by Hilary jocelyn
They sat there on the old threadbare couch gasping for breath, with hearts still visibly beating in the knots on their throats. Mugs of sweet tea wobbled up to their mouths, as sweat from their faces ran like tears down their reddened cheeks, and plopped into their cups as they gulped. Knobbly knees glistened, from underneath damp shorts, and flimsy tee shirts, transparent with perspiration, inhaled and exhaled into the late afternoon light. An unpleasant odour from stinky running shoes, or worse, from smelly socks, began to creep into the room.
The scene unfolding before me was played out most Sunday afternoons, almost without fail, during my childhood. My dad was a runner, and every week would meet up with his childhood friend and co- worker, to trample on a carefully measured route of path and pavement, that covered a distance of exactly five miles. Afterwards, the couch in our live-in kitchen would be the site of a serious and regretful post-mortem, which was almost as important as the run itself. As they consulted the stopwatch they would always wish, sorrowfully, that they were faster or fitter, more agile, and more youthful, as they struggled to come to terms with their perceived state of weekly mediocrity.
In their distant schooldays when they were not long out of boyhood, they had been brief running mates with a spindly youth called Roger Bannister .He quickly sped past and beyond their own dreams, and went on to run a four minute mile in the 1952 Olympics. This seemed to diminish and shrink their own running efforts, and each time they unlaced their shoes, the realisation would hit home again that they would never be the elite athletes they had once aspired to be. Far from a four-minute mile, their five-mile circuit usually took them 36 minutes and 47 seconds, which if my math is roughly accurate, makes a precisely seven-and-a-half-minute mile.
From my perspective as a child, running certainly didn’t look like much fun, and I vowed not ever to try it. As I grew up, I boycotted the school athletics team, trying my hand at tennis and field hockey, hillwalking and skiing instead, and jumping happily into the saddle of my old faithful bicycle. Curled up in my closet were – rainboots, hiking boots, flatties, heels, wedgies, clogs, and other eclectic footwear, but there were never any running shoes to be found.
I discovered, over the years, however, that I was indeed, a restless soul. After a while of sitting still, things would always begin to happen. The thoughts in my body would be seized by an uncontrollable urge to move, like waves surging on to a rocky shore. My core being would become turbulent, like the water swirling in a rough current, and I would be overcome by a powerful tide of unleashed, fermenting energies.
One Sunday afternoon in my early twenties, I was sitting with an almost boyfriend in a basement apartment, with the rain dripping against the window. He was a chill sort of guy, and he sat there tranquilly by the fire, reading the Sunday Paper. Meanwhile, my body was screaming at me to do something to relieve its building full throttled engine. I tried to read the paper too, but knew I was doomed when I jumped right away to the end of the paragraph, instead of starting at the beginning. I envied him his peace, and soon our contrasting energies began to clash.
” Í want to go out for a walk” I requested, expressing my needs in a calm forthright fashion, that did not reflect my state of mind.
“But its raining “he replied, not understanding for a moment the urgency of my desires, and scarcely looking up from the film review page he was reading. By this time, I felt almost volcanic, and eruption was nigh.
I got up and snatched the light raincoat that was hanging on its hook by the door, and jumped into my faithful rainboots .
“See you later “I said curtly, and off I set for a solo stroll in the afternoon driech.
I walked fast and the movement seemed to sooth my overactive mind and body somewhat, breathing in the mild air, and feeling light moisture land on my cheeks. I quickened my pace to a march and my breathing began to deepen and my edges to soften. I’m not sure what happened next, but suddenly I was running, pounding the Glasgow pavements methodically, as my rainboots jarred to the ground. Toes, heels, knees, thighs, arms. Moving in unison. It felt good. Therapeutic almost. Relief was instant.
I kept going, and before I knew it, I was going at full lifegiving tilt, pausing only to glance left and right, or was it right and left, before crossing the streets that lined my path. Soon, I was smiling a huge grin, that spread right across my soul, and on some subconscious level I knew that I had uncovered and discovered a new way forward.
I ran for almost an hour that day, regardless of my unsuitable footwear, and afterwards was able to go back to my basement, soaking with rain and sweat, and read the rest of the Sunday paper with the man whose status as my almost boyfriend, was sadly on the brink of a shift.
I bought myself some running shoes with my next paycheck and running became something I did regularly. With it hanging onto my toolbelt, it helped me to negotiate life’s corners, bends, and uphill battles, leading me to a state of much needed mental and bodily calm.
I ran fast, I ran slow, I ran long, I ran short, disregarding all measurement of time and distance. I ran on our wedding day, with my life partner- to- be, among a gaggle of geese who were gathered in a field near our home, to wish us well. As we ran, the rain turned to snow, turned to wind and then to sun, all in the course of a few short thirty minutes, and only an hour or two before we both said “I do. “
I ran though the streets of Montreal, digesting the strangeness and loneliness of being new. I ran through sorrow and adventure, towards endings and beginnings. I ran as new life sprouted in my belly, urged on by the feel of two beating hearts. And later, I regularly ran away from my children, trying to find solitude and calm. And then, I ran back to them, all sweaty, and we sat together, curled up on the couch, cuddling and drinking tea.
I have run though much of my life, breathing in what lies ahead, and feeling my worn, calloused, and now arthritic feet as they hit the earthy ground. Yes, it’s slower now, and the distances are shorter, but every few days something inside me that yearns to be set free, still begs me to move. Now, I run on the cherished and scenic dirt road at the end of our lane, in all seasons, with my dearest companionable dog at the end of a leash, while we both inhale the late afternoon air. We run, but we look up. We speed, but we sometimes slow down. We move, but we stop to greet the community around us when they call out hello as we pass by.
I know the day will come sometime, when my body whispers gently to me that it is getting a tad tired, and creaky, and weary. When that happens, I will slow down to a fast walk, I promise, and will run instead in my memories, and in my dreams.