A few weeks ago I fell while I was running. Until that point things had been going well. I was running each day and, finally, the injuries and niggles that have plagued each leg seemed to have settled down.
Then I hit the tarmac. Hard.
It hurt. Nearly knocking myself out on a park bench on the way down didn’t help my mood much either. As I lay there wondering what had happened, the sweat which soaked my top quickly cooled in the February breeze and by the time I’d limped home I was shivering.
As I soaked my misery away in the bath, trying to bring my frozen hands back to life, the only thing that I was really aware of was the dreadful throbbing pain in my ankle and the remorseless ache of my hamstring. I felt utterly defeated. Again.
I struggle to articulate why I run even though I’ve done it on and off for most of my life. At times I feel like the ground is floating by as my breathing and legs fall into a magical synchronisation. At other times it completely disgusts me. I hate it.
I’ve been here many times before. To appreciate anything I think we have to have a sharp awareness that it can be taken away in a heartbeat. Or, in this case, a misplaced step on a very wet and muddy path. Over the years, running has given me the best of times and also the worst. It’s hammered home repeatedly the realisation that however well it all appears to be going nothing lasts forever.
Perhaps running and I should call it quits. My legs would certainly appreciate it and I would like to keep my head away from smacking park benches on wet Sunday mornings. Or any morning. As much as I love it, I have to admit that it never quite gives me what I want or what I think that I need. We’re on speaking terms, but my intentions never quite convince running to give me what I want. A glance at my watch confirms what I already know. If it could talk, I’d love to know what is on running’s mind. It tells me bits and pieces: an aching hip or a frozen hamstring, a sore back, lots of niggles. We don’t speak for days on end and my shoes collect dust rather than miles.
It would be easier to walk away rather than limp on like this. There are lots of other things I could do and enjoy. When I contemplate the time that I would get back it feels like a gift that opens up and leads towards that promised land of having more time. But time is all we have anyway; it’s our choices that matter. Besides, what running has taught me is that the path really does get narrower, and that is certainly no bad thing. At forty-six, I have finally learned that the prospect of having less time ahead really is a lesson in liberation. The constriction brings freedom. When our choices and time narrow, what matters is brought into sharp focus.
As I run through the park I often wonder about all the years we’ve been here. Running and me. Me and running. Each run somehow connects me to my childhood. The track I ran on as a kid, the paths that we’d train on, the fields that we lapped are all still there. Running on them is comforting. As I pass through the landscapes I have come to understand the lesson that life can only be enjoyed as we move through it. We can’t stop it and get off to observe what is happening, only to jump back in when things look a bit more to our suiting. It has to be lived in all of its messy, limping, aching, injured glory if it is to be lived at all.
I sometimes wish that I didn’t think so much. It’s incessant. I don’t write as much as I should because I’d be forced to confront things that I would rather forget. I don’t write because I’m often running. And I run to shut myself up. When I run, I can live with myself. When I don’t run, I have learned to live with a version of myself that thinks too much. Perhaps we all do. Perhaps when we turn our backs away from the things that we do to keep ourselves busy we are all left with our hopes, our dreams, our fears, and the stories that we’ve told ourselves for too long. Perhaps we all use things to distract ourselves from ourselves.
And so I’ll dig out my shoes again later today and have another go. A few laps of the park. Possibly a field. Maybe a path. I love running. The simple act of placing one foot in front of the other has brought me joy, peace, and self-acceptance. It has given me peace of mind and a sense of belonging. It has enriched my life in ways that are unfathomable until that moment when the ground floats by and the awareness of breath is all that exists. Then it all makes sense. Then I know that the injuries and falls, the niggles and aches all are there to learn from.
Running does speak. I just need to listen.