakland is so provincial and backward.

    OK, gotta’ head out for my run…

  2. I SO miss ambling with you. It used to be the highlight of my week. So, a resolution in 2011: try to find weekend ambling time with Nancy.

    Loved the running biography - glad I was there for all the various post-high school phases. Do you remember when I went for a run in your neighborhood in DC and destroyed my knee? Good times.

  3. Oh, Werner, Oakland will always surprise you with her provincialism and backwardness. However we do have meters that take debit cards, and that was what the meter guy told me - instead of using your card at the ATM, you should have used it at the meter. You probably heard my cuss-filled, shameful reaction in Austin.

    And Jill, yes, Ambling Ahead in 2011. That's our battle cry.

  4. I love your writing, Nancy. I really do.

    And did they have any Burkley sweatshirts at that place?

  5. I think I'd be laughing too hard at my shirt to actually run! Stanfjord?! I love it! I'm an ambler too but I still chafe at the fact that my aged knees and fibromyalgia don't allow me to run anymore.

  6. Aoife - You do NOT live in Te Awamutu. Do you really? I've been there, and to your town museum for the dreamiest 20 minutes ever.

    As for the aging conditions, I call it a lucky excuse that you can slow down and walk like me.

  7. Nancy, I LOVED this essay!!! As a fellow plantar facitius (don't even know how to spell the darn ailment) sufferer and former runner, I am also grateful for the excuse NOT to run, although I do miss the accompanying high...

  8. Love the visual of "mental unpacking." That's exactly what I get when I hit the trail.


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