March 18, 2017
I love asking runners why they run. There’s always a personal backstory. Many have told me they were overweight and started running to be healthier. For others, it was a broken heart, a failed marriage or the death of parent.
There are lots of reasons why we run but usually there’s one pivotal reason – a challenge we’re facing in life that we confront through running.
For me, it’s my health. I grew up a sick kid, not terribly sick but asthma kept me from doing some normal things children do like play outside during lunch time or jog laps during P.E. My Mom says every time I ran, I’d end up in the hospital for two or three nights.
“When you were little, you never told me that your chest was hurting,” she says. “I would tell you if you can’t breathe but you never did. I had to watch you. The way you talk. You had to gasp for air.”
After a couple of years in-and-out of the hospital, we figured out that I was a severe and sensitive asthmatic. My attacks were easily triggered by exercise, particularly running and – basically, every natural pollen in the air that existed.
(I’ve once had a doctor tell me, “Don’t eat; don’t breathe and you’ll be just fine.”)
So, out of love and for the sake of my life, my Mom banned me from running. She posted bright “NO SMOKING” signs inside our living room so guests would know to step outside or else pay for the hospital bill after their visit. When kids went to P.E. class at school, I went to the library and wrote reports for the coaches about football and soccer regulations.
I hated it. But I learned to live without sports that required running. I became a cheerleader, ha! I went like this until my junior year in high school when my best friend Erica asked me to try out for the soccer team with her. She didn’t want to go alone. I thought, what the heck. It’s just one day after school.
I ran my first mile that day. I remember it so well because it hurt so bad.
“Two more to go,” I told myself.
My eyes followed my chin, which was pointed down at the faded, gravel running track that smelled like chalk. The high school custodian did his best to maintain the balding soccer field. Typically, pesky pebbles would sneak into your shoes but I wasn’t moving fast enough for that.
Ahead of me, two girls sauntered in the outer lanes chit-chatting in Spanish. I didn’t recognize the voices from any of my advanced classes.
“If they’re walking, you shouldn’t be,” I thought.
The cool air was damp enough to work out in a sweatshirt on a Texas afternoon but the heat of embarrassment preserved the tint in my cheeks the way a stove burner glows orange moments after being switched off.
Suddenly, Erica leapt in front of me. She pranced on her tip-toes moving backwards in what seemed to be double time.
“Come on,” she said. “You can do it. Just two more to go.”
I gave her a puff of hot breath. If my lungs had not been burning, I would have crowed, “This wasn’t my idea.” I had no desire to try out for the soccer team. I wasn’t a school athlete. I didn’t play sports.
I lunged my weighty legs into a jog that eventually satisfied her. She ran off to finish her final lap and join the other girls as they waited for imposters like me who couldn’t finish a mile.
Surprisingly – and still today, I’m unsure why – I returned the next day. And the next. And since then, I’ve run thousands of first miles. Slow ones. Fast ones but never incomplete ones.
I didn’t know it back then, but I realize now that I run because for a long time I couldn’t.