Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Basic Training, Here I Come — Although My Stay Promises To Be Brief (and Memorable)

I was once a semi-serious distance runner. Nothing at the marathon level, but I could (and regularly did) comfortably run about 8 miles at a time. I used to look forward to it beforehand and feel incomparably empowered during and immediately afterwards. There was one year in my past when the running was all I really had going for me.

Then it rained on one of the days I was planning to hit the trail, so I didn’t go. The next week, I was too tired. The next week, I had people in town and I convinced myself (beyond a seemingly reasonable doubt) that I couldn’t be an absentee hostess - so the running shoes stayed in the closet. The next week I got my period. The next week I had a headache.

After about 2 years of these brilliant excuses, I’ve recently pulled the running shoes out from the back of the closet and back onto my feet. I’m not in the same kind of shape I once was, so my old ways and means have been taken down a few notches. But, once a week, I’ve been purposefully running 3 miles around the track in my neighborhood park.

The other day I was back in business, cruising along. When I was on my 8th or 9th lap, I heard some yelling interspersed with loud singing (a halfway decent rendition of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”) coming from across the way. The source of the commotion was a down-and-out-looking woman, stumbling across the field that was in the middle of the track. We fist-bumped each other when I ran by her for the first time. “You go, girl,” she said with a solemn conviction.

Every time I approached her side of the track, she leapt up from her bench and enthusiastically clapped, while shouting out a stream of encouraging comments. The second time I passed her station, it got better: “Great job. You could have been in the Marines, like I was.” I started laughing. “No, I’m serious,” she fervently maintained.

This Marines thing pleased me. I don’t know if she could have said anything more flattering than that. Not that I have any interest in enlisting – my attitude and I wouldn’t last an hour in the military. And at the end of that hour, it would be a dishonorable discharge for the books. But there I was, privately feeling like a loser because all I can handle anymore is 3 miles on a flat, boring track instead of the 6-mile, hilly, and challenging path around Central Park that I used to dominate – and I’ve got the best sidelines fan on the planet insisting that I’m all warrior, nothing but. Flo Jo never had it so good.

“That’s a lot of laps,” she kept saying, with a genuinely amazed expression on her face. “Really, it’s been a lot. I’ve been watching you.” Was she kidding? From where had she been watching, and for how long? She only formally entered this section of the park not even 5 minutes earlier, when I had already been running for about 20 minutes.

In spite of the beautiful compliments, I nearly sprinted the final few laps, just so I could finish my 3 miles and get the hell away from her and whatever she might have been capable of doing as soon as possible. Although she repeatedly told me that she “had [my] back,” I wasn’t going to count on it. For all I knew, she was suddenly going to whip out a paring knife and show me the really dark side of Marines hazing culture – the kind of stuff that the Defense Department and even the alternative media are blissfully ignorant of. She was also toting around a kickball – an object I hadn’t seen up close since my miserable 8th grade gym class. At one point, she implied that the two of us should strike up a game.

At first I was thoroughly annoyed with her, then a little scared, and then more than a little appreciative. She was clearly unbalanced and probably laced up on some seriously illicit shit. But so are a lot of people who loiter on public benches in this town. And she chose to yell out words of kindness and support instead of the vitriol or lewdness that many others in her straits have been known to spew. She made me feel as though I was accomplishing something. Which I was. I’ve been away from running for more than 2 years, and getting back into this high-intensity routine is a struggle that’s not nearly as easy as getting back onto a bike.

“Happy Palm Sunday and Happy Easter. God bless you and your family,” she said the last time I passed her. I absolutely hate when complete strangers automatically assume that I’m a practicing Christian or any kind of a God-fearer. But, after our time together, I didn’t mind it so much coming from her - this one-woman cheering section no longer felt like just any stranger. I also thought it was very nice of her to include my non-present family in the benediction.

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