Monday, September 26, 2011

In so many words: thoughts on running, risks, and life

I'm born to run, I just feel it, in the way I feel the emotion of the violin singing to me from its belly, hear it dancing across its strings.  Of all the things I've wanted to do that fade in and out with the seasons, this one remains in a stubborn, relentless passion.  I know I am born to run hard and fast and long in the way I live this one life I've got.    

Perhaps it's coincidental that I also love to run, physically speaking.  I grew a love for running in high school, and my Papa would remind me on occasion before a race of the famous words of the great runner, Eric Liddell, from Chariots of fire: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure."  I was never a running champion like Liddell, but I think I could feel the pleasure of God coursing through my veins and spreading across my face when I'd run (except when I was in pain, which was often).  I ran through injury after injury, and I sat out for awhile due to injury, but I was always chomping at the bit to be back on my feet, flying across the track, the trails or even just the pavement covering the miles around my neighborhood.

About two years ago, my right knee started hurting.  I'd had some minor knee pain before and it always went away on its own.  So I ignored it for awhile, ran through the pain, because it disappeared  ten minutes into a run.  But one day a few minutes in, I felt my gait turn to a limp and I knew with a sinking dread that I couldn't run through this pain anymore.  I needed to walk.  But I didn't completely stop running, not yet.  I would still try to go for a run, optimistically, and as soon as the limp started, slow to a walk.  I did this for a month or so.  I couldn't accept that I just needed to stop running altogether.  

I've been to three physical therapists and a sports medicine specialist since then.  No one could really tell me what was wrong with my knees; by this point, the pain had jumped to my left knee, too.  All I knew is that it "could" be this or "may" be that, but it didn't appear to be anything too serious.  It just may be that my running days are over as I knew them, and all the cracking and popping noises will never go away.  When I decided to accept this change in my body, I embraced other athletics, not as a means to an end, to cross train until I could run again, but as my new exercises themselves.  I turned to biking and yoga and salsa dancing, and in the end, I fell in love with the dancing, crackly knees and all. But I never really gave up on running entirely, thankfully, because just two weeks ago I competed in my first triathlon and felt amazing.  My knees didn't feel as fantastic as they did in high school, but still, I passed by runner after runner with great surprise and finished in a sprint.  I felt God's smile. 

I remember running free, running strong, for mile after mile, pushing harder and harder.  I remember doing track workouts during and after college, just because I missed the satisfaction of utter exhaustion.  I miss those days of running without wondering if I'm hurting my knees.  I miss the feeling of challenging my body without a sense of physical limitation.  I had no delusions of being a champion, but I truly felt I could do just about any physical challenge I put my mind to.  

I used to feel that way about life, too.  Youthful idealism, I suppose.  It's been tempered through the years by the unexpected, uncontrollable stuff of life.  When I finished college, I believed I could change the world.  Even greater, I believed I would.  Up until I finished grad school, I nurtured this belief.  I didn't want to live a safe, convenient, comfortable, and in my mind, mediocre, life.  I wanted nothing more than to live this one life, this one story, as strong and hard as a born runner.  And then my story threw me quite a curveball, as many have experienced, and I opted to change directions.  I couldn't limp on this one, I just had to walk it out.  And three years later, I'm just starting to run again, but it's with these creaky, crackly knees and only once or twice a week, but still, it's running.  Back in the time before my story changed its shape, I thought running hard and living well was mainly about performance.  I thought changing the world and not living safe and comfortable had to look as extreme as living in poverty in the ghetto somewhere, giving my life to those in the most dire of circumstances.  Anything less than this, I was convinced, was settling.  I shuddered at the thought of settling, the worst possible fate.  If I'm enjoying my life, I thought, I'm too comfortable.  If I settle down anywhere, not taking enough risks.  Really, I'd later learn, I was just afraid.  Terrified, really.  Of failure, of not living up to who I thought and others thought I should or could be.  Not living up to my potential, that was my greatest fear.  

Now I shudder at the pace of life I used to keep in order to live this belief, stay ahead of this fear.  It wore me out and I didn't even know it, until my dad died and I was forced to take a look at the rubble of what had been my life.  Until I had to decide if in rebuilding my life I wanted to rebuild it as it had been, or something new, something even sturdier.  Instead of continuing to mourn my inability to run, I learned to open my eyes and see new pleasures.  Life slowed down tremendously and my body and soul seemed to heave a huge sigh of relief.  I honestly wouldn't give that up, wouldn't go back to the way things were, even if it seemed more purposeful, more successful, more whatever than my life seems now.  I have more peace now with myself, less attachment with a certain outcome in life that bears down with this grinding pressure.  I can just be me.

Some may laugh, but last night, I had this whole emotional revelation after watching a Disney movie.  Hey, I'd laugh at me, too.  Mom convinced me I needed to watch this movie, Secretariat, based on the true story of the greatest racehorse who ever lived.  And she was right, it was a touching story, inspiring on more than one level.  

First, there was Secretariat's owner, Penny, a woman in the 1960's and 70's, who loved this horse enough to take a huge risk on him.  Her family thought she was crazy, investors thought she was crazy, the world of racehorse owners and the journalists covering their stories thought she was crazy.  She recognized in him that he was a horse who loved to run, who needed to have his chance to race, and she believed unflaggingly in his abilities, even when others scoffed at her.  And then there was Secretariat himself, the horse who had good breeding and lots of talent but an even bigger dose of heart.  Ends up he did what no other race horse had been able to do or has done since his time.  He ran on heart, I think.  Later that night, sitting on my bed, I began to remember myself as a young girl and a younger woman.  I wouldn't trade what I've learned or how I've grown to get my idealism back, but I couldn't help but mourn the loss of that girl with the heart to run as hard as she could, who believed she could.  

Alone in the room, I sniffled, whispering aloud, "Does she still exist, that girl?  Or has she been lost forever?"  

I didn't hear any reply.  But a thought, an impression, settling gradually in my heart: Nothing is ever completely lost.  "But how, how do I get that heart back?" I ask.  I thought of my triathlon, of how I didn't think I could do it with the condition of my knees now.  I thought of how it felt to swim and bike and run my heart out, without the expectation that I would win, but just with the gratitude that I could begin and even finish, that I could simply enjoy the moments given to me to push hard.     

I finally turned the light off and laid down to sleep, thinking of Secretariat running like he had nothing to lose, of Penny living with the guts to believe she wouldn't fail in her risks taken on Secretariat, but even if she did, knowing that she'd find her way.  Maybe it's one of those answers, as with so many others, that I need to live into day by day.  But I wonder if it doesn't begin with just admitting that I was born to run, that this is who I am.  That failure could never take that away from me, but I could take that away from me if I choose to deny who I am.  

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