and I ran

I walked along the avenue. I never thought I'd meet a girl like you.

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The Uninvited Guest

Jan Stanton is a chaplain and speaker to groups on the topics of grief and loss, aging and caregiving, and other issues of spiritual health in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.  This is her second entry to “And I Ran.”  Read the first here. She blogs at jansreflections.com.

 ***

It happened November 9, 2013.

It was a Saturday morning and I was out for a run—a longer one, I’d hoped.  Clouds settled over the Twin Cities region, with temperatures in the mid-forties.  No, it was not winter yet, no snow or ice.  I could still run on a clean, paved track along River Road.  It was good to be outdoors, doing what I loved to do.

And then it happened.  I’d covered four and a half miles when suddenly my right leg began to hurt—a lot.  Far more intense than simple soreness or fatigue, this pain was like I’d never experienced before, shooting down my leg with each step.  I wondered how I’d ever get back home, a mile and a half away.

Though concerned, I tried putting on a little optimism, if not downright denial, by clinging to an unlikely hope that the pain would subside all by itself, and soon I’d resume my comfortable run.  That never happened. 

Read more …

Filed under Jan Stanton injury uninvited guest healing running

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I don't want to talk about IBD

And I Ran contributor, Erin Hutton, designed these awesome Xmas ornaments to help raise awareness and funds for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. Consider purchasing to lend a hand and show your support!

Filed under crohns crohn's disease ccfaawarenessweek erin hutton

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Team Challenge

Erin Hutton is the Program Assistant for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chatham University. She graduated from Chatham in 2011 with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She is the creator of the blog Don’t Forget to Eat, featuring posts on food, travel, Crohn’s disease, and running.

***

I’m a runner. It took me a long time to be able to say that. Occasionally, I’d say “I run” and still feel like a fraud. But after my season with Team Challenge, an endurance training and fundraising program for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), I’M A RUNNER. For life.

When I met Katie, at that time the Endurance Manager for the local Team Challenge chapter, I thought there was no way I could do what she was proposing, but I signed up anyway. The challenge: run a half marathon and raise $2500 for CCFA.

The fundraising, I figured I could do. At that time, I knew two people with Crohn’s: myself and my brother. He found out in December 2006 and I was diagnosed in July 2012. In the almost six years between our diagnoses, I’d been looking for a way to raise awareness for Crohn’s, but continued to come up short since I didn’t want to share Ryan’s story, it’s his story to share and he should do it on his own terms, not mine. In that six years, I’d also kept trying to become a runner. A few times, I quit from my own loss of interest, but usually I quit for reasons of illness. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, it was an ankle injury. In the summers of 2010 and 2011, it was mystery abdominal pain. In 2012, it was, certainly, Crohn’s disease. So, for all these reasons, I looked at Katie, a cheerful young runner who I now call my friend, on a chilly February day at a café on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and said: Absolutely I’m going to do this. 

And then my boyfriend, Kevin, and friend, Beth, said absolutely they’d do it, too.

I knew I could walk the half marathon distance – 13.1 miles – so that was something. If nothing else, I’d raise the money and walk across the finish line. At our first training, I felt lousy and ran for a total of five minutes, and not five minutes in a row. It really looked like I’d be walking the race.

I kept telling myself that was okay, but the truth was that I wanted to run. I felt like Crohn’s had taken running away from me. I wasn’t even willing to call myself a runner yet, but I felt as if that option had been stolen by the disease raging in my intestines. It was just one more item on a list of things I felt Crohn’s had taken away, from small things like my ability to eat apples and salads to big dreams like running off and traveling the world long-term in my twenties. And my personal list was nothing compared to the list of things I felt like Crohn’s had stolen from my brother.  

So I kept showing up to training and giving running a shot. And just by showing up, I was actually improving. Every week I could run a little bit further and one warm spring day I ran a full mile without breaking to walk. I’d never, in my entire life, run a full mile nonstop.

I couldn’t believe that a clutzy girl like me with exercise-induced asthma could become a runner. In Kindergarten, I was the kid who got hit in the face with a kickball while sitting on the sidelines.

And then I started talking to other women about running. I discovered that two of my Team Challenge teammates also ran their first all-at-once mile during that Team Challenge season. Many of them told me that they were mostly to completely unathletic before they began running. Most of them admitted to sucking at soccer and basketball and softball. They were routinely picked last in gym. (Like me, except for those days when T was team captain and decided he was going to turn us clutzy girls into a winning team. He didn’t.) Lots of them, again like me, are comfortable calling themselves runners but are uncomfortable with the label athlete. A few of them played sports growing up, enjoyed them, and were good at them, but a shocking number were just like me: bookish members of the newspaper and science club, not the field hockey team.

Not only was I runner, but I was fitting in at something athletic. It was the first time I felt like something good had come from Crohn’s disease. From the moment I learned how to define Crohn’s disease with my brother’s diagnosis in 2006, I’d felt like the disease was stealing from my family, and I still do. But with Team Challenge I was finally getting one important, fantastic thing from the disease: running. And soon after that, new friends and a support team for managing the disease.

And not only was I runner who was fitting in, I was actually enjoying running. I liked the mental challenges and the accomplished post-run naps. If someone had told me that running was a mental game, one that requires relatively little coordination and plenty of mental stamina not to quit, maybe I’d have started running a little sooner. After all, I’m good with the determined mental stamina – I can sit for a long time fussing over an essay when big parts of my body and brain are telling me to get up and do something else. Maybe I’d have joined the cross country team in high school if I’d understood that running is a lot like writing: it requires determination, persistence, and practice. One of my all-time favorite teachers coached the high school cross-country team and asked me many times to join. I said no every time. It was the only challenge he gave me that I outright refused. Well, Mr. McCann, it took me nearly ten years, but I finally said yes to running. And you were right, running is awesome.

Filed under Erin Hutton Crohn's Disease Team Challenge

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Sick Run

Moriah Erickson is a writer, respiratory therapist, wife, mother to 7 children, and a runner.  She has published essays and poems in numerous journals and publications on both the local and national level.  She is currently finishing her MFA from Fairfield University, and  lives a good life in Duluth, MN.

This is Moriah’s third contribution to And I Ran. Read her other entries here and here.

***

I slip two liquid gels into my mouth, feel them roll around on my tongue, and swallow, hoping they both go down.  They do.  It’s early Saturday morning, I’m staring into the bathroom mirror at my mother’s house at the ghost staring back.  My eyes are hollow.  My nose is red.  My hair is more askew than usual.  Today is THE day, and it figures that I would wake up with this strange heaviness in my head, unable to breathe through my nose, and a searing pain in my throat.  It’s the marathon, and I’m sick.

I’ve been training for the past year or so for this.  I’ve been running relentlessly, logging more miles than McDonald’s has cheeseburgers.  I’ve been nervous for the past month, wondering if I would get this weekend off work, or if I’d have to rely on the generosity of my co-workers to bargain for the days off.  I got the time off.  I am confident in my training.  But now I am sick.  I wonder if this is my body’s way of telling me to knock it off, 26 miles is just silly.  Why would anyone run that far, much less for fun?

The thing is, that it isn’t really fun.  It’s an opportunity to be alone in my head, to listen to the thoughts that I would otherwise ignore.  It’s time to really test my psyche.  Because my legs can put down 26 miles, no problem.  It’s my head I am worried about.  And now I am sick.  I stare into the foreign face in the mirror; skinnier and more drawn than I remember ever looking.  I even look sick.  It’s not the kind of sick I feel, though.

I consider switching races.  I can drop down from the full marathon to the half for an extra $10.  13 miles doesn’t sound nearly as daunting.  But there is that feeling of wimping out, the one that I don’t want to have to justify to myself.  I could just run the half, and hang my medal with all the other medals I have from all the other races, call it good.  But that’s not what I came here for.

It’s the marathon and I’m sick.  It’s no excuse.  I swallowed my Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold and Flu, and now I douse them with a slurp of coffee.  Hot and bitter, I imagine the coffee splitting the pills in my stomach, releasing the magical chemicals within.  I instantly begin to feel better.  I pin my race number on and stand up, ignoring the dizziness that arrives without fail when I take cold medicine on an empty stomach.  I didn’t come here to feel sorry for myself.  I came to run.

Almost an hour later, I ride a school bus to the starting line.  The morning is still cresting.  Frost is thick on the grass, and gooseflesh rises on my naked thighs.  I’m cold now, sitting on the vinyl seat next to a stranger.  She makes small talk; typical race chatter.  Where I am from, what’s the furthest I’ve run, etc.  She discovers this is my first full marathon.  She high-fives me.  I tell her I am sick.  She promptly roots a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer from her pocket, and applies it generously.  She offers it to me, but I decline.  I am dressed like these other runners; shorts that feel too short for anything but running, socks that feel too tall for anything but running, and a shirt that slides over my skin with polyester ease.  Earbuds are pinned inside my neckline.  I am shivering.

I am cold.  I am sick.  I do not want to do this, all of a sudden.  All my training culminates in this one gigantic moment of self-doubt.  And it takes the wisdom of this stranger sitting next to me on an overcrowded, cold school bus to reign it in.  She says words that will become my mantra during those 26 miles, when I want to crawl into the weeds along the trail and take a nap.  She says words that drive me through those 26 disgusting miles.  She says “It’s not how fast you are, it’s how good you want to be” and I repeat it over and over in my head.  It’s not how fast I am.  It’s not how sick I am.  It’s not.

I want to be good.  I do.  And it drags me through those 26 miles.  And at the end, when I think I cannot take another step, I think about how good I want to be.  I know the stress fracture in my right foot has rebroken, but I think of how good I want to be.  And it powers me through those remaining 0.2 miles, which in retrospect, are the hardest part, anyway.  I finish my marathon.  And I am still sick, and now I am favoring that right foot as I duck my head into my finisher’s medal.  I’m good, though, as good as I want to be.

Filed under moriah erickson sick run

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Defining Moments

Emily May Anderson writes poetry, teaches English, and runs in Columbus, Ohio. This is her second contribution to And I Ran. Read her first piece here.

I’ve noticed in reading through all of the inspiring posts about running here and elsewhere that many of us write about the moments that defined us, as runners, and in many cases as strong, capable individuals.  In my previous post, about a year ago, I wrote about how running helped me find myself.  And that’s true. 

As runners, we all have defining moments: specific races or specific achievements that function as landmarks for us.  And I have them too.  My first 5K.  My first 10:00 mile.  My first 10-mile run.  My first 9:00 mile.  My first half-marathon. 

But it struck me recently that the real defining thing for me as a runner is not an event, a pace, or a distance — it’s a place.  More specifically, it’s the Olentangy Bike Trail, a span of pavement that winds 13.75 miles from downtown Columbus north to the suburb of Worthington.  There are many things I love about the bike trail, so for my second And I Ran post, I offer up a list, in no particular order, of the reasons I love it.

Ode to the Olentangy Bike Trail

Because I ran on the trail after Hurricane Ike in 2008, when hundreds of thousands of my Central Ohio neighbors were without power; because I ran on the trail while it was still littered with branches and debris, during the afternoon the day after the storm because I couldn’t go to work because there was no electricity, and I counted my blessings.

Because I ran my first 10-miler ever mostly on the trail, leaving from Stacey’s apartment in Italian Village, crossing High Street, winding through the beautiful neighborhoods of Victorian Village, then following the bike trail past Ohio State and up to the wetland research area before turning around and heading back.  Because that was the day I first started to believe I actually could run a half-marathon, because Stacey knew I could do it, and pushed me to try.

Because parts of the trail are shaded and parts are in full sun; because the sun beats down on the fast straight stretch near OSU and in the summer everything glows; because it is wooded north of campus and the shade is welcome.

Because the river is never far away.

Because I ran my first 9:00 mile there, in new shoes I was testing out, on a random Tuesday after work. I ran that day and I thought of the me who could barely run a minute without losing her breath, and I felt proud of myself, and lucky, and I counted my blessings.

Because the happiest I’ve ever been was running there with Sam through that one perfect fall; because I would run from my apartment and she would run from hers and we’d meet on Neil Ave. and then pick up the trail together; because she would slow down and match her pace to mine and we would talk as we ran; because in those moments I had love and health and motion and power and communion and the sunsets and the river and everything I had ever wanted. 

Because even now that is the person I want to be, running with my girlfriend on a trail that feels like home.

Because the smell of the river and the breeze off the river are never far away.

Because I have failed on that trail as well as succeeded; I have given up and walked up the hills; I have turned around before I’d planned; I have not hit my goals.

Because I’ve come back to try again.

Because people nod to me as we pass each other, because some people wave, because every runner, walker, or biker I see is another soul doing something good for themselves.

Because under the bridges it’s always fall: there’s a chill that never disappears, the smell of mud, the dead leaves, the creosote smell of the railroad ties above my head, and every once in awhile a train will roar by above me and drown out the music from my headphones and even the sound of my feet and my breath.

Because I’ve run that trail in every month of the year and seen it change and seen it stay the same.

Because the river is never far away, and always moving; because being on the trail is being alive, being part of the world, part of the city and apart from it.

Because I’ve never raced there.

Because I am myself on that trail, in all the good ways and the bad ways, powerful and weak and alone and connected; because I know who I am and who I want to be when I am out there running; I remember that defining version of myself, and I find her there again and again.

Filed under Emily May Anderson

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A recent graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA, Catherine Barna
runs behind her four children but in front of the Grim Reaper.

***

The Vine post in my mind plays over and over – the back of my 7 year-old daughter moving steadily uphill, her blond braids flop-flying behind her.

Oh, no! I think, I can’t keep up.

Running in a local road race I regret that my training has been sporadic. Elizabeth, my daughter, never trains. She plays. She was in the race because her sister, brother and I had entered and simply included her. She shadows me for the first mile and easily keeps the pace.

“Go ahead if you can. Don’t wait for me. Try to catch up to David,” I encourage. I try not to regret this as I watch her gain on the runners in front of me. She moves uphill like she was fresh at a flat start.

My heart drops. I had wanted to run with my family. Now we are stretched across the 5K course with David up front and out of view and my father in the back, walking with my other daughter.

The day is perfect, clear, bright and cool. The course loops through our small New England village, starting at the local elementary school, passing town hall, the police station, orchards and tree farms before finishing near the start.

A number of families turned out for this morning run and a handful of others dot the course, calling encouragement. A boom box plays, “Gonna Fly Now,” from the Rocky soundtrack at one point.

As painful as it is to find myself alone, I realize that this is the future. From the moment they walk, our children start to dart out in front of us. I recall taking Elizabeth out of her car seat as a toddler, only to snatch at her collar seconds later in a parking lot. This moving ahead should not have surprised me, yet I feel a heaviness.

Will she find David at the finish? I never doubted he would beat me or run well ahead of me. There is a crowd assembled around the finish line and he does not know to look for her.  Will she wait for me? What is ahead? How little we know as we send them off.

Over my shoulder, panting and sweating is a 12 year-old boy. He has extra pounds on his frame and is working to get up hill.

“Hey, you are doing great,” I offer.

He glances over and his look confirms, Yep, I am a stranger.

“You can do this!” I hope someone else in the running community looks out for my kids along the course. At the hilltop, I confirm we are almost there.  Did he flash me a small smile? Or am I just hopeful?

I spot my friend, Colleen, at the finish. “I took Elizabeth over to David when I saw her finish,” she said almost immediately. She, too, is a mother. She knows exactly my concerns – not my time, but my kids. Did they finish? Did they find their own?

Today is Elizabeth’s first day of high school and the memory of her road race replays again as I watch her back as she climbs the bus steps. She is taller now and her hair hangs down straight and loose. The braids are gone, yet I am still watching her back.

I am grateful for that run 7 years ago, even though I could not keep up. My hopes today are the same as they were 7 years ago. May she run her best race and when she is done, may there be a friendly face at the finish.

Filed under Cathy Barna

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Happy Birthday to Us!

image

Sheila Squillante is the curator of And I Ran, a blog that celebrates women runners. She is also, as of 3 months ago, a proud Yinzer

The nice bots at Tumblr sent me a note to remind me that today is the one year anniversary of And I Ran!

I should have realized this, of course, since this is also my actual birthday week, and I launched the blog as a sort of gift to myself and a way to say thank you to all the women who have encouraged me to keep running, even when it was hard. Even when I didn’t want to. And I didn’t want to kind of a lot. 

This time last year, I was a week away from my first 10K run, an event that I will probably always look back on and feel, Well hell YES! I AM a bad ass and thanks for asking! 

And that’s a big deal for me. I am not, generally speaking, a person who feels much like a bad ass. 

In the year since this project was born, I have left one job and started another. I have moved my whole family to an entirely new city and started a new life. I’m missing my old friends and I’m making some new ones.

And I’ve kept running. There have been some fits and starts. There has been a bunch of whining (oh my god these HILLS!). There has been a serious loss of speed (I mean, what I call speed which is probably what you call walking), but you know what? That doesn’t matter. 

I ditched my Garmin and gave up trying to maintain a certain pace when I saw how different the topography here is. Pittsburgh is not joking with these hills. 

Lately I’ve just been enjoying running (slowly) past urban gardens bursting with saucer-sized dahlias and spent sunflowers. There is a particular bend on Beechwood Avenue near my house where over the stone wall, you can peer down into the valley below Squirrel Hill, to see the Monangahela River rolling by. 

I never used to let myself stop on my runs. I had actually gotten a little obsessive about it. But now I always stop at that wall or at any pretty spot I damn well like. Now, I use my runs as a way to explore this new place, to center myself in the midst of a truly wonderful, but stressful, nonetheless, career transition. 

I am going to race in a few weeks, but I’m not interested in pace or time. My neighbor (my new friend!), who is right now training to do her very first 5K, asked me to do the Color Run with her. So we are going to get up at the ass crack of dawn on a Saturday morning and drive 30 minutes south of the city to get pelted with colored cornstarch and be just generally goofy together.

And I’m so looking forward to it because the pictures will make my kids laugh and because running is fun, dammit, and because you know… I am all about supporting other women runners! 

photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/sakeeb/4139400286/

Filed under Sheila Squillante Pittsburgh running Color Run

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Coming In Last

Jennifer Hudak has her B.A. in Creative Writing and her Ph.D. in Literature.  She has taught English, Composition, Creative Writing, and Women’s Studies; and while she has left academia and currently teaches yoga, she sometimes reads a poem to her class after savasana.  When she’s not running or practicing yoga, Jennifer indulges her obsession with healthy cooking and baking.  She lives with her husband, who knows how much she needs to go for a run when she’s feeling stressed, and her two children in Rochester, NY. This is her second contribution to And I Ran. Read her first here.

It was the morning of my very first 5K.  I was lingering close to the starting line with my husband and two children, watching the other runners prepare.  Many of them were warming up by jogging down to the end of the block and back.  Some of them were even running sprints, dashing like gazelles to the corner and the loping back to the starting line.  I cowered by my family, incredulous.  Why were they using up all of their energy now?  Wouldn’t it take every ounce of their strength just to cross the finish line?  Or — and now it dawned on me — was I hopelessly, completely out of my league?

At 8:55am the runners all began to gather by the starting line, and I turned to my husband.  “Just remember, I might finish last,” I said, trying to laugh. 

He gave me a quick squeeze.  “So what?” he said.  “We’ll be waiting for you at the finish line no matter what.”

My kids gave me one more hug for good luck, and then I trotted to join the pack of runners.  Someone with a megaphone made a couple of announcements, and then, before I knew what was happening, I heard the peal of an air-horn and the race was on.

All around me runners were dashing ahead, passing me right and left — and the race had just started!  Soon I was looking at the backs of nearly all the runners, and they were quickly moving farther and farther ahead.  Weren’t they supposed to pace themselves?  Save their strength?

I’ll show them, I thought.  They all started off sprinting, but soon they’ll get tired and I’ll catch up.

I kept telling myself that, and telling myself that, until I could barely even see the last of the runners ahead of me.  I was alone, at the back of the pack.

Last.

*        *        *

Talk to anyone who’s thinking about running a 5K for the first time, and you’ll hear some variation of the same theme:  “I don’t have to finish first… I just don’t want to finish last!”

I thought about this all spring while I was training for my race.  I’ve never been a runner.  At 4’9”, I certainly don’t have the legs for it.  Running has always been torturous for me, even as a young child.  I was a chubby kid — not horribly overweight, but certainly not lean.  I was also hopelessly un-athletic.  In 5th grade, my gym teacher signed me up for a group called “The No Thank You’s.”  As a member of “The No Thank You’s,” I was excused from class a couple of times a week to meet in the gym and talk about healthy food choices, which I liked.  I also had to meet with the group before school once a week to go on a jog through the neighborhood.  This I did not like.  I have a vivid memory of watching all the other kids running ahead, getting smaller and smaller in the distance, while I struggled with painful side cramps.  I don’t remember how many times I actually endured those excruciating runs before my mother finally pulled me out of the group.

So I’m still not quite sure why I told my husband and children, on December 31, 2009, that my New Year’s Resolution was to run a 5K in 2010.  Maybe I was looking for a new challenge.  Maybe I just wanted to prove to myself I could do it.  Once I told my family, however, there was no backing out.  I had to start running.

I enlisted the help of a marathon-running friend, who graciously took me on my first successful non-treadmill runs.  She assured me that I had a lovely stride, that my pace was good, and that I was doing great.  I could hardly believe it: I was running!  I was actually lacing up my sneakers and running, and amazingly, it didn’t feel that bad.  In fact, it felt great.

It quickly became apparent, however, that just because I was running didn’t mean I could run fast.  In fact, I was terribly slow.  I struggled to run a mile in under 15 minutes.  But at least I was running.  In a burst of optimism, I signed up for a 5K race that was scheduled for August.  I paid the fee and got my t-shirt.  I announced my plans to my family, my friends, and on Facebook.  I was really going to do it: I was going to run a 5K.

On the phone, I talked to another friend who’d been training for a half-marathon.  She talked to me about staying hydrated, about pacing, and about breathing, and then I admitted to her that I was afraid I might come in last.  She laughed and said, “Chances are, that’s not going to happen.”

I understood that she was trying to be helpful and encouraging, but secretly, I was bothered by this.  “My legs are really short,” I told her.  “My stride is a lot shorter than most people’s.  There’s only so fast I can go.”

"It doesn’t have anything to do with how tall you are," she assured me.  "Don’t worry.  You won’t be last."

I tried to be buoyed by her faith in me, but actually, all I kept thinking was, But what if I am last?  What then?

And I realized that what I most needed was to hear someone tell me, “Yes, you might come in last.  So what?”

So I hung up the phone and told myself, “So what if I come in last?”

And I said, it again: “So WHAT if I come I last!?”  It felt good, like a mantra.  And while part of me kept hoping that my friend would be right — that lots of people running the 5K would be slower than me, and out of shape, and that I’d surprise myself by finishing toward the front of the pack — a deeper part of me knew that wasn’t going to happen.  And so I kept repeating, “So what if I come in last?”  Over and over, until I could laugh about it, until I truly began to believe that coming in last would be okay.

And then I found myself running the race, watching all those runners getting smaller and smaller in the distance up ahead, and it was almost a relief, because I was going to be last, and it was true: it was okay.  I kept running.  I kept running even as I realized that the police car was trailing me now, crawling behind me, because his job was to stay behind the very last runner, and the very last runner was me.

I saw the three mile marker ahead, and one of the race volunteers shouted out, “You’re almost at the finish line!”  I looked ahead and saw my husband and children waiting for me.  When they spotted me, my children started jumping up and down.  As I passed them I grabbed their hands and they ran the last tenth of a mile with me.  We crossed the finish line together, surrounded by people cheering me on, congratulating me, and handing me cold bottles of water.  I glanced back at the race clock.  My goal had been to complete the race in under 45 minutes.  I crossed the finish line at 44 minutes, 16 seconds.  I have never felt stronger, more powerful, or more athletic than I did at that moment.  Even though they turned off the race clock after I crossed the finish line.  Even though I was last.

*     *     *

A couple of months later, I was at a wedding, and a family member mentioned that she wanted to try to run a 5K.  “I just don’t want to come in last,” she said.  I had to laugh.  Because what I realized that summer was this:

In every race, someone has to finish last.

It’s not a huge, unspeakable embarrassment.  In fact, no one cares.  Not one of the other runners remembers that I was the one who finished last.  And all my friends and family remember is that I said I’d run a 5K and I did it.

And a couple of days later, when my aching legs felt better, I laced up my sneakers.  Because I’m a runner.  And, fast or slow, runners run.

Filed under Jennifer Hudak last place

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The Sound of My Humor

Barbara Alfano teaches Italian at Bennington College. She left Italy in 1999, to get a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Penn State. Her first academic book, The Mirage of America in Contemporary Italian Literature and Film (University of Toronto Press, 2013), will be out in the summer. In 2009, she published in Italy a collection of short stories, Mi chiedevo (I Was Wondering, Manni Editore). At times, Barbara thinks that she runs because she does not dance tango any longer, but it’s a lie. She bikes, leisurely; swims, does yoga, and meditates. She is now looking forward to singing, again, after many years, and not just in the shower.

 

I used to smirk at runners from behind a kitchen window. Holding a coffee mug to my heart, I watched solitary hoodies puffing away in the humid, early mornings of Central Pennsylvania, leaving vapor in the mist. “What do you think you’re doing?” I muttered.  And why?

But now I ask myself why. It happens usually into the eighth mile that I question, “Why are you doing this to your body?” There is pain involved in running long distances, and boredom. Finding meaning in running can be daunting for those like me who are convinced to have left behind, somewhere in the geographies of their mutations and moves, the idea that there is no gain without pain. Why, then?

In 2011, I overcame my reluctance to run as I was trying to overrun the terrible grief of a lost love. Grinding out the miles, I asked my body to release a weight that my spirit was refusing to bear. While running, I could either cry over my loss, or breathe. Trying to do both at the same time would cause pulmonary distress. I learned quickly how to train my respiration and keep my heart rate under control.

Certain things should never happen in your forties. Running, yes –you can begin at any age, and deal with the painful consequences. Being left by somebody who promised to grow old with you less than a year earlier –no, that should not happen in your forties, especially if the promise sounded, somehow, true.

To add to my feverish desire of running, away, over the anger, and into the future, that summer an old uterine fibroid came back with a vengeance, obliging me to undergo a third surgery to remove it. Running helped me to control the weight gain and fluid retention caused by medicines. I needed my body to listen to me, be with me, act as my best friend, bring me somewhere we had never been, while we were running together through yet one more hormonal therapy before yet another surgery after the end of yet another love. The doctor asked me to ponder seriously the possibility of giving up my uterus altogether, “A hysterectomy would be a definitive solution… at your age….” Her eyes were telling me to just get rid of the extra piece. At my age. “That would be one loss too many, Doctor. I’ll keep the piece for now.” To hold myself together was all I could afford, that summer. Luckily, I met a great trainer.

I was gasping for air while running and trying to push back the tears at the same time. Her voice hit me with the strength of a glorious pun:  “I see he still takes your breath away….” Laughing, together with air I welcomed back the liberating sound of my irony, which was now proposing to run with me. In the conversation that we had, my feet were lighter, I was weightless, freedom relaxed my shoulder, and fun carried my legs through.  What an incredible trainer is the one who knows how to run with me with the right words, asking me if I am checking in with my hips and my abdominals, if I still want to know why I am running, if I know what parts of my body I should relax now, if the shadow on the asphalt is that of a middle aged, rounded woman who only thinks she is running, when, in fact, she is fighting through the miles; or that of a younger, slimmer lady maintaining a great posture while jogging to the beat of her ease on the sidewalk –it all depends on what time of the day I’m looking down on me. Loving is that trainer who asks me if I prefer to imagine my last mile in green, in red, or paved with gerberas. I could always use firecrackers.   

In the spring of 2012, I agreed to run my first half-marathon. I was opening my office door when my colleague and friend Sarah asked me, from across the corridor, “Hey, there’s a half-marathon in September. Do you want to run it?” “Yes, okay,” I nodded. She is a real athlete, and I dared answer like that: Yes, okay, and a smile. Violins were not playing. I didn’t feel the thrill in my feet, nor did my toes wiggle. I said yes and went on with my day. Language at the crossroads of our lives tends to be compressed in short words.

The next day, I had a training schedule, something to keep me busy in the summer, a lot of reading to do about the perfectly balanced nutrition, the appropriate gear, the smart hydration, the most functional cross-training. I was anxiously looking for anything right, as running all those miles just did not seem so to me. It still does not. Yet, at the time, the idea of challenging myself for such an enterprise, polarized and absorbed me for the entire summer. I trained in Italy, amidst the smiles of familiar faces, and gazing at the abundance of the apricot trees parading on the sides of the road.  I ran my first twelve miles under the scorching sun of a Southern Italian, August noon.  

 I completed my second half-marathon last week. The chilly wind and freezing rain were not my enemies, nor were the hills of Western Massachusetts’ prettiest exurbia, where film impressions of wild woods are spotted with mansions, on the front of a fabulous lake.  

My knee said “Basta,” “Enough.” When your knee has had enough, all you’re left with is crying, while you watch the minutes rolling away on your chronometer. After the ninth mile, I walked my way to the finish line between brief intervals of painful jogging.  Why?

I have promptly promised Facebook that I will not run any more half-marathons, only 10 and 12Ks. Meanwhile, my trainer is plotting first visits to unknown places, like the chiropractor’s and the acupuncturist’s, savoring with gusto the beginning of new bodily adventures in those offices because, yes, says my trainer, I will run more half-marathons, and pain free. Why? Who cares, as long as my trainer and I laugh together.

 

Filed under Barbara Alfano

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The View from the Back of the Pack

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Kate Thompson has run since childhood, and was a Boston qualifier in the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon.  She is an undergraduate student at Penn State studying anthropology and community, environment and development. She frequents East Africa and Madagascar for field work, and would one take like to take up residence in Tanzania. She enjoys writing short essays, long distance running, water color painting and playing the ukulele, however some of these pass-times are more conducive to transatlantic-travel than others. (Read Kate’s first And I Ran contribution here.)

The night before the 2013 Broadstreet 10-miler, I was panicky.  My brother and I had spent the day packing up my dorm room at the end of my junior year. Together with my mom, we loaded cart after cart of textbooks, floral bedspreads and running shoes into our tiny sports car. And one futon. As we left Penn State that evening and began our four-hour drove home, I considered skipping the race the next morning. 

And if my mom hadn’t driven all the way to Philadelphia to pick up my registration before coming to get me, I probably would have. Her ridiculously caring gesture locked me in. I didn’t have much confidence going into this race. Since my 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon, I had suffered chronic knee pain. Considering this, I didn’t expect a fantastic time or exceptional placing— I just wanted to finish without needing to crawl. 

Sitting in the car, I whined to my mom: I can’t run and feel all that pain again. I can’t not be able to bend my knees, or stand or run. Not after all the physical therapy. Not after two years. And all my training this semester. I can’t go through that again.

My mom insisted I was working myself into frenzy.

She was right, but I was steeped in self-absorption and self-pity.

But you don’t understand- you don’t know what it was like!

She said she didn’t, but did dwelling on what I knew really help?

I folded my arms push my legs up on the dashboard to improve circulation.

Then, after several hours in a tightly packed car, I subsequently took a tumble in a gas station parking lot. Now I was knotted, scraped and nauseatingly nervous. I resigned myself to doing poorly as I went to bed just after one am and set my alarm for five.

When running a morning race, it is a good idea to arrive at the start line an hour before hand. And I would have, had the entrance to the race day parking not been blocked off due to overcrowding. Instead, my mom and I zipped around the outskirts of Philly in GPS-prompted figure eights. We passed other panicked runners, all with the same bewildered look as they peered out their minivan windows at the tangle of city streets. We finally reached the overflow parking, and I ran- almost in tears- to the subway station. The Express Line to the start, which ran under Broadstreet, was late by 20 minutes. The ride itself took thirty-five minutes. And by the time I emerged from the subway to the block where the race was to start, the volunteers were taking the banner down.

So I ran. My mom had encouraged me to just relax and have fun as I sat in the car the night before, panicking about every cramp and ache I thought I felt. At first I had scoffed at her advice-and now her advice was the only logical choice I had. I could quit. I could run these ten miles filled with anger and resentment at public transportation. Or I could let go, and enjoy the race for what it’s worth.

I had never run at the back of a race before. I now, I hope to make it to the back a few more times in my racing career (though not always). Because starting from very back of the pack, you meet everyone. The wheelchair runners. The blind runners, holding onto a bungee cord being held by their guide. I met the grandmas in high knee socks and little girls in pigtails. Here are the true victorious ones, not the ones on the stage receiving trophies.  And here I met some of the kindest, most patient spectators ever, who cheered me on even though the rest of the bunch was miles ahead.

At the end, my mom was waiting. Still cheering, though the race had started two hours before. By now I was sandwiched into a thick knot of runners. We bunched tighter as we funneled through the finish line. I collected my medal, my official time, and my mushed bananas and soft pretzels.

When my mom collected me, I think she expected an emotionally and physically exhausted, pouty girl spoiled by her spoiled race. Instead, I surprised both of us. 

Filed under Kate Thompson