Running toward Joy

woman-runnerIt’s a late-summer Sunday evening. I’m training for the Baltimore half-marathon, my first-ever running race. Today’s goal is eight miles, the farthest run yet. I’m chugging up a long, gradual hill on the last leg of the run at a pace barely above a walk. I can barely see my two training partners ahead, both veteran runners who, without meaning to, naturally and steadily increased the space between us. Desperately thirsty and hungry, all I can think about is how much I’m craving watermelon. My legs hurt, my back hurts, my right hip hurts. Three of my toes, smashed against the front of my too-small running shoes, throb so agonizingly I almost stop. Almost. 

No one is more surprised than I am that I somehow find the grit to keep going. And here’s the thing – when that hill levels out for the final mile before home, I fly. It’s not any easier. Everything still hurts and my body feels like lead. But some other part of me—some dormant part that I didn’t know existed until right now—is powerful and free. This body I inhabit is propelled by something more than muscle and bone and even will. Will is what pushed me up the last hill. What I’m running on now is pure spirit, and it feels so good.

I’ve only been running regularly for a few months. At the beginning, just one mile was a painful, rasping push to keep going. I told myself “It won’t always be this hard,” imagining that soon I’d bound through that first mile like a deer—tireless, light, and graceful. I’ve since logged run after run, and not once have I bounded.

That was the hardest lesson, that, at least for me, the first part never gets easier. Waking up in the dark, forcing my body to move, struggling to catch my breath every damn time. But then the sun comes up, my raggedy breathing evens and slows, my feet fall into a rhythm that echoes in my head—one-two, one-two, one-two. I feed all my anxiety, stress, and worry into that meditative movement—step-step, step-step, step-step. One foot then the other, over and over and over.

After the pain comes the joy. A friend and mentor once described marriage that way. She told me that all marriages go through stretches of pain and hard work and seeming futility, but if you push through that, you get to the best parts. She said the problem is that most people quit before they get to the joy. It’s just like running, and probably anything in life worth having. Physical goals, career ambitions, relationships, parenting, artistic expression – all require journeys through enough pain, dissatisfaction, risk, boredom, suffering, and vulnerability to make us all want to lay down right where we are and say “I quit. I’m done. It hurts too much.”

But let’s not do that. Let’s keep running. The joy is coming, and I don’t want to miss it.

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