I was once a runner.
I wasn’t always. I took it up after I left NYU in 1995. I’d been teaching myself to cook at college, and turning out to be unfortunately, deliciously good at it, so the second half of my sophomore year, I set myself once again on on the downward spin of my customary yo-yo diet.
Up to that point, I had never really been athletic at all. I hated team sports growing up – disliked competition because I’d always been a bit too emotionally sensitive to deal with losing. Because of that, I tended to work out alone, choosing bike rides, power walking, and aerobics tapes, all of which I know I thought burned more calories than they actually did. But at age 20, I decided I wanted to get into better shape than I’d ever been in, and to that end, running – something I’d never been at all good at – felt suitably hardcore. Growing up, I’d always been at least the next-to-last to finish the 600-yard-run, huffing and puffing and trailing along way in the back with any heavyset classmates. I’d only run a mile without stopping one time, despite the much dreaded Wednesday Mile in my high school P.E. class, so I set that as my first goal.
Back at home in the leafy planned community I grew up in in Northern Virginia, there were miles of trails stretching out through the woods in every direction. I’d always loved being alone with my thoughts in the woods, and more of that as part of my new commitment to fitness, in my mind, sure beat the idea of endless circles on a shadeless, baking track on a humid Mid-Atlantic summer day. I started on the trails I’d always used, and as I upped my distance, branched into other neighborhoods, and then further afield.
I soon took to running at Burke Lake, the nearest large park, which has an almost-five-mile circuit through the woods along the lake’s shoreline. I’d run as much as I could of the first mile, walk a bit, run a bit more, walk a bit more. Each day I’d mark down on my calendar how fast I’d finished the trail, and gradually the number started creeping downward.
The first time I ran the whole 4.83 miles without stopping, I circled back into the parking lot to find a huge flock of geese milling around. I raised my hands above my head in triumph and jogged through the goosey crowd, feeling as if my personal accomplishment had been granted the reward of a reasonably receptive audience, even if they were a bit more prone to pooping in public than your average race spectators.
Once I’d gotten my endurance to the point that I manage the lake trail without trouble, I discovered that I truly loved to run, and that I could keep putting one foot in front of the other for seven or ten miles if I wanted to. I wasn’t fast, and I didn’t suddenly develop the competitive streak I’d never had, but running became my favorite form of exercise. I loved its repetitive, meditative nature and the time it gave me to turn problems over in my mind.
I came to know the lake trail like the back of my hand. I’d start from the parking lot near the dam, kicking things off with a sharply winding downhill, crossing the dam’s asphalted width in full sun, then diving into the packed dirt and shade of the main trail. I psyched myself up for climbs and sprayed loose gravel on their downhill sides. Month by month, I watched the seasons change in the woods. I looked for new wildflowers along the trail – bluets and violets in the spring, crown vetch in the height of summer – and noted the date of each find in my Audubon guide at home. The time I spotted a cluster of otherworldly Pink Lady’s Slippers in the forest understory, or when I came face to face with a tiny dappled fawn sitting alone in a trailside clearing, were red-letter days that fed my soul.
I definitely achieved my goal of getting in the best shape I’d ever been in. I ran a pretty solid 25 to 30 miles a week for a while. Sometimes back then, instead of taking the car, I’d ride my bike the 4.5 miles to the lake, run the trail, and ride home. Having so much more endurance made me feel at times like a totally different person than I’d been before I started running, and boosted both my confidence and my happiness.
I stuck with the running pretty well for a year or so, but taking a management job at Whole Foods started eating into my running time the next year, and at the same time I was running out of patience with the carrots-and-nothing diet required to keep my weight as low as I’d gotten it. The year after that, Chimp and I moved in together in a closer-in suburb, and I started working mostly mornings. All of that conspired to make it tougher to get to the lake, and I said a mostly-goodbye to it and a more permanent one when we moved to Michigan in 2000.
Kalamazoo, I found to my dismay, didn’t have a park system like Northern Virginia’s. Not many places do. Besides that, it was tough to get any miles at all in outdoors half the year without crampons and a snowsuit, so two years later, I bought a treadmill to use during the frigid winters. It was just as helpful when we moved to Fresno in 2003, at the other climactic extreme.
Lacking Burke Lake but having a treadmill, my usual habit, six days a week, was to get up in the pre-dawn darkness, shut the door to the room where the machine was, strap on my sneakers, point a fan at my back, turn on the music, and pound out a quick three miles before getting ready for the day.
And then I got sick.
Some people I know with ME/CFS talk about how they had to scale back their workouts, or how their recovery time got longer, or how they have had to drop aerobic exercise but can still lift weights a little. Not me. I was instantly unable to exercise at all. My stamina dropped like a stone and never recovered. A few months into my illness, I turned on the treadmill and climbed on, determined to do something. I walked my last mile on it at the absolutely glacial pace of 25 minutes.
A couple months later, I remember being at a trade show for work, and feeling a sort of dazed amazement at watching people walk around the huge convention hall without any difficulty. They could just start walking, and walk for as long as it took to get from point A to point B. It’d only been a matter of months since I’d lost that ability, but it already felt like I was observing an alien race.
The sicker I got, the shorter the distance I could walk. It went from blocks to a block to maybe around a store to across the room, and then I couldn’t walk at all. I spent more than a year like that from late 2007 to early 2009, totally bedbound, unable to get up and walk across the room for any reason. Couldn’t have saved myself if the house was on fire. It was the worst sort of misery, being totally helpless, totally bored, a prisoner of my own body. And I know eventually, someday, it’ll probably be back.
But since 2009, my mobility has been improving, and this year it’s better than it’s been since 2007. For a long time my gait was very tottery because of the muscle wasting caused by my years lying in bed – more like swinging from point to point on stilts than actually walking. But I’ve been doing enough of it that it’s starting to look more like walking. I’m able to go farther now, and my balance is improved. I wouldn’t say my calf muscles look normal, but they look perceptibly better.
This spring I started tending my deck railing garden outside my dayroom myself, and then when the snap peas that Chimp planted came up, I was able to step off the deck and harvest them. Within the last week, on several days I’ve struck out for the squash plants along the fence to bring in their yield, and have been sort of half-surprised to find myself out that far, and then half-surprised again to successfully navigate the incline to get back to the house.
The other night, I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing a bowl of cherries while gazing idly out the window at the gathering dusk. A fit young woman came powering up the steep incline of the street our house sits on, attacking the hill with determination. I watched her shirt swing around her as she pumped her arms to pull herself up the grade, and felt a pang of sadness. I used to be that woman, I thought.
I looked at the cherries in my hands and remembered the years I couldn’t have helped myself to them. I smiled to myself, turned around, and relished the 20-foot walk back to my dayroom.