Posts Tagged ‘running’

Slow is my pace!

Sometime in the last few months, I decided I was done with running races. I’ve done a few half marathons, and one 5K, and I’m all set. It was good, for a while, to have a race set up as training motivation, but at some point, I realized that my motivation is actually internal. Also, I find spending money on races unpleasant. I did set an arbitrary goal of running 1,000 miles this year, and I’m currently at 675, so that’s going well.

For the most part, I run to maintain my sanity and my health. To do that, I don’t have to go very fast. Sometimes, when I’m trotting along, I hear my younger son’s anthem, the one he howls whenever we’re hiking and he is fatigued, or bored, or hungry (basically all the time). “Slow is my pace!” is his plaintive cry.  I like it as a general motto.

D89A4747-79C6-4C64-AE6F-D6EBB0287B7FYesterday, I was out running with my older son, and I assure you, slow is his pace too, though he whines  a lot less. As we plodded up a hill on the way home, I saw that a tree by the road had been cut down. The road guys repaved the road and regraded the shoulder this month, and this tree was canted out over the road and must have been some kind of problem. It had not been an attractive tree. It was a big, muscley pine diverging into two badly proportioned trunks about ten feet up. It was inelegant and fairly glowered over the road. Several times, running past it, I got the feeling that it was about to fall on me. But when I saw it was gone, I felt a little pang of loss. Not because I particularly liked the tree, but because I suspect that so few people had ever really looked at it, and so almost no one would note its absence. It was situated on a blind curve that takes substantial attention, when driving, to avoid oncoming cars, so not many drivers would have the chance to notice it, and it wasn’t really remarkable in any way anyway. But I noticed it, because at my running speed, objects take a very long time to pass. Laboring up the hill by that tree made it take even longer. I had many opportunities to stare at that tree.

Like the progression of plants in the swamp, or the extraordinary work of carrion beetles undertaking a vole carcass, or the gradual growth of the hogs down the road, my pace is slow. Humans intervene sometimes, and a tree is suddenly a stump, or the hogs are gone to the slaughter one day, all without warning. Most of my life, I am moving at this usual human speed of fast, but when running, my pace is slow. Not as slow as the growth of a homely pine tree though. And much as I found it ugly and ominous, I feel a bit of nostalgia over this old survivor, now fallen into oblivion. Such are the thoughts I have on a run, for the miles are long, and my pace is slow.


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The real reason why I run

Running is generally a solitary pursuit for me, both by circumstance and by choice. I run without headphones or a companion, and by the end of a good seven or so miles, my sanity is temporarily restored to me, my anxiety and obsessive disorders quelled for a day. On the rare instances when I get to run with a friend, most notably my dear friend Ali, it’s invariably delightful, as we gasp out a fragmented conversation and slog up and down hills. On occasion I’ve run with other people too, and I generally enjoy it. But circumstances conspire against it, so mostly I bolt out the door alone the moment my husband comes through the door to take the kids.

25987EC5-9BE2-433A-8449-D51A03A48BC8Last night, I was out running by myself when I heard footfalls behind me. By their speed and force, I guessed the runner was male, though I did not turn around to look. I strained one ear toward him and began the usual planning: “If he is a rapist, should I bolt into the woods? Or chance that the people in that house are home? If they aren’t, will I have time to bolt for the woods then? How fast is this guy? How fast is he in the woods?”

Of course, the vast majority of people are not rapists, but on a quiet country road, with footsteps unnervingly close behind, a girl has to make some plans.

Finally, he ran up alongside me on the opposite side of the road, bellowing, “Beautiful night for a run!” He was a tall, older guy, and a talker, as is turns out. He ran beside me for a mile, talking about an injury he’s just coming off of, and what sort of cross-training he does. He’s run the Boston Marathon eight times, as it turns out, and I puffed up a bit with pride as I matched his pace stride for stride.

We got to the end of the road, and he said he needed to turn back. He asked how far I’d be running and I told him ten miles. “Good for you!” he bellowed. As I wished him a good run and turned the corner, I realized I was about a minute and a half under my usual pace. It had felt easy, running with this guy, a Boston qualifier and, therefore, serious runner. Given, he’s coming off an injury, and he probably did slow to run with me, but I was feeling a swagger I don’t get when I’m running all alone. He’d known I was a real runner too.

When I was down on Cape Cod last month running on a sweltering day, I passed a middle-aged couple out for a walk. We smiled and waved, and then I passed them again on the way home. The man smiled and waved again and then yelled out, “Jeez! At least make it look hard!” My stride lengthened and I stood up taller as I thought, “I make this look easy!”

I’ll continue to be a solitary runner, if only as long as my circumstances dictate. But what I discover at these unexpected moments of human interaction is this: there’s nothing so favorable as wind at your back, unless it’s a boost to your vanity.

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Malcolm, my five year old, is the hardest part and the easiest part of beginning to feel better after Marathon Monday. His little brother may have been there with us along the race route, and was certainly a bit confused by all the turmoil, but he’s three, and therefore spends most of his life in a state of fraught confusion. At almost six years, Malcolm is, I am told, unusually worldly and though I tried not to let him see me cry, he heard my voice break and saw me avert my gaze when I told him “Everything’s ok. I know Daddy’s ok.” The first was patently untrue, and the second not at all known to me at that moment. His father was somewhere on the course between mile 22 and the finish.

I try to let him be my guide, following his lead on what he wants to talk about, and most of the time, that’s ninjas and spy craft. Today, we spent two hours catching tadpoles and newts and releasing them again. But the sadness will out, and the anxiety, in us both. I can’t predict when it will hit either of us. Yesterday, I took him for a run with me. Runners run when we’re sad, or scared, or tense, or all of these, and I knew it would do us both good. We ran a mile to his elementary school and stopped for a break. A loud clanking sound came suddenly from behind us, and he asked what it was. “It’s the metal rings that hold the flags on the flagpole,” I told him. It was just louder than he was used to, the flags being half way down to the ground. On our run back, he insisted we start the way the marathon starts, at the cue of race director Dave McGillivray, and he extended his open hand, looked around, and then wordlessly made a little fist. On our many walk breaks, he slipped his hand in mine, a habit he had mostly abandoned until Monday.

IMG_3605Today, it was bombs. All his play with his brother involved bombs. Pinecones, rocks, a soccer ball. He would throw them or lay them on the ground and say, “These are the bombs and they can blow people up and kill them.” I know this is how he’s supposed to work his way through it, but he tossed a football to me and said, “This is a bomb! Like at Boston, right mom?” Yes. That’s right.

When I read about how to talk to kids about tragedy, a lot of what I read focuses on shielding kids from gory news footage, or too much adult talk, or too many reminders. The rules change when the boy was there. The mylar blankets he was wrapped in while we waited for his father are strewn on our floor along with the signs the boys made for him. Marathon detritus is everywhere. And though he has good memories of watching the runners (“they were dressed as sandwiches!”), he heard a police officer say people were dead. That severed legs were lying around in the street. He saw his mother not breaking, but bending, fissure lines opening up. Last night, he told me, he had a dream that we were in one castle and Dad was in a different one and Dad saw a monster with eyes on its cheeks and its forehead.

I’m not so different. I go to work, teach, which helps me feel human again. I have times when I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well, and times when I feel ok. I am grateful that my family is intact, body and spirit, and sorrowing for the bodies and families rent apart. I feel proud of my students who wanted to know how to help and made appointments to give blood, or donated to the charities supported by the runners like the one my husband was running for, Casa Myrna. Three of my students have made appointments with a National Guard recruiter. But the grief ramifies. I went through all my voicemails from Monday, and heard the voices of my friends, my sister, cracking as they pleaded with me to call them. My appetite is gone, and my wrists and shoulder blades weirdly ache somewhere within the bones themselves. I must be clenched most of the day without knowing it, and maybe the night too, when the many-eyed monster breaches the walls and visits me in the castle too.

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The view from a Green Line train: unsung mid-pack runners

The view from a Green Line train: unsung mid-pack runners

My sleep last night was utterly untroubled. Today, I have been overwhelmed several times by a wash of immense gratitude. I did not see any of the horror at the finish line yesterday from where I stood, stranded with my two boys around mile marker 22 of the Boston Marathon. Their father, a charity runner, was suffering cramps and hobbling somewhere between us and Copley, first heading toward it, and then, mercifully heeding my plea, turning back and plodding for us where we waited at a roadblock enforced by B.A.A. volunteers.

That something was wrong at all unfurled slowly for those of us lining the course. We watched Christophe come down the hill at Boston College, hugged and high fived him, and then watched his back recede toward the city as droves of other middling sloggers doggedly trudged along behind him. The boys and I got on the T and were reading a book when we were summarily ordered off. No more trains to Boston. No indication of any buses coming for us either. I hoisted Simon onto my shoulders and took Malcolm’s hand and we trudged off for Boston too. We got a few hundred yards along when I heard an agitated college student pleading with a cop for information. “How bad was the explosion? Did people die?” “Possibly several,” he answered her curtly and told us all to go home if we could. I set Simon onto a high stone wall and stood against it with Malcolm beside me. I didn’t know where this explosion had happened, and I didn’t know where Christophe was on the route. I robotically handed Simon an apple, and, unable to look my sons in the eye, I stared hard at a little twig lying on the mulch. I stared at it, this little gray forked twig, and recalibrated my future as it would be if I never saw him again. If we three weren’t just on our own for this one day.

When we reached the medical aid tent near the 35 kilometer mark, B.A.A. volunteers gently told me I could go no farther. The sky had clouded over and the wind had shifted, coming in off the ocean. A few dejected runners sat on cots wrapped in mylar blankets. The volunteers offered blankets to us, and we donned the metallic capes that usually mark triumphant finishers alone. I had reached Christophe by phone, and knew he was making his way back to us along the deserted race route. Volunteers piled sweatshirts, more blankets, and their own jackets onto me and my kids, hunched on the curb. One volunteer offered his warm car, and I set the boys in the backseat with water, and pretzels and music. I stood outside fixedly watching the little hill where Christophe would eventually appear, pacing a small ellipse on my makeshift widow’s walk, flanked by the folding cots and porta-potties of a partially dismantled medical aid station. All the other runners had been shuttled elsewhere, and these volunteers kept the station open solely for me and my boys, waiting, I insisted, on their father who was certainly coming, but slowly. They would come and stand next to me, asking if I needed anything. I could usually not manage much more than a grateful shake of the head, and I kept my face averted from the car window where I knew the boys would be trying to watch me. Like typical New Englanders, no one tried to hug me, or get too sentimental. I’m grateful for that too. They just stood next to me, and spoke kindly to my sons, and watched with me. A woman from across the street came out and offered extra jackets to my boys.

Would I knew the names of all these volunteers so I could thank each one for their great kindness.

Would I knew the names of all these volunteers so I could thank each one for their great kindness.

When Christophe crested the hill and made his wincing way down to me, and I pulled his salt-encrusted body into an embrace, I heard a small burst of applause and turned to see all the volunteers lined up, clapping.  They drove us all to another aid station, and then to a staging area where runners lay on the floor or sprawled in chairs with none of their belongings and no way to get home. Volunteers brought them pizza, and sandwiches, and coordinated rides.

I didn’t see any news or any footage of what happened until we were home last night. But even after I had, I felt no anger, no defiance, not even any curiosity about who did this, or why. Unlike those of you who saw the events unfold in the familiar modern news way–a repeating reel of wide angle footage of smoke clouds, bloodied bodies in wheelchairs and stretchers–I saw it all like the blind men of the proverb who all describe a different part of the elephant. Our day began watching all the starts at home on tv. Limited mobility racers, wheelchair, elite women, and then elite men just as we left for the train. Changing to the green line, we listened to a man playing Mexican folk songs down in the subway. I understood only a few words of his song, “beautiful” and “children,” but we left him a dollar for the tune that would stay in my head all day. We watched the race from B.C. where beer-fueled throngs of students cheered with seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. Runners cramped up and grimacing, runners in tutus or top hats, a guys named Charles dressed as a fairy, runners dressed as the full cast of Star Wars, runners wearing hamburger costumes. Regular people doing something enormously hard and regular people cheering them unceasingly. I saw Team Hoyt go by, and the woman pushing her disabled daughter too. The Tufts charity running team, the Children’s Hospital team, all the people who gave money to these causes and who weren’t there but whom these runners carried on their backs too. The names of children, mothers, fathers lost, emblazoned on the shirts and arms and bibs of these runners.

I know how you all feel, watching it all. I understand the shock, the disbelief, the anger and the demands to know why. But from where I stood, my whole day was suffused with the pure good of humanity. And that’s not unique to Boston, or to America. It was a comfort to me to be in a place I know rather than some far distant city, and among strangers who, if nothing else, talk in accents like my family’s. I don’t claim any special privilege for being from here, or for being there yesterday. What I saw was the good. And I see it still. It’s all I see. The lights in New York, Hawaii, Japan. The outpouring from people who desperately want to help somehow, to ease the pain. Gestures small and large, shirts worn in solidarity, hand-made signs, facebook and twitter messages. To everyone who feels helpless to aid us: I’m from here, and I was there. And you are helping. You are the good. And there was so much good.

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The last time we would see each other until the ill fated latter miles.

The last time we would see each other until the ill fated latter miles.

My normal gait is returning after a couple days of stiff-legged hobbling. Sunday, I ran a 20 mile race traversing the entire, brief coastline of New Hampshire. Christophe ran it as well, though for him, it was to serve as his last long training run for the Boston Marathon. For me, it was to be an actual race. For 14 good miles I maintained my planned pace. I run without headphones, so I listened to the conversations of the runners around me: a barrel-chested, shirtless middle-aged man with long scraggly pony tail held forth to his female companion about lobsters and whether or not they are chordates (which he pronounced “cordites.”) They are not, and his companion expressed that opinion, correctly pointing out that lobsters have an exoskeleton rather than “the cord thing” (that would be the notochord). He was insistent in his erroneous thesis, and she backed down. So for two miles I pondered the nature of gender relations and male authority.

Around mile 7, I listened for a while as two married women in their 40s discussed husbands and jobs. Around mile 10, they were still behind me, and we were the only three people around when I got an unexpected ego boost.  One of the women said to the other, “Look at her. She’s totally in the zone. Look at her rhythm.” “I know,” said the other, “she’s like a metronome. That’s awesome. I look like a horse.” I pretended not to hear them, but I got a solid three miles out of that praise, and the pondering of female self-image.

Before I lost contact with the two women, I heard them talking about marriage. Both had been married over a decade, and they were talking about some rough patches they’d faced. “It’s peaks and valleys, you know? There are some real lows. It’s not easy.” I know that’s the conventional wisdom, and certainly being married is not always a pure delight, but as the miles slid away on this flat, sea-level course, I was left pondering the relative ease with which I stay married to the man who was somewhere behind me on the course, clocking his own miles at a measured pace. The flat course was no metaphor for it, since there are high peaks indeed. But the low valleys, they haven’t seemed to come.

Christophe maddeningly just ahead. The geographical high point, but a mental low point of the race.

Christophe maddeningly just ahead. The geographical high point, but a mental low point of the race.

Around mile 11, Christophe passed me. Glancing my way he said, “Race ya,” and cruised on past. I assumed he was making a break for it and would soon be a dot on the horizon. But instead, he settled into my same pace, but only 40 yards ahead of me. This bewildered and depressed me, alone as I was on the course at that moment, and I found myself verging on tears. This is the kind of weird emotional outburst common to runners in the late-middle stages of a long race, and to women in hour 3o of labor. So he and I have been here before. It took me a mile to make up the distance, at which point I wasted considerable breath and energy sobbing at him. He fell in with me and we ran together for a while.

My legs cramped up at mile 15, feeling like they were being flogged from within by a knotted length of rope studded with nails. I had recovered my senses by then, and told Christophe he could proceed at his chosen pace guilt-free. I could see him weighing this, checking for traps, cautiously trying out the idea. Then, he declined, opting instead to stay with me. The irony had struck him, he told me, that he is running Boston to raise money for Casa Myrna, a domestic violence charity, and he was considering abandoning his wife by the side of the road so he could finish a training run marginally faster. That would be hard to explain.

So, we finished the last 5 miles together, at my curtailed pace, and with four or five walk breaks. The fair skies that had prevailed through the earlier parts of the race had given way to gray clouds over the boarded up pizza places and arcades of Hampton Beach. The course grew uglier, and the air colder. We went at my hobbled speed, my strides almost two to his every one, and crossed the modest and mostly abandoned finish line with our five year old jumping in for the last 50 yards. The metaphor that wouldn’t come finally did. The peaks and valleys, or the flat monotony of a coastline 20 miler–it’s the terrain itself that may be pitted and rugged, and the course difficult. But yoked together, shoulder to shoulder in a well mated team, it’s the harness that wears light.

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I live two towns over from the town where I grew up. Yesterday, I decided to do my four mile run in my hometown of Amesbury, Massachusetts, rather than my present town. When I run someplace, I usually spent time plotting my route online to make sure I get to the right number of miles. When I run in my hometown, I never need to. I know that town by heart, and I know it by foot. Adults will usually measure distances by how long it takes to drive it. Things are five minutes away or 45 minutes, but who knows how many miles? Runners do. And kids do, without knowing they know it. Since I traveled every mile of Amesbury by foot or by bike as a kid, I just know how far apart things are. I know every house, and every sidewalk, so I don’t have to think about my route. This leaves time for the mind to wander. Since I’m here in my hometown almost every day, I am inured to the kind of heart piercing nostalgia that strikes when you haven’t seen a place in years. My nostalgia is less intense, and tends to hone in on particular items.


Morning in an ex-mill town. A stop on the nostalgia running tour.

Yesterday, I was thinking about a friend of mine who said she gets a bit irritated when people ask her “when did you know you were gay?” After all, she says, no one ever asks, “when did you know you were straight?” And as I ran by my old elementary school, and by my childhood friends’ houses, Amanda’s, Jessica’s, Aaron’s, I embarked on a memory tour of men, and I realized, I knew I was straight when I was nine. I was nine and in Mr. Cassidy’s class, and I didn’t know what a crush was, but I had one on him. I never had to endure what a lot of gay kids go through–feigning straightness, risking ostracism–but I think I kind of understand it. From 4th grade on, I was feigning interest in New Kids on the Block, and in supposedly crush-worthy middle school classmates while secretly, I pined over a parade of teachers, one for each year. Running by those friends’ houses, I thought of all their fathers. The goofy, corny-joke-telling ones; the distant or mostly absent ones; the soft voiced and kind ones. I tried to recall my friends’ mothers, and they were mostly vague, blurred figures at the fringes of my mind. Christophe jokes that he’s fortunate that our marriage has survived this far, since he’s now about at the minimum age required for a man to catch my attention.

As I rounded a corner downtown, past the Catholic Church where I was an altar server, past the library that was my second home, I was jarred out of my reverie by the flat voice of my phone announcing mile 4. Having planned my route not at all, I had measured out the miles so precisely that I slowed to a walk not ten steps from my car, set to drive part of the same route I’d just run, but no longer in the company of all my ghosts. It seems they too prefer to travel on foot.

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The more I run, the more running seems to parallel childbirth. When I had my second son, I elected not to go the epidural route. “But why?!” I hear so many of you shriek, “Why be a martyr?!” I am not a martyr, I assure you. Had childbirth been an excruciating ordeal of unmitigated misery, I would not have declined the injection just so I could strut around and feel superior. In fact, aside from this blog, which you are free not to read, I don’t typically bring up my experience, and I certainly don’t tell expectant or new moms about it unless they ask. If I had been required to sign a total non-disclosure agreement and never tell anyone about the way I had my second son, I’d have done it. Because it wasn’t about you, it wasn’t about any other mom, it wasn’t even about my son. It was all about me. Running is selfish in just that way.

I know a lot of mommies who feel guilty for taking time away from their kids to work out. The decision is easier for me: when I don’t run, I get anxious and obsessive. When I get that way, I scream right in my kids’ faces and whap them on the backs of the heads for nothing. So I go out and run. Because the guilt that comes after you have screamed at your son until he cries is far beyond the guilt of running for an hour.

Burrows Brookside sanctuary, en route.

Burrows Brookside sanctuary, en route.

Yesterday, a 10 miler was on the docket. It was 25 degrees, windchill of 11, and winds gusting to 36mph. The snow had stopped, but the sidewalk-less and shoulder-less state roads around here were narrowed by slush and ice. I was nervous about getting done in by a plow guy. Or just a texting dummy driver. But I went out, running into a wind so thick I could lean into it like a solid thing, then sideways to a wind that blew me off the road twice. I willed the cars not to hit me, forcing them away from me through the sheer power of my baleful glare.

Sucking in plumes of woodsmoke and splintered cold, my chest constricted and then, gradually, a radiating ache spread all the way out to my back. Face festooned in snot, I turned onto some poorly plowed back roads and climbed the hills, sliding backward in an awkward moonwalk with every step. At mile 5, the maximum distance I could be from home, I was pulled up short by a cramp in my right calf. An interval of limping. Then it subsided to a dull ache, and I proceeded past the only other souls out in such weather: old men in ill-fitting coats and pom-pom hats snowblowing their driveways. They appeared astonished to see me out there. I astonished myself a bit.

There is part of running that’s about vanity. When a student of mine, a competitive 5K runner, asked what I run, I told him distance. He said, “Yeah, you look it.” I elected to take it as a compliment, rather than an assessment of my scrawniness. I never would have predicted that I would ever have the lean, sinewy look of a distance runner. I had always been solidly muscular, a sprinter and a soccer player. There’s an appeal in this new appearance, to be sure. Still, I won’t ever be described as lanky, and certainly not willowy. After all, there are things a 5’1″ chick can be only in her dreams.

In addition to the physical vanity, there’s the mental vanity too. I don’t keep my running a secret, because it helps me and motivates me to keep people posted on what I’m running and have run. But 7 miles in, in the sideways wind, and the trucks bearing down, and the snow blind slogging under the wan, feckless sun, it is about no one but me. I couldn’t do it just for bragging rights, and I couldn’t do it for smugness or superiority, or the martyrdom. But I can do it for my sanity. For the purification of my mind. And, but for the pom-pom hat guys, for the utter solitude.

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photo copy 3I am excoriated. I expect everyday to begin to feel better, and I suppose I have, by tiny increments. There are fewer crying jags, less foggy-headed staggering through each day. But most of the time, I can feel half my mind trying not to think about what happened in Connecticut, and the other half of my mind creeping over to it, compulsively probing the sore spot.

We had planned weeks ago to go away for our anniversary this weekend, and by Friday, I was dreading it. I didn’t want to leave my kids, and I foresaw only a miserable pageant of carefree escapism. But I knew canceling would be absurd. Why stay home? So I could continue to intermittently crawl under my desk and sob into my hands when blindsided by another detail on the radio news? To creep into my kids’ room after they were asleep and lie on the floor between their beds for an hour while nauseous waves of dread pass through me?

So, we went. And of course, it was good. I am not generally a fan of the kind of quotations that end up on inspirational posters, but Isak Dinesen’s line comes to me often: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” It’s taking all three to keep me upright these days, and our two days in Maine gave me a heavy dose. Each day, I went out running by myself by the mostly deserted beaches. Running too fast, the mark of a heavy heart for me, I went slamming along the shoreline where the winter ocean and the winter wind were roaring so loud they obliterated all human sound. It happened that I reached the water just at the instant in a cold run when all the tiny capillaries in my clenched fingers simultaneously open and flood my hands with warmth. Sidelong, I watched the waves furl themselves into fists and pummel the rocks there and then recede.

It’s not relief I feel, or comfort on these runs. It’s an anesthesia of exhaustion, a hit of weariness and depletion that gets me through one more day, or half of one. Then I can go to sleep and hope not to wake up in the desolation of 3am, heart pounding and traitorous imagination manufacturing scenes that I have studiously avoided in the newspapers or on tv.

I have shielded my kids from all that too, including my own grief, and they are blissfully untroubled as they round into the straightaway to Christmas. I feel such a heightened intensity of love and gratitude for them, it’s just that it’s braided together with all this pain. It makes a thick rope–a cable of all the most intense emotions a human is capable of feeling. I have begun, like all of us, to haul myself up by it, hand over hand, with a eye toward nothing but the step immediately before me. How long it is, or where it may be anchored somewhere, or what it may pass along the way, I am trying not to concern myself over. And I am trying to open my eyes and see everyone else here too, gripping this same cord, gripping though our hands are raw.

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Plastic army guy, you’re lucky it’s almost Veterans’ Day and I’m feeling charitable.

I’ve had to take a day off running after an early morning encounter with a plastic Army guy on a darkened staircase. Though small, the Army guy was clearly very well trained. I never saw him, and the next thing I knew, I was right on top of him and my feet flew out from under me. I thudded down the stairs and emerged mostly unscathed, but with an eight inch welt and bruise on a region rather critical to running.
I’m doing fine and will be back out to run today, but the forced rest left me preoccupied with how I came to be a runner (only a year and a half ago) and how I would like to respond to all the people who say, “Oh, I could never do that.” Here are the top 5 reasons why (which people feel compelled to share with me):

Reason 1: I don’t have time.
Response: Neither do I. At least, not in the way you mean. The time I spend running could easily be taken up by doing laundry, reading to my kids, catching up on work, seeing a movie, and so on. And these are just the necessary or worthy things I could be doing. It’s true, you will need to elbow some other things aside. I assure you, there are things you can afford to elbow.

Reason 2: I don’t have anyone to watch my kids.
Response: I appreciate this. My kids are not old enough to be left alone. If yours aren’t either, and they’re very young indeed, take them with you. That’s the actual reason jogging strollers exist, not just to impress other suburban moms. If you can’t take them with you, and you can’t afford to hire a babysitter, get a friend to watch them. If you have no friends, expand your definition of friend to include anyone who will watch your kids in exchange for cookies, petsitting, or whatever other barter currency you have to offer.

Reason 3: I don’t have the energy.
Response: Running begets energy.

Reason 4: There is no sports bra in the world that can restrain my ample bosoms.
Response: You think you’ll get sympathy from me?! I, who have a concavity where your ample bosoms are bounding painfully around? I, who sacrificed what little I had on the altar of breastfeeding? No, I have nothing to offer you on this front. Take comfort though; the scientific community is working to help you with articles like this one, entitled “Predictors of three dimensional breast kinematics during bare-breasted running.” Imagine the scene in THAT lab.

Reason 5: I don’t have the money.
Response: You really don’t need much. A pair of shoes (and they can be the cheapest ones at WalMart; there is no benefit in terms of injury prevention to expensive shoes), a good sports bra (see Reason 4) if you’re a lady. That’s about it. Cheaper than a gym membership, even if you do have to pay someone to watch your kids. Also, probably cheaper than anti-anxiety meds, and high blood pressure meds, and cholesterol meds.

If all five of these reasons are obstacles for you, and you have no time, no friends, no energy, and no money, then I suppose you should sit down and re-examine your life. But take some comfort in your ample bosoms. After all, it’s not the worst problem a girl can have.

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Last month, I was reading a study that saddened but did not surprise me. The article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported on a experiment designed to assess the gender biases of science professors at research intensive universities. While women are studying science in larger numbers now, and numbers of female PhDs are also on the rise, they are not joining the ranks of professors in the numbers we might expect. Most of the time, this gets attributed to the tendency of women to off-track their careers to have babies and stay home with the kids or work only part-time. This is clearly true; I, for one, am waaaay farther behind in my career development than my husband, who has never gone part-time to tend the children. I am only just now starting to think of an actual career; he’s been a full time lawyer man for about eight years.

Despite this clear disparity, the authors of the new study were interested in whether or not gender bias among college professors might be holding female students back even before graduating. In their experiment, they presented several biology, chemistry and physics faculty members with essentially identical job applications for a lab manager position. The applicants differed substantively only in their gender. The results of the study showed a subtle but definite bias toward male applicants even when all experience and qualifications were the same. Professors offered a lower salary to female applicants, tended to rate them lower in perceived competence, and offered less mentorship than males. Consistent with previous studies, the faculty members described the female students as more “likable” than the male students, but this likability did not convert to professional advantage or even parity. What was particularly striking to me, as a female instructor in biology, was that female faculty were as guilty of favoring male applicants as their male colleagues. Even in biology, where women majors outnumber men in undergraduate programs, female faculty will tend to favor the male students on the basis of their perceived superior ability. This undermines our Pollyanna faith that women entering the sciences will tend to pull still more women up and along with them.

So, do I do it too? I don’t know. That’s the nature of subtle bias; you don’t know you’re doing it. I know I have biases; I tend to judge my students mainly on how they dress (students showing up in pajamas or velour tracksuits with “Juicy” written across the ass tend to equal stupid in my knee-jerk reactions), though what role unconscious gender, racial, or ethnic bias might be playing, I just don’t know.

Right about here’s where the creepy dude was hanging out. Probably I was right to be nervous.

I was thinking about just this subject while out for a run on a local rail trail. Not many people were around, and as I rounded a bend, I saw a dude sitting on a bench in fatigues and work boots smoking a cigarette. I was wary, but smiled at him as I passed, and he just stared at me, tracking me with a wolfish, predatory sneer. I could feel all the vestigial hackles on my neck rise, and I felt my long buried African primate ancestor stir inside me, looking for a tree to scurry up. I had to pass the same dude on the way back, and was nearly sprinting by the time I got back into the safety of the downtown. I don’t know if this guy was as malevolent as he seemed to me, and it occurred to me that I judge most men to be a threat, at least when I meet them in a semi-secluded spot while running. Not all men, certainly. The tubby Indian guy on his cell phone at the other end of the trail raised no such alarms. Nor did a pair of scrawny Chinese teenagers. Nor the white gay couple walking their impeccably groomed Tibetan spaniel. So was my fear actually a warranted female guard response to something real that I was sensing? Or do I assign threat too broadly?

As I relaxed my pace up the hill into the comforting crowds, I remembered Obama’s famous “race speech,” the one where he described his white grandmother, who dearly loved her half black grandson, but would cross the street when a black man approached. I love my houseful of boys. I certainly don’t hate men; I married a really good one, after all, and I’m trying to raise a couple more. But I often get the same kind of unease when passing a man on the street that Obama’s grandmother seemed to feel about black men. That’s the similarity that troubles me. Because, after all, people who cross the street to avoid black men will tell you about the statistics on crime, and the numbers of black men in prison for murder or assault compared with white men. But it’s still racist to cross the street. And I can tell you all day long that about 100% of rapists are men (and, rape, after all, is what we women are all actually worried will happen to us, more than murder, actually). So yes, the statistics bear me out on that. But that hardly means all men are bent on assault. Not even most men. So what’s with my overactive fear trigger? I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet, you’ve got one too.

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