Many years ago, I was on the beach with my husband, who was reading an article in Newsweek. “Listen to this,” he said as he paraphrased. “Man is an animal. Man is supposed to move his body. Man is supposed to run. Let’s take a run down the beach.”
“Run?” I remember saying. “I don’t run. I barely walk. You’re an animal. You’re the man. Go. Enjoy running.”
“Come on,” he said. “It’ll be fun.” My idea of fun was waiting in line at Back Door Donuts, talking to strangers, salivating, and changing my order five times. Honey-dipped? Apple fritter? Buttermilk-glazed? Run? He wanted me to run?
In those days, in my small world, I had never seen anyone just running for pleasure. There was that guy Jim Fixx, who wrote “The Complete Book of Running” about the health benefits of jogging, and supposedly began the running craze. And then he died. Probably from running.
My husband convinced me. So as I dragged myself up off the blanket, I remembered how much I had hated gym class as a kid, and the main reason was I had to move my body.
So I made a deal with the sun. I silently said, in my head (because those kinds of deals are never spoken aloud), If you stay shining I’ll keep going, but the minute you hide behind a cloud I’m done.
Who was it who controlled the rays that day? Mr. Sol stayed bright, and I kept going. Long after my husband had quit, I kept running. When I huffingly returned to the blanket, he said with such enthusiasm, “Look at that! You’re a long-distance runner!”
I loved hearing that, but It was the hardest thing I had ever done physically (well actually, it was the only thing I had done physically, and it was the only hard thing I had ever done). But his words and my feeling of accomplishment were something brand-new for me, and what started me on this new and exciting life journey. I bought running shoes and shorts, and I started running every day — small amounts — but building until I reached my limit, at 3.8 miles.
I started running in races. I was slow, always rehearsing what I would say at the end if there were an interviewer asking how it felt to be last. I was never quite last, and it never got easy, but it always gave me the most satisfaction of anything I had ever done.
A few months after I began my morning ritual, my husband and I traveled to Greece. I was so afraid to stop this new habit that I brought all my paraphernalia with me, with the plan to continue my new discipline.
So there I was in Skiathos, a small, hilly island in the northwest Aegean Sea, waking up early every morning, putting on my little running shorts and my too-tight shirt and pushing myself out the door in the already blazing heat. The hills were killer, and the temperature oppressive. It was still the hardest thing I had ever done with my body.
There weren’t many tourists there then, and I started to realize, as I passed a few old women in their full-length black dresses standing in their doorways or sweeping their little patios, that they were stopping and staring.
No one waved, or said good morning or hello, or even smiled. Instead they looked baffled, very stern, almost angry. What I noticed after about five days of my repeat performances, huffing, puffing, and sweating, was that there seemed to be more of them in their doorways, stopping and staring.
My husband said, “Can you imagine what you must look like to them?” A crazy, probably, American running from what? Or to what? They had run from Persians, they had run from hunger, they had run from Alexander the Great. Maybe they even knew as early as 1971 that the longest, deepest economic recession was in their future, that austerity measures would lead to a small-scale humanitarian crisis, that riots and nationwide protests would tear the country apart.
Who knew what was going on in their minds? I know for sure they weren’t thinking this Mediterranean diet is good, but the baklava is getting out of hand. I need to lose a few pounds, so let’s meet up at one of the cool kafeneio, drink some high-octane liquid, do some warm-ups, a few sprints, and then circle the island.
Once my husband gave me that perspective on what I must look like to these old women, who it seemed were calling each other on their nonexistent cell phones to say, “Ya’ gotta see this,” I began to see, in their faces, their history, their struggles, their stories.
So not understanding that I was the epitome of the ugly American, instead of feeling badly that they weren’t saying, “Hi, you’re lookin’ great — keep going, girl,” I wish I had known a little bit about them so I could have smiled and thanked them for the effect the beauty, the best olive oil and feta I had ever had, and their sweet land was having on me.
But I didn’t know. All I knew was I thought it was too hot, and the slopes were too steep, and that running was too hard. That trip was one of the last things we did when our lives were free and easy. Shortly after our return home, our son got sick. And then very sick. And for the next 16 years, we struggled to stay emotionally and financially afloat.
It’s been ages since I thought running 3.8 miles was the hardest thing I’d ever do. I’m grateful that I learned that men and women are supposed to move their bodies.
But the important lesson I got since those innocent days is that, with a little bit of history under my belt, and a few of my own family tragedies, I have learned what “hard” really is.
And it has nothing to do with running.