One morning at the hospital my surgeon came in with her trail of surgical fellows for morning rounds. I raised the bed and turned on the light and tried to look awake as they poked at me, asked me questions, and repacked my wound. As one of the fellows pushed tissue into the tiny hole in my abdomen with a long cotton swab, the doctor glanced at the small lunch bag that Robert had brought me with vegetable broth in it to supplement my clear liquid diet.
“Oh, your bag is from the Hartford Marathon..are you a runner?”
I didn’t know how to answer her. “Not recently.”
It took me so long to call myself a runner.
Yes, I ran, on treadmills and sidewalks and busy streets and country paths. But I was slow, my legs were short and labored to carry around my sturdy physique. I consoled myself that this was good for my soul: I had found something I could be bad at, and I had stuck with it.
But how many miles would it take to be a runner? Sometime around my fourth half-marathon I decided it would be OK to use that term. I gained a little speed and I lost a little weight, but I was still an unlikely athlete. I swallowed my pride every day and kept running.
Last summer pain and anemia took over my life and I could barely stand most days, let alone run. I kept doing yoga but wasn’t able to run until the magic of prednisone gave me wings in the fall. I pushed myself to be ready for a 5-mile race on Thanksgiving. I wouldn’t run again for months.
My health fell apart again and prednisone couldn’t fix it, and the body I had worked so hard to value disappointed me yet again. Post-surgery I couldn’t be active at all, and after a few weeks snowed in and nearly motionless I started aching everywhere.
The first yoga class I went to in recovery was taught by a teacher who was so mean to me about my modifications that I almost laughed at the walking cliche. She was straight out of mean-girl central casting, and I eventually pulled up my shirt to show her the enormous bandage covering my the hole where my ostomy had been to get her to back off.
Winter ended and spring came and it was time to put on my sneakers again. I knew it would be brutal, those first few runs. I had a hard enough time getting back into running after taking a week off after a race and I had struggled to train in the fall when I was at least still somewhat in shape from yoga.
My first jaunt was a mile, then a mile and a half, then two. I was not elegant or strong. I was terrified and anxious. I put one foot in front of the other. My blessed little body did what I asked it to do. When I got up to four miles I decided I could call myself a runner again.
Perhaps this label is less about what I can accomplish but what I am willing to attempt. I am running away from dread and anxiety. I am pushing myself in an activity at which I can’t count on improving. I can’t even count on my body not betraying me again and forcing me into inactivity once more. I don’t have to be ‘good’, whatever that means. I just have to show up.
At the end of each run I jog up a set of stone stairs near our new home. Even though I’m tired I need that extra boost that challenges and stretches me in a different way. I want to push just a little bit farther. Life is uncertain and strength is fleeting, so I’ll sweat while I can.