My Running Marriage

I always loved running…
it was something you could do by yourself,
and under your own power.
You could go in any direction,
fast or slow as you wanted,
fighting the wind if you felt like it,
seeking out new sights
just on the strength of your feet
and the courage of your lungs.
-Jesse Owens

Well, I cannot say that I have always loved running.  After all, I have been involved with the sport on various levels for forty years. And like all committed relationships, we have had our ups and downs. Because I started running when I was just eleven years old, I really didn’t know what I was getting into-much like a very young bride!  My father was  a very enthusiastic runner of five years when he encouraged my brother and I to enter the sport. I  think that he saw the positive opportunities that running had offered him and wanted the same for us. Also, the early seventies was an especially heady time for young girls and women to participate in races. The support for us was very strong despite the infamous photograph of  Jock Semple’s attempt to pull Kathryn Switzer from the Boston Marathon!

I suppose you could call the beginning phase of my running marriage the “honeymoon period.” At the time, I ran with lots of boys as there were no girl teams during my preteen years. The playing field was equal because many of us were first time runners. There was only one other girl (that I recall) who joined the group and we became fast friends. We ran together every day and the two of us would go on to join future teams as we approached our high school years. In fact, the very first running club that we joined had its own women’s team. I remember being amazed at the ages of some of the women on the team- could women over 30 or even 40 really run?  Weren’t they too old? I believe that these women were the true pioneers of the sport, having entered it later in life as  wives and mothers. Women whose own generation had little or no access to organized sports as young girls.

My teenage years were by far the most intense running period, no doubt. This is just like the first few years of a marriage, really. The honeymoon is over and it becomes time to settle in and get serious. So, I ran every day, logging in 50-70 miles per week  and participating on two teams-one at my high school and one AAU women’s team. (By then,My friend and I had gone on to join a nationally ranked women’s cross country and track and field team.) Also, about half way through high school, our town had finally allowed a separate girls team to participate in league meets. Running on both teams was exceptional-each had a unique running culture. By the time the high school team was formed, I had already gained a reputation as a serious runner, both for running with the boys and also for the fact that I completed a marathon at 14 years old!  Much was expected of me in terms of performance and leadership skills. Also, I had to get used to a different coach as my dad was (and always will be) my first and best coach.

The AAU team was a different entity altogether. There was a core group of girls who were the elite runners. They were highly talented and able to compete and consistently win on the regional and national level. (Eventually the international level as well- one of them won the first women’s Olympic Marathon). It was a privilege to be a part of the team as it allowed for opportunities to travel all over the Northeast region with a van full of like-minded girls and their very dedicated coach.  These were the days before walkmans and ipods so we would often blast music on the van’s radio; we listened to Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run), Queen and other big rock groups from that era. It was a thrill to travel to New York City and compete in the country’s first Bonne Bell 10k in Central Park. Women and girls were IT- Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” was playing loud and proud before the gun went off.  As a result of running with the team, I became a better runner because I was  running with faster women. My hard work paid off and, at 16, I was able to go with the team  to the nationals in California. Eventually, my efforts caught the eye of a college coach as well. Because I was a scholarly student as well as a devoted runner, I was given the chance to apply and subsequently be accepted to an excellent university.

And that’s when things began to shift for me. Sure, I went off to college and joined the requisite team, going to practices, running in races, eating and socializing only with runners. But it started to feel old and stale and repetitive. I was hopelessly distracted by a boy ( a runner like me, but a senior with a reputation as a bad boy) and frankly, I wanted to party on a Friday night and not get up early for practice or a race! By the time I was a sophomore, I was done competing- burned out and physically a mess. All the mileage I had put in as developing teenager had resulted in a painful, degenerative disk in my back. Looking back, as much as it spiritually pained me to leave the sport, I knew that I needed a break.

I suppose you can liken this period to a major transformation in a marriage (illness or the addition of children, for example). How do relate to one another as a result of this major alteration? At first, it was simple: very little exercise as I explored other avenues of interests and friends. Then upon graduation, I cycled a bit and walked everywhere. Still, the nagging back issue persisted to the point where I literally could not move. I have a vivid memory of trying to board a bus so I could go vote and being unable to step up. I was just 23 years old and felt 90!  Luckily, a chiropractor lived in my neighborhood and with his help, I began a very long journey to healing.

Essentially, my twenties came and went without any attention to running at all. I kept in shape by walking, riding a stationary bike and doing occasional weight lifting.  I got married and by the time I was 32, I had given birth to two babies. My back held up during the two pregnancies and subsequent births of two very big boys ( especially #2!!) Plus, I was doing aerobics regularly and pushing a carriage everywhere I went. It was at this point that my then husband encouraged me to start running again.  Coincidentally, this was the same age that my father began his running career! So, I gave it a shot- at first doing the walk/run thing and then eventually working up to Saturday morning runs with other busy moms.

My thirties were certainly the “comeback” period of running for me. I felt a renewed sense of commitment but on different terms than before. I was a grown woman who was able to make her own decisions about where, when and how far she wanted to run. Running was a choice and not the chore that it had become nearly a decade earlier. Eventually, at 38, I competed in a half-marathon. During the training, I never felt lonely and, in truth, felt a great sense of freedom and renewal during those times. I also spent time running with my father again. It was a terrific- we were both adults and our runs were filled with long conversations. I fell in love with running again!

By the time I reached 40, I was learning to balance running with the other parts of my life. When I had the opportunity to return to work full time, carving out a running schedule was a priority. My dedication to the sport was unyielding. I arose before dawn and would run despite the cold and darkness. I learned to be alert for wildlife and was awed each morning watching the sun rise as I finished the last mile. I was not the competitor that I was once was-only entering races sporadically throughout the year. Instead, running took on a different face-becoming my solace, stress reliever and saving grace.

Running in many ways was like taking medication. When my husband wanted a divorce when I was 46, running kept me steady and sane (or as sane as one could be during that upheaval!). I was also in graduate school, working and raising teenage boys at the time. Running cleared my head, organized my thoughts and made me more productive. By the time my forties ended, I had successfully completed graduate school (4.0!), gone through the divorce process, fell in love again and trained for and competed in a half-marathon!

So here I am, happily in my early fifties having caught the half-marathon bug.  The training schedule is not grueling and the race distance is just right for me.  I try to enter two races per year if I can. One of the best parts of the preparation is knowing that I will be running with the man I love. Our connection with one another has helped me to continuously strengthen my commitment to the sport. It is a heart warming feeling knowing that another person is there to support and guide you through the good days and bad days. He helps me keep it real-pushing me when I need it and helping me back off -especially when I am injured.

One thing that I have learned in this long term marriage is the value of patience. Too many times when I was young, I didn’t allow myself to think about what I was doing during races or practices. My body was in the game but not my head.
I didn’t think about how I was feeling and then when I did, I wanted to run from it.  I was tired of the effort. How many of you go through similar feelings in relationships? It is easy to throw in the towel and go on to something else. I think what I was experiencing during that time was a need for a separation. As I said earlier, it hurt me emotionally to leave. But the break was necessary in order for me to begin my journey back. It was the first step in learning to be patient with myself and with the sport. I needed to come back on my own terms in order to create a deeper and lasting relationship. Also, it is  a relationship that allows for balance. Now I supplement running with hot yoga and three days of strength training.  They enhance my practice and at times substitute for it.

Any healthy relationship is one in which you use your heart and your head. Runners do not always use the latter (or else they let it get in the way but it is the same idea). We suffer from a burning desire to move; we want to see how far our legs and feet will take us. As long as we are not running from something it’s okay. Run to please yourself. Run because you find joy in the going. Run with others. Then you’ll know that your heart is in the right place!

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4 thoughts on “My Running Marriage

  1. Emily O'Hara

    Running is an integral part of my life, too. I began running in my early 20’s just to keep fit and move. It became the way to start my day. I use that time to reflect, pray, problem-solve, brainstorm… It was years before I considered myself a runner because I ran for my own pleasure rather than competitively. I occasionally run competitively and love that runners are so supportive of other runners. Really we are competing with ourselves. There is a camaraderie among runners. Kindred spirits. I am happy to be a runner.

    1. Well said my friend! Whether we are old or new to the sport, at some point we realize that running becomes a part of our souls. Running is the great equalizer; it requires no special talent. Just the ability to put one foot in front of the other and the desire to better oneself.

  2. Wow, the Bonne Belle 10k. I was on Cross Country in the late ’70s. We practiced with the boys. It was a different time for women’s running. Like you, my 20’s was devoted to everyone else. Running came back in my 30’s like meeting my high school love at a reunion. I wrote an article for our running group called A Relationship of a Lifetime. It is the one I’ve sustained. Lol. Great read.

    1. And isn’t freeing to devote a part of your life to this sport?
      Running has helped me in so many ways. But you are amazing! Ultra distance! How do you do it? And thanks for following me! Getting ready now for my early morning excursion before work…

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