I run not because I like it, nor because I’m good at it. I run because it makes me feel strong, because I imagine my ancestors ran 5Ks every day, chasing deer across the savannah. I run because I want to be able to keep up with them, even in my daydreams. Spear throwing I may never master. Running is attainable.
I run next to Gretchen at the gym. We do our three warmup laps round the track, and then reserve treadmills three and four. We stretch on the blue mats in the corner, dangling our arms helplessly in the general direction of our toes (neither of us is particularly flexible). We press our hands against the wall plastered with 80s aerobics posters-I’ll never be able to unsee the drawing of a woman in a leotard doing the butterfly stretch-and flex our calves. I take care with this one, remembering when, a month ago, I woke up at five a.m. to an agonizing shin splint radiating through my left leg.
The usuals are in place already: the fellow treadmill runner who always wears a green shirt, the two women with calves of steel on the stair steppers, the scattered junior boys who watch themselves lift weights in the mirror that spans the back wall. Gretchen and I take our places: she on the left, me on the right. She flicks the TV to Jeopardy, which coincides happily with our run. We look at each other, do some encouraging eyebrow wiggles, and hit “start.” And then my track lets out its customary whine, as if it’s preparing once again to be trampled on by a clumsy twenty-two-year-old. It starts to move, faster as I click the arrows up, and soon I’m running and taking care (as I do at the start but neglect at the finish) that my shoulders are straight and my gait even. I feel as though I could run ten miles just like this, with Alex Trebek outlined in blue above me (benevolent as a god amidst a bright sky), and the vinyl road circulating comfortably below.
I am obligated to mention here, as I tried to disclaim at the beginning, that I am by no means a romantic, one-with-the-road runner. In fact, a few weeks ago, when I closed my eyes while running in an attempt to attain some sort of zen enlightenment, I unconsciously slowed my pace and flew off the back of the treadmill, almost crushing an innocent passerby.
I can’t hope to provide much advice for those of you who want to start running. All I can say is to do whatever Runner’s World tells you to, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. I read an article about mantras recently, and scoffed at it. George Harrison may have had a mantra, but I’m more down-to-earth than that. And then I had a hard run, and there were five minutes left, and I was this close to faking a sprained ankle and telling Gretchen that we absolutely had to stop or I would never walk again.
In that moment of exhaustion, I decided to adopt a mantra. “Pain is a state of mind” was first. I mouthed the words, trying to match them to my pace, and thinking about the source: Freak the Mighty, a magnificent book I read in 6th grade. As noble a quote as it was, however, it wasn’t working. The next mantra that popped into my head was, inexplicably, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Over and over I sang that childhood song to myself, making up lyrics when my memory failed.
I’ve been working on the railroad
All the livelong day
I’ve been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away…
And the tune seemed to meld with my footsteps, and before I knew it the five minutes was over, my ankle was intact, and Gretchen was looking at me like I was crazy:
“Were you singing, Holly?”