Exercising My Demons
Posted on November 1st, 2011
In November 2008, I moved back into my parents’ house at age forty-three.
In May, I’d already moved out of my boyfriend’s. Six months later, in the midst of the housing crisis, I had to clear out of my coach house in Fox Lake, Illinois within a month when my landlady defaulted on her mortgage. I moved back home to Cincinnati in part because I didn’t know where else I could go so quickly, but also because I was determined to finally pay off the large student loans that had dogged me for years.
All my life, Dad had said, “Home is where you can always go! Home is where they have to take you in.” But I’d never expected to need his openness and generosity so literally. (He probably didn’t, either!)
Monday before Thanksgiving, the moving van drove three hundred miles to deliver the sum total of my belongings to Diamond Oaks Storage on Harrison Avenue. Dad remarked on how little I had to show for someone in my forties; mostly a bedroom set and a bunch of books! I’d downsized to fit my life into my boyfriend’s existing one, and when I left I didn’t want to bring anything with me. For the record, I would not recommend either approach.
I settled into my tiny childhood bedroom right next to Mom and Dad’s. Mom cleared out the bookshelf and half the closet for my stuff. Dad set up my computer table in a corner of the finished basement. In the morning I made espresso on the machine we fit into a corner of the kitchen, and we watched the birdfeeders. Then I went downstairs and worked for my Illinois employer in a remote situation I was fortunate they’d suggested. In the afternoon I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. For months I couldn’t read books. People kept giving me recommendations of books to read, and I kept saying, sure.
I started spending time walking and running in the parks every day. At home, the intrusions, the noise, the constant need to schedule were unfamiliar, and I knew I was the one imposing. At first I would run the gravel and dirt Wood Duck Trail at Mitchell Memorial Forest, a pretty one-mile loop with challenging hills. I usually ran it twice and called it a day. Occasionally I ran three loops, and once I made it through four.
By February the temperatures were turning warmer, and I decided to tackle the four-mile technical mountain bike trail. I began by hiking it, which took well over an hour. Then I started running as far as I could before walking the rest of the way out.
The feeling of trail running was not what I remembered from high school cross country so much as it was the running of a child, flying over dips and around sharp bends, leaping obstacles and landing lightly. I knew I was running too fast sometimes, just because it felt so good. Trail running takes total attention not to trip over a roots or rocks, and no matter what was swirling in my head when I started, it was peace when I was done. I did meditation, yoga, other exercise, but nothing ever helped like the trail.
But immediately my knees started aching. In the mornings, coming up from the basement, I’d take one step at a time, and complain about the pain. Out on the trail again anyway, I told myself to enjoy it while I could, because clearly I had at most a year or two of this in me. I remember joking about that with my friend Dave before he’d embarked on his own fitness journey, and he agreed about our age-related limitations.
Then a funny thing happened. After three or four months, my knees simply stopped hurting. It turns out your tendons and ligaments take that long to strengthen for the ballistic nature of running, especially the lateral movements of trail running. I wasn’t hurting myself, after all — I was actually strengthening.
Some days, I could run the entire four miles without stopping. In May, I saw a sign for a trail race at Mt. Airy Forest that was 5.4 miles long. The thought gripped me. I was sure if I could do 4.0 miles in practice, then I could hang on for another 1.4 miles in the excitement of a race, as long as I didn’t try to go too fast. I hardly mentioned to my parents what I was doing, so odd did I feel about it. (“A race?” Mom said. “Yeah…” I mumbled.) I signed up online, ten bucks. Then I drove to Bob Roncker’s store to get my race number. They also gave me four safety pins, and I played it cool, even though I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with them. I was sick with anxiety, but my friend Judy insisted that if I had my number, I had to go!
I got up by seven AM for the nine o’clock race, far earlier than I was getting up in those days. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to run. I drove to the park. Everyone was in their outfits and looked like they knew exactly what they were doing. But something hit me that continues to hit me when I think I don’t want to race — I just go and see all the other people lining up, and then I want to do it, too!
It turns out that running through Mt. Airy was a lot like running Mitchell’s bike trail — the singletrack dirt terrain, the turns and elevation gains. I was more prepared than I expected to be. I kept my heart rate aerobic (I was wearing my heart rate monitor) and kept chugging at 9:54 miles. I had no idea that trail race competition involves blocking other runners from passing, and so I’d step to the side whenever a faster guy came up on me, and I got a lot of surprised thank you‘s.
In the end, I was fourth woman out of twenty-something in a race I’d only meant to finish! This shocked me to no end. Maybe all the guys who’d said, “Good job!” as they were passing weren’t just being nice.
So that was my first race that started this entire endeavor. But much more important, like biking the summer before, it was the way I came through a shock I could only respond to from a physical place. I do realize how fortunate I am to have had a safety net compared to many other people. But words failed me so completely for the turns my life took in that short space of time, that I couldn’t even manage to read, and trying to be a writer was like a sick joke. My body and its movements, with the trees and sky around it, were what slowly brought me back to my life. I took a lot of pictures of that park, because I could only say what I thought without words right then.
I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.