'Night Running' excerpt: Beginner's mind

[Editor's note: This essay is excerpted with permission from "Night Running: A Book of Essays About Breaking Through," published this month by Wellstone Books, the publishing arm of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, a California writers' retreat center, which has also published "A Book of Walks" by Bruce Bochy and "Kiss the Sky" by Dusty Baker. If you have a night running story of your own and want to contribute to Night Running 2, due out in 2017, send in your story ideas.]

I learned to hate running in a place I otherwise loved: The steep, curving road in suburban Westchester County, New York, where I lived until I was twelve. From the top of that road, I could see across the Hudson River to the very northern end of the Palisades. The profile of those distant hills above a slice of silvery water is as much a part of me as my fingerprints, so I was only mildly surprised when I found out years later that the view included the promontory called High Tor, where my parents went for a picnic the day I was conceived.

We moved into a new two-story colonial at the base of the hill with the wave of other Baby Boom families sweeping into the neighborhood. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, the school bus stopped a few houses away on the flat end of the street. After I graduated to middle school, the stop shifted to the top of the hill. I often was, as I often am now, a few minutes behind schedule, and there was no worse sight than the bright yellow front end of the bus pulling up when I still had half the climb to go.

In my memory, the driver was usually busy watching the kids clambering in on the opposite side and rarely saw me flailing uphill on my stubby legs with my book bag bouncing on my shoulder. My throat and chest would tighten and my lungs would fill shallowly and then empty again with a wheeze like the little bellows we kept on the fireplace. When I didn't make it in time, I faced a two-mile walk to school, the shame of having to stop in the office for a late slip, and the sight of all heads swiveling toward me when I knocked on the classroom door.

I hated running. It made me feel incompetent. Most physical activity did. My mother had noted in my baby book the fact that my left foot flared out slightly (it still does) and the pediatrician's prediction that I would be five-foot-four. As a child, I read those words in her neat cursive hand as if they were runes. I was a dreamy nerd who could conquer almost anything in the classroom but felt doomed to be small and slow and clumsy and near-sighted. I had skipped into first grade halfway through kindergarten, opening up an age gap that accentuated those deficiencies. I was afraid to break my cat-eye glasses. I felt the sting of charity when I was the last one picked for kickball. I couldn't do a single sit-up for the President's Physical Fitness Test when all around me kids were pumping up and down like machines.

The only place I felt at home in my body was in the water. I can't remember learning to swim. I just always knew how. I was never fearful, and I could handle a lot of yardage. Passing the tests at summer camp came easily to me: Tadpole, Frog, Junior Lifesaver. I swam for the neighborhood club and loved folding double up on the blocks and extending myself into the racing dive. I loved our trips to Jones Beach, where I spent the day diving into the waves and bodysurfing back. Afterward, my bathing suit was always packed with a thick second skin of sand that fell to the ground in chunks when I changed.

Swimming made me weightless and evened out my weaknesses, even though I couldn't see a thing when I took off my glasses. I won the one and only athletic first place of my life the summer I turned twelve in a dual meet against Bedford Golf and Tennis. I went out way too fast in the fifty-yard butterfly and swallowed a lot of water on the back twenty-five, but I heaved my shoulders forward one last time and touched out the girl in the next lane. I can still feel the incredulous smile spreading across my face. The spectators sitting on the grassy slope above the pool looked stunned; they were used to thinking of me as the Kid Who Couldn't.

When I got a little older, I found reasons to run very short distances. I began wearing contact lenses and discovered I could hold my own in stop-and-start sports like basketball and tennis. I cultivated skills that didn't require a great first step. I was a scrappy defensive two-guard with a decent fifteen-foot jumper. I could nail a two-handed backhand down the line. I was a good-field, no-hit sparkplug softball player. Left unguarded in Ultimate Frisbee, I would lurk downfield and relay the occasional bomb pass.

But even a little bit of running often hurt a lot. I was plagued by patellar tendinitis and sprained ankles. After I got out of college, I swore I'd never do it again. My stock line to people was that I couldn't run a mile to save my life. I really believed that.

As a sportswriter, I am usually assigned to cover elite athletes, and that is why I had never watched a mass road race finish before the November day I stood in Central Park mesmerized by the sight of amateur runners finishing the 2001 New York City Marathon held two months after 9/11. It was the most magnificent sporting event I'd ever witnessed, a city reasserting itself, the streets flowing with people three and five and eight abreast, running out of defiance and relief and accomplishment, upstaging the still-fresh footage of people fleeing Ground Zero in terror, covered with ash. They streamed by, limping, dancing, in costume, in uniform, in remembrance, in celebration.

I watched, suffused with emotion, and took notes for my column, phrases I hoped would sum up the epic theme before me. But nagging, mundane, selfish thoughts kept darting through my head.

Some of these people are fat! That woman has to be twenty years older than me! That guy is barely lifting his feet! How can these people run 26.2 miles when I can't run a city block?

My job enables me to tap into the fascinating and often freakishly outsized psyches of high-level athletes who burn to win. I've made a living trying to understand their desire and discipline, their failed and successful comebacks, their best impulses and their darker ones, why some choke and others are clutch. Cumulative observation has given me some authority on these matters, but the increment that separates truly extraordinary athletes from the merely excellent remains largely mysterious to me, which is probably what keeps it interesting.

I write about people who make their bodies obey their brains, something I was convinced could never happen for me with my blocked synapses and flat feet. So I got out of the habit of pushing. I'd reach the maximum heart rate listed on whatever machine I happened to be grinding away on - the NordicTrack, the StairMaster, an endless series of recumbent bikes - and back off. I measured my satisfaction by calories burned, laps swum, the digital display on the scale. I dismissed the idea that a PR would ever mean anything to me. I didn't aspire to be in a zone, or out of my comfort zone. It was enough to be mediocre and fit. I drove myself hard enough in other ways.

That day at the NYC Marathon in November 2001 was the first time I'd ever questioned my inability to run. It would take another decade and another tribute to act on it. In those ten years I moved from the city to the suburbs, leaving behind urban bike errands and in-line skating for narrow, unsafe roads and a gym membership. I started a freelance business that kept me at my desk many more hours, got married, was hired by ESPN, traveled more than I ever had. My metabolism slowed and sputtered. My weight, stable since college, crept up a couple pounds a year. What I'd always done wasn't working any more.

Then I started doing interviews for a story about the 2011 New York City Marathon. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the survivors of passengers on Flight 93 - the hijacked jet that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, detoured by brave civilians determined to abort a suicide mission - had decided to run as a group. I spoke to them on the phone and in their homes in Manhattan and New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some were already dedicated runners. Many were not. One, the sister-in-law of Jeremy Glick, fell off a treadmill on her first try. Another had crippling knee pain and plantar fasciitis. Several told me they were following a graduated plan, an extended version of couch-to-5K that they downloaded from the Internet.

I stood beyond the finish line and waited for my story subjects. The full range of humanity paraded by in the meantime. A man sagged against the barrier near me and vomited. Two women raised their clasped hands as they passed under the finish banner. All of the Flight 93 runners I'd interviewed made it, some limping in after dusk fell.

I was fond of telling journalism students that elite athletes are wired differently from the rest of us, but these survivors were people like me, other than their horrific and very public losses. My old questions resurfaced, baitfish nibbling my ankles when I swam: How can all these people run that far when I can't jog longer than thirty seconds? I've reinvented myself professionally and personally several times, so why am I afraid to do this?

I didn't have to be that kid straining and gasping up the hill, willing the bus not to pull away, fighting tears, embarrassed. No one was watching. I wanted to be able to run a mile. Then I'd see.

I started in September on the deserted soccer fields in my neighborhood, running down the out-of-bounds line for a minute, then ninety seconds, then around the perimeter, counting the steps hyperconsciously, fighting my inner-child feelings of foolishness. At our family home in rural Maryland, I walked down the 250-yard gravel driveway to the road and ran back up the stripe of dirt and grass in the middle and then repeated, feeling the slight incline, stopping for water often in the lingering heat of early fall.

I feared running on asphalt, feared getting hurt and losing my resolve and momentum. My knees held up - I told myself they were twenty years younger than my biological age, since I'd spared them until now - but my shins balked and ached. I babied myself with heating pads and ice after every little workout.

Soon enough, the weather got colder and I moved inside and began running at night, on the indoor track at my gym. It was slightly banked, with a good springy surface, one-fifth of a mile, and encircled a cluster of tennis courts in the middle. These were ringed by rubber curtains so I couldn't see the other side of the track and think about how far away it was. That was key.

I am the antithesis of a morning person, and working out late always made sense to me - un-kinking from a long day at my desk, working through a reporting or writing problem in the pool or on the elliptical machine. I soon began to recognize regulars in the small group of night runners. There were women or couples who power-walked side by side, a boy who ran with his father. There were high school and college students who floated by, moving fluidly, their swinging ponytails and the backs of their calves taunting me as they disappeared around the curve. I felt envy that bordered on anger: It had never been that easy for me.

The most distinctive regular was an older man who wore a back brace and what looked like ankle weights. He leaned awkwardly forward as he trundled along and appeared to my unpracticed eye as if he were doing absolutely everything wrong. But in a paradigm by now very familiar to me, he could run a lot farther than I could. At random intervals he let out a howl that in its groaning intensity could have been mistaken for someone crying out in the heat of passion. The first time I heard him as he steamed up behind me, I hopped off the track in alarm, thinking he'd injured himself.

I gradually built up to a whole lap and then another, and my total distance climbed to two or three miles, with breaks to walk. The air was dry and foul-smelling and the airplane-hangar enclosure got cold in the winter, so I used my asthma inhaler and started my workouts in a jacket and scarf, stripping as I went along. I began to feel ownership of the crazy little ecosystem and its etiquette. When kids spilled out of a tennis lesson and began walking the wrong way around the track, I yelled at them.

I still counted and begrudged most of my steps. I felt no runner's high. It was hard every time. I tried, both consciously and unconsciously, to distract myself. I wrote part of a song in my head; I pictured someone I knew ahead of me on the track, around the corner, waiting to encourage me. My mind would drift for just a few seconds to something other than my discomfort - an issue at work, a pleasant memory - then yank me back to full awareness of what I was doing. Those moments were little moral victories and defeats all at once, with a frustrating, involuntary sense of having had a good dream interrupted.
My legs got stronger and I no longer needed to ice after every session. My resolve also hardened. For the first time in a nomadic career devoted to dissecting the sources of other people's athletic motivation, I found my own.

As I walked a wide, deserted beach at low tide on the Oregon coast, calming myself after hearing upsetting news, I felt water seeping around my toes and realized I was wearing running shoes. So I ran to exorcise my worry, reveling in the perfect surface of hard-packed sand painted pastel shades by the sunset's reflection.

I sat in a carpeted room in Connecticut and interviewed marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who'd been hobbled by foot surgery. I took notes as she described "shuffle-jogging'' to get herself moving again. I thought, if she can humble herself that way, why should I be sheepish?

I reported from Boston during and after the bombings at the marathon and afterward used gratitude to talk myself through some runs: Run because you can. Run because it's a privilege. You have both legs.

I ran a mile continuously for the first time on a treadmill in a hotel fitness room in Toronto and raised my arms, all alone in my modest triumph. It was self-mocking and dead serious at the same time. I'd been wrong in my old self-deprecating declaration. As it turned out, running a mile was one way to save my life - my emotional life as much as my physical health.

The fact that I couldn't excel made running all the more appealing. I didn't like doing it but I loved the way it made me feel afterwards, an unfamiliar sore and taut that told me my body was learning something new. I am not happy unless I'm pushing back against history and preconceived notions, keeping my mind and heart open to possibility. Learning to run from scratch was a way to retain the muscle memory of being young, when it was natural to embrace surprise, take a blind corner and let myself fall for something I couldn't have seen coming.

I told very few people when I started to run. I was too afraid I would fail and I didn't want to be asked about it months later. Now that I know I can do it, I still have no desire to enter a race. The thought of running in a crowd gives me claustrophobia and I am stubborn in my conviction that my particular goal does not require a finish line. I still swim and bike and skate and kayak and paddleboard and do yoga. The difference now is that I know I will always mix in a little running. I'd like to be able to run three miles. Then I'll see.

Early one evening, I ventured outdoors to the high school track in my neighborhood. The infield was empty and I could see the whole brick-colored oval yawning before me. I stretched a little and put my aluminum water bottle on a bench and hop-stepped into a run. You don't need to go fast, I reminded myself. No one is watching. You are not going to be late.

I plodded by a coach tutoring a brace of kids on start technique. Ambient noise from a nearby soccer practice wafted to me on the breeze, briefly taking me away from what I'd been doing until my obstinate mind yanked me back again. A woman in her twenties passed me, sweat-stains darkening her chest and back, running easier than I ever had or would. I felt my old envy sizzle and evaporate like water dribbled on a hot pan. I kept going. I passed the quarter-mile mark, rounded the first curve again and caught an odd movement in my peripheral vision. It flickered to my right and then ahead of me, indecipherable for a few seconds. Then it heaved into view and I realized it was my own shadow: my head and shoulders and torso and my arms pumping over elongated legs. I smiled, incredulous, and watched for a few strides before I lifted my chin and looked ahead again.