How to be Widowed: The Running Edition

Invent A Coach

The dogs wake you up just after dawn and you stagger downstairs to let them out. Good dogs. You’re still recovering from the horse show, which included 3+ hours driving Friday, the hustle and bustle of the show, then the return trip Saturday, which didn’t take you home but to the barn to unload horses and clean up, all in a state of exhaustion. As you brew the coffee, it occurs to you, you have to run. You have to! You laugh. It’s as if you have a coach.

You don’t have a coach, but you have a therapist who is keen to see you running again, and George Sheehan’s advice sounds in your head–3 miles, 3 times a week (or maybe it was 4 times a week). That’s enough for basic fitness.

You think about your dad, reading the local newspaper and passing along Sheehan’s columns to you, back in the 70s, when Sheehan wasn’t so famous but just a local doctor with a running column in the local paper. Or maybe he was famous, but he was just our local guy. Your dad wasn’t a runner, but he appreciated this Irish Catholic from the city who moved to the suburbs and ran on his lunch hour. In many ways, they were fellow travelers.

Have a Mentor

After the first mile, you decide you’ll walk the next half mile. (See: horse show recovery.) You remember the condolence from a professional colleague, “Be gentle with yourself.” It’s funny advice to get from a woman who is so accomplished–in her personal life, as a mother, as a researcher and as a kick-butt advocate for others in the profession. You admired her when you were a grad student, then somehow she became a mentor, then a collaborator, and now a real friend. If an overachiever tells you to be gentle with yourself, you’ll be gentle with yourself.

Be Gentle But Don’t Stop!

At the 1.5 mile mark, you pause to stretch. This morning you had to lift daughter’s tack trunk out of the car by yourself so that you could get the dog into the car. It was heavy and unwieldy, and you felt a muscle pull in your side. Some mild stretching, here at the halfway point, feels good, but–oh my–the gnats! You’d been next to the river all this time and didn’t even notice them, even when you slowed down to walk. They only swarm when you stop. The dog–so loyal, so happy you’re running again, so privileged to be joining you–twitches. Time to move. You turn around and go.

Face Your Fears

Now you’re running on the wooded side of the path. At any moment a black snake can come slithering down the hill, through the underbrush, onto the path. You’re not afraid of the black snake, only of the surprise of it. But you’ve got the dog. She might see it first. Or she might get scared and then you’ll cast aside your fears to comfort her. You find yourself running again and not thinking of snakes anymore. If you avoided this part of the path because of the snakes, you’d miss out on the beauty of the woods and the welcome shade of the trees. This next mile feels pretty good. You kind of start to feel like a runner again, somewhere deep in your bones. There is no snake.

Be Generous But Don’t Be a Martyr

You leave the woods and pass the farm. The farm dog barks. You used to be afraid of loose dogs but one day you just kept running and you learned that she’s a nice dog. You consider stopping so the dogs can say hi, but you haven’t hit the mile marker yet. You pass the barking dog and finish your mile. You’ve learned the hard way that sometimes, you have to do what you want to do instead of dropping everything to make someone else happy. You know that this is self-care, not selfishness. You hit the mile marker and stretch a little. You see the farm dog walking toward you. You turn to greet her but she slinks away. She’s shy. So you and your dog turn to walk this last half mile. You peer over your shoulder and see her peeking around the corner of the fence. Another time, friend. There will be another time.

Cross That Bridge When You Get To It

You hit the final mile marker, making it three miles. It’s not the three miles that Sheehan was talking about, but you’ll get there. For now, you’ll just keep covering three miles, three times a week. At some point, the three miles will be all run, instead of this walk-run nonsense, and it will feel easy. You know this. Today wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but it felt right. In this new life of yours, feeling right is enough. You step on the bridge over the river to walk the last few hundred yards to the car. When you first moved here, this bridge seemed magical. Here you were, in town, and this bridge transported you past farmland, into the woods. You had the feeling it took you back in time. You used to hum “Ode to Billy Joe,” not because it felt ominous but because it felt like 1967 on this bridge. You remember discovering it with a husband and a baby and a toddler. So much magic. Nowadays, you’re a lot more accustomed to this bridge. Today, as you embark on this bridge that you’ve since been on hundreds of times–walking with dogs, cycling with kids, running with friends or alone, and on a daytime walk with husband about a month before he died. It really was a lovely spring that year and he seemed to be in such good health–you realize that the second rung of the bridge is the perfect height for you to grab onto, take a long step back and then streeeeetttch out that back. It was your side that you felt pull, but it’s the stretching of the back that really gets to it.

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