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.