Running through 2020

Learning how to find a new pace in a year of pandemic, destruction, and loss

When the world shut down, I started running again.

I had stopped running in 2016 when my world ended. When I was in marriage therapy almost every week and driving around the Midwest doing research and taking care of two kids. I barely had time to run; I couldn’t find the motivation. So, after two years of nothing, I joined a boutique gym where I did hour-long intense workouts while very fit people a good decade younger than me unironically said things like, “You can do it!” and “Feel your power!” and, worst of all, “Happy Monday!”

I’d run at the gym, pounding on a treadmill, listening to Kelly Clarkson sing “Stronger” and pushing myself until I could think of nothing, I was nothing, just a body moving. My mile time dropped, very briefly, below 7 minutes.

But in March, everything shut down, and I stopped going to the gym. Because it wasn’t safe. Nothing was safe.

After a couple of weeks, I bought some new shoes and started running outside again.

I first began running in 2005, when I got married and moved to Iowa. I was looking for a job, but I couldn’t find one, and so I spent my days cooking from The Joy of Cooking and learning to run. My father-in-law, Gary, was a runner, and he said we could run a race together. He told me I could be a runner. I am not sure why. And I will never be able to ask because he died before we could run a race together. And then, I divorced his son.

But in those first months, I learned to run by plodding heavily around an outdoor track, mostly walking. I remember how painful even just a mile felt. How my legs were like old cucumbers. How my flat feet kept giving out, shooting pain up my arch and into my calves. I had to go to physical therapy only to be diagnosed with flat ass. I had no butt muscles and needed to do squats.

My mom kept telling me maybe I wasn’t cut out for running. But it was a challenge in a time of my life when I needed a challenge. I graduated summa cum laude. I’d wanted to be a lawyer. And everything had gone wrong and now, here I was in Iowa with no job, rolling out tortillas on the floor of my kitchen apartment, applying for job after job and never hearing back. Sending in short story after short story. Emailing story pitch after story pitch. Rarely even important enough to merit a rejection.

All I wanted was to accomplish something. Just one thing, and at that moment, my body was the only thing I felt was in my power to control. So, I forced myself to run.

And I ran. And then, Gary and I signed up for a race. In September, a month before we were supposed to run together, he was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. He died the next June. I ran my first race the following October. It was a half-marathon, and it took me just under three hours to run it. But I did it. And I cried at the end because I didn’t know my body could do something like that. And I was so sad for what his body had done to him.

It makes sense that I’d turn to running again as the world shut down.

So little was in my control, except this one thing: I could run.

Those first weeks, everyone was supposed to be home, but they were all outside. Neighbors walking dogs. Groups of teens huddling in the parks. Men in headbands also running, eyes forward, always breathing heavily. I waved and ran around everyone, giving them more than six feet. It was hard sometimes; I had to run in the middle of the street. I was scared of them and their breath. Of their presence.

To avoid people, I began running a route that circled by the hospital and a nursing home. I watched as paper hearts went up in the windows. Banners declaring, “Heroes work here!” were placed in the lawns of both places.

I ran and trees began to bloom. I watched as signs that read, “We are all in this together” and teddy bears appeared in my neighbors’ windows. I knew we weren’t all in this together. So I wrote in chalk in my driveway one night, “We are all in this together!” With a picture of a dick. My neighbor came over to power-wash it off. Blaming it on teens. I thanked him and made him cookies. “Teens!” I told him.

Back then, I ran with someone who’d genially clump, clump beside me, asking if we could walk. No, I didn’t want to walk, but sure. I’d walk with him. So, we walked. And finally, I began saying, “No, actually, I want to run.” And he learned to wave me on, and I’d sprint forward with all my force, happy to be released from the stangation. The rawness of the spring air, the sharp cold that underneath had a wink of warmth, would slap my cheeks red, and I’d forget I was worried or scared about everything, and my music would rush through my head, and I’d be, once again, just a body. Only a body.

I was working all the time then. I was working as a newspaper columnist and, when our sports pages were shuttered, I had volunteered to start a kids’ section. My kids were home from school. I could run only on the days when they were at their dad’s. Running was the only time someone wasn’t expecting something from me or mad at me or disappointed in me or crying. As a mother, I carry my children’s feelings, giving them a soft landing. But where could mine go? My friends and family were so far away now. So, I ran.

A neighbor started filming me one day. I saw her standing in her doorway, holding her phone, looking at me as I ran by. I saw her three times before she stopped. I never knew why. But we were all so paranoid in the beginning.

The assisted living center had its first outbreak. And sometimes when I ran by, I saw families standing outside the windows, waiving at the people they loved who were locked inside with the disease.

Then it was summer, and the air got warmer, and I admired my neighbors’ yards. If a neighbor was out, I’d stop and yell from far about how much I loved their irises or how I hoped their peonies would bloom soon. On one block, a neighbor’s crabtree branches hung low, and I would try to jump up to hit the blossoms. As a rule, I always stopped to smell lilacs.

I was still running with someone whenever he was at my house. When he ran with me, we’d notice things together. The small brown house that hides in the trees. The full Snickers bar that we’d run around, until one day it was smashed by a car. And then we’d run around its melting carcass.

I rarely walked with him anymore. I leapt forward and ran as hard as I could, eventually stopping to wait for him to catch up. Once, a man on the other side of the street, who saw us running, told that someone, “You need to keep up with her or you’ll lose her.”

He didn’t keep up.

It was late summer, and I began running alone. People, it seemed, had forgotten about the pandemic. Milling in the streets. Bored. Hot. Tired. Maskless. I found new routes where no one would be. I ran miles on trails in the woods, a mask in my pocket. Always a mask in my pocket. The Iowa summer air made it feel like I was running inside a warm wet blanket. I’d run in the morning, then, in the evening, I’d go to the marches.

Sometimes men will honk or yell at me as I run. And their noise snaps me out of the rhythm of my body, and I remember to be afraid. I remember that being a body is dangerous. I am running to feel alive and powerful. But one honk reminds me how powerless I am. 

I always give them the finger and keep running. 

During the summer, as I ran, I thought a lot about the space between the leaves, where light shimmered through,and the darker spots where leaves overlapped.

Then, on August 10, every tree in my town was torn apart.

I couldn’t run. Not for weeks. Entire trees blocked roads, branches reached inside the roofs of homes. I stopped running because there was nowhere to go. Power lines hung in alleys like the streamers from all the parties we hadn’t gone to that year. I was working out of hotels and then a conference room in the building where we printed the newspaper. The nights I had my kids, we’d be in a hotel. The nights I didn’t, I’d sleep in my dark unairconditioned house. Cell service was spotty, so I’d just drink a beer on the patio and look at the stars. 

After three weeks, I finally found a path. It wasn’t clear, but it was a way forward. I dodged the power lines and jumped over the branches. The piles of trees on the sidewalks meant I was running in the roads. I’d skip over the pavement broken by uprooted trees. I could no longer jump to touch the branches of the crabtree because the entire tree was gone.

All the hearts in everyone’s windows were gone now, too. So were the bears. The signs that once declared, “Heroes work here” were blown away. There was another outbreak at the assisted living center. But I didn’t see families on the lawns outside the windows.

It took me a couple of weeks before I fell, tripping over someone’s siding, which had been piled on the sidewalk, waiting for the city to come take it away. I kept running.

The next day, my knee was swollen, and my arm, where I’d broken my fall, was purple and it ached. I took two aspirin and ran again. I felt like if I just kept moving, whatever hurt or had been bruised would heal itself.

In the end of September, I was fired from the job I loved so much. The thing that had felt like something in a world of cruel nothings was gone.

I had all the time to run then. And so I did. I bought two new pairs of shoes and went on long, long ambling runs. I’d sprint as fast as I could, as Justin Bieber sang “Holy” or The Chicks sang “Gaslighter.”

Then, what I had been running from all year finally caught up with me.

It would catch me in moments. I’d run over a bridge on a trail and see how all the trees looked like mangled hands. Or coming down a hill, I’d see blue tarps on everyone’s houses, still broken, even though it had been months. Still leaping over branches, still dodging blown-over trunks of trees. And I’d stop to walk and to cry. Giving myself only a few moments before pressing into my toes and powering forward.

This was when I felt my stride change a little. I wasn’t leaning into the run. I was not powering through it with my legs and my thighs. I wasn’t trying to be as fast as I had been in the gym. I’d accepted my new pace. Now, I was settling my power into my hips. My back was straighter. It was my posture for a longer run. One where I tell myself to settle in. Settle in. Find a way to keep going, because this is going to keep going. I’m not running from anything anymore. 

I grew up in churches where every year the pastor would preach from Hebrews 12:1. I can still recite the verse from memory: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

I hated those sermons. They were “phone in sermons”—dump a bunch of sports metaphors and make it be about being a Christian, ramble for 30 minutes and done by kickoff for the Cowboy’s game.

But there is wisdom there. The daily practice of moving. Running with patience. Settling in. Finding a rhythm. The beginning of every run is monotonous. But at some point, if I am lucky, there is a moment, when I am not thinking about my body or my rhythm, and I just run — legs lift, arms move, I breathe, the world passes and I think about nothing. All I am is a body and I am flying.

It is now winter. I bought new gear from my local running store — a jacket, some sleeves for my arms, gloves, and a hat. I bought Yaktrax for the snow. I joke with a friend that I’ve read about how the Scandinavians do it. How it’s all about the gear and the attitude, and now I have both. And he replies, “What they don’t tell you is about the aquavit.”

Running in the cold and the snow is something new. I have to find a new rhythm in my leaps around patches of ice, still skipping over broken concrete. The power lines are mostly gone now, but the tree carnage is still there, now ghosts covered in snow— white fingerless limbs reaching out to a cold sky.

I started taking my kids to the track at the high school near my house. We run laps together. My small son wants to sprint. My daughter wants to walk slowly. I tell them I don’t care, but we need to take time to remember we are bodies with power.

My birthday is six days before Christmas. My kids will be with me, so we will take a walk in the snow. And then, when they leave me, I will be running alone. This Christmas, after my volunteer shift at Meals on Wheels, maybe I will go eight miles. I’m not sure. I might do more. All I know is, I’ll put on my shoes and see how far I can go.


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