Learning to be a Runner


heather caliri -learning to be a runner-3

Last night, I told my husband I was going for a walk. I put on my athleisure shoes and set out into the darkness of our street. When I got to the corner, I paused for a moment and then—feeling a little ridiculous—I started to jog.

I’m not a runner. I ran in high school for PE, and then felt relieved when teachers stopped demanding I circle a track.

But at the same time, I admire runners—the solitary dedication, the strength, the perseverance. I’m a sucker for a challenge. And also: runner’s high.

So one summer not long after I got married, I decided to try. I ran every day for six weeks, gradually increasing the amount I could go without stopping. I tried to be gentle. I tried to be faithful.

Though I felt pleased by my perseverance, I was taken aback by how hard it still felt to barely go a mile. Also, I could tell the practice was hard on my body—my joints, especially an old knee injury, felt irritated.

At the end of those six weeks, my husband decided to go with me. He played soccer growing up, but had not run regularly since high school. After half a block, he asked if it was okay if he went ahead, and then he proceeded to power through the entire course I’d been struggling to work up to. He ran about twice as fast as I did, with half as much puffing.

I had to ask myself: if running is this hard, and it doesn’t feel so great, is this the best form of exercise for me?

I stopped, a little relieved.

But you know, I didn’t stop admiring runners. My writing buddy friend Rachel runs regularly. My friend Derek told me how much he enjoyed training for a 5k. And last summer, I realized I missed the feeling I had in high school, when I was training to be a dancer. A feeling that I could ask almost anything of my body and do it.

Of course, “anything” means something radically different now that I’m forty instead of 16. Still, though, I wanted to push myself in a way I haven’t really wanted to for a long time.

I used to tell myself I was not-a-runner, and lately I have begin to question why I am not, if the idea attracts me?

Since I was small, I have set up rules to protect myself. Rules to stay safe. Rules about what I liked and didn’t. Rules about how to avoid harm.

Rules about who I am.

I am not a runner, I tell myself.

I don’t take risks.

I don’t wear loud jewelry.

I’m not the artist in the family.

I had a bad experience with that once—I don’t need to try again.

I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. My kids need my attention.

Rules have saved my life. I have set boundaries on my emotional and physical output and realized that being busy all the time or endlessly trying new challenges wrings me out. I have said no to overblown expectations and exceeding my bandwidth. I defaulted to no.

And then those same rules began to feel like walls. Rules keep me sane and also keep me small.

A few years ago, I walked through an incredibly hard experience. I spoke up about past abuse and set hard boundaries. And during that time, I had so little bandwidth for anything else. I stopped wearing makeup and jewelry and going out and saying yes. It was as if I took to living in one room of my house, all the doors and windows closed. I didn’t have energy to leave that room. I accepted the limitations gladly for my own sanity.

And then I came through that crisis and for a while, still kept to that one room.

With each day that passes, I open up another door I assumed needed to stay shut and realize: no—I want to inhabit this part of my life again.

I have started going outside of that house that served to shelter me and keep me safe, and you know what? The sun is shining. I don’t have to stay locked inside anymore.

All that door-closing served a purpose, until it did not.

And I have started thinking about the lean, impossibly strong legs of a runner and when I go out for walks it feels like I want to go faster. I want my heart to pound more. I want to get out of breath and feel sore the next day.

I am not a runner. And right now, I want to be one.

And what’s awesome is—I can claim that, today, just by going outside and starting to jog.

I have realized that after years of calling myself not-an-artist, the fact that I make art gives me that title automatically. I have realized that after years of calling myself not-an-author because I have not traditionally published, I can claim a title because it’s what I do each day.

And after years of knowing, so fiercely, that I was not-a-runner I can go out in my neighborhood in jeans and inadequate shoes and run just for the hell of it. I can do it because it feels like the next right thing. I can do it to celebrate all the crazy possibilities before me. I can claim running for however long it feels right, and stop if my knee acts up again. I can run just for the hell of it.

I spent years protecting myself, sheltering myself, and now that I feel safe, I realized I am ready to sprint.

I am ready to pick up any name and practice that enlarges my heart. I am ready to be surprised by where yearning takes me.