Sunday, March 13, 2016

muscle memory

"What is your pace?" The guy at the running shoe store asked. I was to get on a treadmill and run so he could film my feet, analyze my gait, and suggest the best shoe for my running style. He wanted to know at what speed he should set the treadmill. I gave him a number. He pressed one button and then another.

"You can start whenever you're ready."

It had been awhile since I touched a treadmill. Treadmill running is different than solid-ground running, I remembered immediately. I felt unsteady. I didn't think it was likely that my feet were doing what they usually do. My earrings were bouncing. My jeans felt tight around my knees. I wasn't planning to do this.

After a minute I got off the treadmill. It was not a graceful exit but I managed not to embarrass myself. I went over to the computer screen with the sales guy and he played the clip. I saw my calves and my ankles, the backs of my heels, my sock just above the rim of the demo shoe I was wearing.

He slowed the speed of the video to point out that I strike with my mid foot. I don't display notable pronation. My gait is typical. He left the screen on, my feet frozen in mid air, and he stepped into the back room to retrieve a few pairs of shoes for me to try.

It was odd to see my feet from behind like that. To watch myself moving from an angle we see other people all the time but never ourselves. It was like looking at a stranger except I recognized the way my knees turned in. The foot-plant was familiar. I watched my ankles absorb impact and rebound in response, and it was like seeing a muscle memory. A physical perspective on something that's only ever been internal.


It's 60 degrees on a Saturday in February. The sidewalks are choked with people and puddles. I'm driving in my car and see a girl jogging. She's wearing short sleeves and headphones and her ponytail swings in rhythm with her step.

I see her and something pulls in me. It's an old feeling and I'd almost forgotten about it.

I can't wait to go running.

In high school, running was my "thing." It identified me. Distance runner. Cross country runner. Miler. Two-miler. I had a letter jacket covered in metals that clanked when I walked. I was mighty proud to wear it.

I liked being part of the team. I liked performing well. And I did like running itself but my favorite part was stopping. Not just because I was done (though that was a part of it, too), but more because of the intense feeling of total body relief:

     Like swimming against the current
         and suddenly deciding to float belly up
              and let it take you.
       Like feeling the adrenaline rush
            of a house-shaking crack of thunder,
                    then settling back into your pillow
                         with the vibrations still
                                  breaking through the air.

I loved that.

But then there were all the years of pregnancies and young children and sleep deprivation, and I lost running. In order to hang onto it, I would have had to choose it over anything else that filled me. It was too fast. Too desperate. Too hard. It hurt too much. Any time I tried to take it back, claim it again as mine, the excuses would derail me. It was chaos in my body, and it was not the right thing to balance the chaos in my head. I couldn't love it.

But with my youngest daughter about to turn four, it's true that the demands on me have shifted. I sleep all night (usually). My oldest kid can babysit for run-length periods of time. My lap is often empty. No one needs me in an all-consuming way anymore.  There's more space in my head and all around me.

And I've been doing strength workouts for a number of months now, and I'm definitely stronger. Way stronger. And I think that's the extra edge I needed to start running again.


Coming up the hill at the end of my run today, my lungs were burning. I pushed off my toes and felt the muscles deep in my low belly firing. It was hard. Part of me wanted to stop. And I could have -- I don' t have to do this. I'm not even training for a race. But I am strong enough now that my muscles remember how to square shoulders over hips, support my chest up high, and run straight through the excuses.

And when I did stop at the top of the hill, I had that old ache in the back of my throat from pushing hard and my rib cage hurt from expanding wide enough to give my lungs the space they needed and I could see my heartbeat in my eyes and I smiled at the sky because -- this. I missed this. I missed this and then forgot that I missed it until liking it at all was buried under an entire decade.

I'm starting to remember, and like is blooming around the edges of running for me again.