In 1999 I ran the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage Alaska with The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. Before this race, I’d go through spurts of running but they were inconsistent at best and I’d never officially trained for a road race. Knowing I’m wretched at paperwork Rob was hesitant to have me jump on board, “If you don’t do the fundraising, Jess, we’ll have to pay thousands of dollars we don’t have.” “I know,” I said unfazed, waving a hand in the air. “Don’t even worry about it. I’ll do it. I promise.” But he worried. And rightfully so; I’ll admit it — the hardest part was the paperwork.
For some reason I got it in my head that I was fast. I’d start with a group and often the pace was too slow. I’d hang for as long as I could and then finally I’d just need to go. Run free at my own pace with my heart thumping and my legs moving. I’d talk to myself when I was out there on the roads. The coxswain in me chanting things I’d said to my college crew. I’d remind myself not to go out too hard. To stay steady and solid and to “wait for it.” The “it” being the turnaround point.
I never knew how far I ran. I just showed up with some sneakers, my crappy little Timex watch and myself. Just me. I’d hit the start button and turn around at the halfway point and head back. I only knew the time and my self-imposed goal heading back was to cover the same ground faster. I’d wait like a racehorse stomping at the gate, eager and ready. And scared too. I was always afraid I wouldn’t meet my goal. Funny thing is, I always did but that fact didn’t quiet my fear. I had to run by sheer guts and will. Determination and a fine-tuned sense of my body and myself. With no pace or mile markers, I had to trust that I knew my body well enough to know how hard it was or wasn’t working.
Quickly my casual running turned into an ambitious goal. I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wasn’t certain of my pace, my ability or whether I was just a delusional woman with a lofty goal. It didn’t matter. Qualifying became my focus and whenever I wavered I thought of the team I was representing, my friend’s dad who I was running in honor of and how much endurance and courage he embodied every single day. I would dig deeper and it felt good to challenge myself in this new and unexpected way.
Running on trails and roads engulfed by the Santa Monica mountains or by the vast Pacific Ocean reminded me of my own smallness and how big the world is. I felt the most connected to people when I was running. Being tuned in to myself connected me to everything and everyone and I felt strength and frailty intertwining with each step. I cannot describe it eloquently enough with words. It’s something I felt in my soul. I think I felt joy in being free.
Fast forward to 2005. Two children later. Transplanted to New York — closer to my family of origin, leaving my friends, my support system and the identity I had carved for myself miles and miles away. I forgot who I was. Who was that woman who used to run? Who ran on the roads and trails of Alaska? Who had a goal and met it? I trained. I raised the money. I qualified for Boston and ran it in 2000. Did that woman even exist? Rob had helped put a scrapbook together for me after the race. It was now tucked away in a cabinet under the window seat. Gone to me. Forgotten.
I got outside every day. Pushing Zoe and Brayden in our double jogger while walking our dogs on the dirt trails near our home. Rain, snow, cold, heat — it didn’t matter. We went out every day moving our bodies and connecting to nature. Somedays it would take longer for us to get out of the house than it would take us to complete our excursion. When Brayden was big enough to be jostled around I started to run again while pushing the jogger, but everything hurt. I hurt. My hamstrings hurt and I was slow. Really, really slow. I don’t like being slow.
Elias was born in 2008 and I’d wear him on my body in a carrier and push the double jogger. I was carrying and pushing more than my own body weight. Bent at the waist with no solid core to support me. My hamstrings pulled tighter and I began to believe I was broken. “I cannot run anymore.” I’d say to Rob after my solo attempts. “I’m just so slow. I’m injured. I’m hurt. I don’t understand. What’s wrong with me?”
Trying to run with aches and pains brought me back to the water. Rob surprised me one Christmas with a membership to our local gym. I remember feeling conflicted when I opened it. A tiny burbling of excitement quickly overshadowed by fear. I was scared; it felt more like pressure than a gift. “What if I can’t do it?” I asked. Searching his face with tears clouding my vision. He silently looked into my eyes for a long time. I was holding my breath. I remember sitting on the floor by our Christmas tree with the kids crawling around the presents, getting eerily still as if we were all frozen in time until Rob spoke with conviction, “You can.” And I let go of my breath. I cried. Reconnecting to myself wasn’t something I was sure I knew how to do. I had become afraid of my own body and didn’t trust it anymore.
I went anyway. I went to the pool right away — before the New Year — not wanting to wait for any resolutions or promises which could grow into disappointments. Reluctant and terrified, I went. I began to swim again. Slowly. So much time had passed since I had last swam laps in a pool. I didn’t have a proper swim suit so I wore my maturity suit which hung on my soft body. I didn’t have a swim cap so I used one of Zoe’s fabric caps from her swim lessons. I didn’t have goggles so I used the kids sand-scraped goggles from summer. Everything leaked. Everything sagged. I sagged. But I also moved. I told myself if I stuck with it I’d get a new suit and the things I needed to go with it. I showed up three mornings a week. After nursing Elias back to sleep in the wee hours of the morning and before everyone woke up, I’d go and reconnect with my long lost body. My broken body. Averting my eyes from the mirror as I walked to the pool.
Within a month at most I was signing up for my first triathlon. Rob asked in his most supportive non-critical way, “Maybe you want to take it slow for a little while?” No. Nope. I didn’t want to go slow. No. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t really run (because I was broken) I was going to do it anyway. And no, don’t worry about the fact that I didn’t really know how to ride a bike either. “Yes, Rob, I remember that every time we ride bikes together I have a tantrum because I hate it so much. It’s okay. I’m going to love it. I just need a new bike!” “Hmmm … a new bike? You have a bike and you never ride it. Why don’t we give that a try and see how it goes.”
Rob encouraged me to go for a ride outside with him — not on the spin bikes I’d recently come to love. He pulled out my old Univega from 1986 and made me ride with him. It was the most horrible ride ever. I think it took us 3 hours to go 20 miles. The gearing didn’t work, we got caught in a torrential rain and lightening storm and froze our butts off hunkered under a tree. I thought I was going to die. The last mile uphill my chain broke and I had to carry my bike up the monster mother of a hill to our house while twinkle-toes Rob cruised around me with the ease of a seasoned rider. But I didn’t cry. I really wanted a new bike so there was no crying. “Why not use the mountain bike then?” Rob asked as I ditched the Univega on the front lawn and proceeded to make a sign that hollered, “FREE!” “Nope. It’s too big for me. I need a new bike!” We got two new road bikes. One for him and one for me. And I learned how to ride a bike. I’d like to say without crying but I’d be lying.
Here I am today, having recently purchased my third new bike. I’m getting ready to race my 5th Ironman — Ironman Texas is 15 days away. Writing this is me psyching myself up to race. It is me, for the first time ever, embracing that I am racing. I am afraid but I am also ready. I am both. I have never said that before. I have also just come to see that I am, in fact, not broken. Nope. All these miles and all of this time has passed since 2005 when I decided I couldn’t run. That became my storyline. I was scared of my own body and it was drowning in repressed childhood sexual abuse. I was afraid of my body disappointing me or of it getting more injured. I worried about my body being too slow or too broken to carry myself by foot. To run. I had become a confident cyclist (even with the tears) and rekindled my love for the water but I was afraid to run. My fancy watch became my compass. I looked to it obsessively to prove — or to assure myself — that I couldn’t run. To affirm my brokeness and to bind myself to my storyline that I could not run free.
So I took off the watch. A good friend told me to do it in September after I raced the Pumpkinman Triathlon but I couldn’t part with the numbers. The same numbers that tormented me and came close to making me sabotage my own race because I balked at my own intuition and looked instead to the numbers. I tried running without it a few times but I desperately needed it to measure me. Two weeks ago at training camp one of our coaches said it again, “Just cover it up. Just run. Don’t look at it.” I didn’t think I could run without it. My watch told me my truth — that I believed this is so remarkably ironic because it goes against everything I’ve been writing about. My watch doesn’t really tell me anything. It simply squelched my own intuition and inner knowing. It disconnected me from myself. I was using it to hold myself back by believing it knew me. But only I know myself. Just me. I simply allowed it to support my old belief systems. I was clinging to those old beliefs.
I finally got my brave on and I just leaped. Cutting myself free from some warped idea I had of myself. And you know what I’ve discovered? I can run. I’ve always known how to run. I didn’t forget how to run — I just told myself that I couldn’t and I was more comfortable believing that than not believing. I am reminded repeatedly that old habits die hard, but that doesn’t mean we let them win. It means we have to keep doing our work because we believe we are worth it.
Running naked — without my watch, without the metrics, without the numbers and its chirps — takes me outside of myself and brings me inside of myself all at once. It’s connecting and letting go simultaneously. It’s seeing the huge mountains and the vast ocean and remembering that with each breath I am part of that big huge expanse. I’m not alone. None of us are. We are connected to everything. We can’t measure that. We have to feel it. We have to trust ourselves intuitively and then just run. Naked. Without the storylines we subscribe to.
Categories: Tri-Umphant Living