Running Through 2021
The year of breaking and mending
This is the mid-week version of Men Yell At Me, a newsletter about patriarchy, politics, and red state America. If you regularly read this newsletter and value it. Consider becoming a paid subscriber. Last year, I wrote about my year running through a year of pandemic, destruction, and loss. This is a newsletter about my running journey this year. It’s about breaking my wrist. About quitting running. About trying again and trying to pretend nothing has changed, when everything has broken.
In January of 2021, I broke my wrist and I stopped running.
Technically, I didn’t have to stop running. The doctor told me I could try it, just to be careful not to slip outside and be stranded in the cold. And I could have finally purchased a treadmill. I did none of these things. The only thing I did was walk my dog, but I barely did that.
Instead, on January 24, 2021, I slipped on the ice, broke my wrist, and then, I quit. I took to my couch, watched the Great British Baking Show and absolutely quit.
Months later, a famous Instagram influencer I follow would break her collarbone and wrist in a biking accident. I remember watching an Instagram story about her accident at midnight and earnestly typing out a response, telling her how taking a break is okay and how I had done it when I broke my wrist and maybe we all need a rest. The next morning, her face bruised, and her wrist in a temporary cast, she was back at it, lifting weights and riding a stationary bike. “I don’t quit,” she wrote.
But I did.
I am not usually a quitter. I have manic energy. I get through stress by working harder, running faster, pushing and pushing, but suddenly, I couldn’t, not anymore. And what’s more important, I didn’t want to. Some times in life are for pushing, but other times in life are for nopeing the fuck out.
Since I began in 2005, running has been both an escape and a return. When I had small children, I would wake up early while everyone was asleep to literally flee from my home. To find a place that was just mine and to reclaim my body that everyone, my children, my husband, seemed to be declaring ownership over, I ran.
Each foot strike, each jolt of concrete meeting shoe rubber, would remind me I was real, I was myself, I belonged to me.
In 2005, when I began running at the encouragement of the man who was my father-in-law, I read somewhere that the habits we develop in our 20s are the habits we develop for the rest of our lives. I held onto that belief, no matter how lightly sourced, that if I could develop running as a practice, I’d always have a way of staying strong and returning to my own body.
And so, I’ve run on vacations, on work trips, I’ve run through heartbreak and loss, I’ve run in gyms and outside, on trails and in cities, by beaches, rivers, and mountains. I’ve taken breaks to have children and during my divorce, I ran in the gym. But I’ve never quit. Not until this year.
I know I was depressed. I’d lost my job. America was in the middle of a pandemic winter. And I was isolated from friends and family. I had planned to keep running through the winter. I had a lot of gear. I had headbands and wool layers and face coverings and fancy gloves and a nice jacket. But I broke my wrist and I just didn’t want to, and no one could make me and I was all alone. So, fuck it.
I would walk, maybe, and only because I had recently adopted an Alaskan Malamute puppy who was shitting all over my home.
Our culture fetishizes resilience. The people who persist. The people who persevere. Despite all the odds. Etc. Etc. But what about us quitters? The ones who stopped? The ones who cried uncle? The ones who had enough and just couldn’t anymore? The ones who walked away? Or were forced away and then refused to come back. I don’t think we like those stories because we want to see people triumph over the mess of our society as a roadmap for our own triumphs. But, also, I think our culture fetishizes triumph because it makes it easier to pretend our system isn’t broken. If that person can succeed, we reason, our society is not so bad. But it is so bad.
In Don Quixote, there is a character of a beautiful woman named Marcela. A goatherd tells Don Quixote that Marcela was a rich orphan who gave up her life of wealth to become a shepherdess. She charms men, then refuses to marry them. A kind of proto-cock blocker, if you will. Later, after another character reads a poem about Marcela, praising her beauty but lamenting her cruelty, Marcela appears. She just shows up, right next to the travelers, and sets the record straight. She doesn’t want this attention. She doesn’t want her suitors. She never charmed anyone. She can’t help it if she’s pretty, she says, but she doesn’t want the attention, leave her alone. She’s sick of being called cruel and murderous, when her only crime is existing. She lives alone, she tells the men. “I was born free, and in order to live free, I chose the solitude of the outdoors. The trees of these mountains are my company, the clear water of these streams are my mirrors. I communicate my thoughts and share my beauty with the trees and water.”
When she finishes her speech, Cervantes writes, “Having said this, without waiting to hear any response, she turned on her heels and went into the densest part of the forest nearby.”
Marcela is never seen again in the entire book. It’s a funny moment. A sendup of the love-lorn men. But it’s also so powerful. She shows up only to tell them they are wrong about her. She’s not mean, she just doesn’t want them. She tells them to leave her alone. And then, she walks away. She quits the narrative that men tell about her in the book. She quits the narrative of the book all together.
I think a lot about Marcela and the power of refusal.
I was so tired of pushing. Of trying. Of getting back up again only to be knocked back over. I was tired of powering through. So, I stopped. And I walked.
Some times in life are for pushing forward, but other times in life are for nopeing the fuck out.
By the time my cast came off, it was spring. My muscles underneath the cast had atrophied. My arm was just bone and white skin. Everything, it felt, had atrophied. My legs felt weak. Everything felt weak. I missed my strength, and the weather was getting warmer. Plus, I was trying to sell another book. Editors were asking me to write for them. I was fully vaccinated through a vaccine trial. I made plans to see people. The darkness of winter was ending.
Okay, okay, I’ll start running again.
When I started running again this year after taking three months off, I felt like wet blankets were tied to my legs. Every clump, clump sent shocks through my body and jolted my knees. Parts of me hurt that had never previously shown themselves to be capable of soreness. Why, for example, did running now make my earlobes ache? That part of my ass had never hurt before.
And now, I was slow. Thirteen-minute miles, where previously I had been able to run sub-nine-minute miles. (Fast for me!) I hadn’t run 13-minute miles since 2005. I felt like I was at war with my body. This thing that had become my lifeline now felt impossible. And I was mad.
I’d show me who was boss. I’d train for a half marathon.
I’ve run six half marathons. My most recent was in 2014, eight months after the birth of my second child. It shouldn’t be hard to do it again.
A lot can happen in seven years. You can lose a marriage. Lose a home. Gain a new one. You can have so many jobs and people slip through your life. You can go from breastfeeding and sleep training and diapers to Pokémon and TikTok dances. You can get fast. You can get slow.
As the world began to open again, I started running more. I went on trips to see friends and chase down romance. I ran in Brooklyn after getting dumped on a street corner in Ditmas Park. I ran in Atlantic City with the air smelling of salt and sour. In St. Paul, where the streets were clean, too clean. And I ran in Sioux City, among warehouses that used to be so many things but were now empty. In ran in Washington DC with a hangover. I ran in Charlottesville, following the path of neo-Nazis through the city and the campus. I ran in parts of Iowa, where it was so beautiful, I had to stop running and stop, and just say, “Oh.”
My friend Mike asked to train with me from afar, and we complained about sore backs and long hot runs. Previously, I’d loved the way the humid Iowa air wrapped around me during the summer. This year, I could barely move.
I tried to join a gym in the summer to get stronger, but no one was wearing masks. And soon, it seemed everyone I knew was getting COVID. So, I stopped going to the gym and doubled down on running. I was trying really hard. I was pushing myself. But I wasn’t getting faster. It wasn’t like before. Nothing felt like before.
I made it 10 miles. But it felt like swimming in butter.
Finally, I broke down and asked for help. I had never asked for help running before. I’d always just gotten workouts from the internet. Trouble-shot my problems with YouTube. Never really had a problem, except a few rolled ankles. But something about getting older means your body has its own opinions now. My body wanted to do its own thing. And when I forced it back, it screamed in response.
I hired a running coach. “What is your goal?” she asked. “I just don’t want to be miserable,” I told her. “A reasonable goal,” she said.
She made me a running schedule. Twice a week, I was supposed to run easy. That meant slower than my slow. That meant monitoring my heart rate. It’s the counterintuitive rule of running. You can’t get faster or stronger without at first running slower.
She has me run hills. And so, I go to the biggest hill near my house and once a month, run up and down for 30 minutes. I love this. I love the challenge of it. I love encouraging myself on. I realize I’m the only one pushing me, the only one driving me. On the last time up the hill, I pick a song that makes me want to run. I go as hard as I can and I tell myself, “You can do this. You can do this.” Running has taught me how to cheer for myself.
Other times, I am supposed to push myself by running intervals. Push. Then, slow. Then, push then slow. I got a heart-rate monitor and did my slow runs. After a month, I didn’t feel like I was running with wet blankets on my legs. Things felt better. I wasn’t faster, but I wasn’t as miserable.
I think what had happened was, I had tried to just jump back to my running as before. I’d broken. I’d quit and then was mad when things weren’t the same. But nothing was as before, and maybe nothing would ever be.
I am supposed to make notes on my runs now. What felt sore. How did the run go? I do my best to follow the schedule. I feel less miserable. I feel less alone. But I am also more willing to quit. I’m more willing to stop and walk when I need to. I don’t think pain needs to be pushed through.
Once, over a meal of Popeye’s chicken, my friend Matthew once jokingly shouted, “My life is a metaphor for my life!” That’s how running feels these days.
I have a new path now. This one winds up through the park near my house. I run there, do some drills. Then run my intervals. Hard. Slow. Hard. Slow.
My city was destroyed last August when a derecho, a kind of inland hurricane, took out 65 percent of our tree canopy and left people homeless for days and without power for almost a month. The skyline in the park used to be the smooth, undulating arms of trees; now it’s ragged, broken, and scarred.
Last week, I went for a run the day a new storm was predicted. A second derecho was on its way, and the day was a weird, warm 70 degrees in December. And I kept looking up at the trees, those twisted and dislocated arms, and thinking not just of what has been broken, but all that remains, and all that could still break.
Programming note: I am on an internet and work break from now until January 3. I have some newsletters scheduled for next week, including a Dingus of the Year round up, so get excited for that. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. Please take care of yourselves.