Pumped—as long as the knees hold up
I started walking, seriously. It was the bone scan that got me going. The healthy solid green was spongy with rotting black holes. In them I saw the little-old-lady-stick-legs with the wrinkled stockings sagging around them. I saw the dowager’s hump. I heard the shattering hip bone. “Weight-bearing exercise,” the doctor advised. So I walked. At the Westmount Athletic Grounds. Eight times around the cinder track. Two miles. Forty minutes.
It was autumn, and the poplar trees along the track glowed like golden flames against a clear blue sky.
I looked at the trees and got mixed up counting laps. I could have shifted pebbles from one pocket to the other, or made a mark each time I passed go, but I was always sure that this time I’d remember where I was. Then I’d get to thinking, daydreaming, hypnotized by the continuity of the circle, as I went round and round.
Was this lap six or seven? I did two more circuits. Then another, just to be certain.
By November I was doing twelve laps, three miles. The poplar leaves withered and loosened and drifted down to lie in tarnished gold-brown heaps on the path. Dark clouds formed, scattered, billowed up again in the grey sky.
Snow came. The stiff bare trees creaked in the wind. The tennis courts were a minimalist painting: hard-edged white rectangles on a white background. The snow melted to slush, froze over. More snow fell. The track was a treacherous ring of slippery, hummocky footprints. It was difficult to walk on it, but I wasn’t giving up.
In February my sister’s husband called me from Regina. Stacie had had a heart attack.
Stacie was only sixty. What was she doing with a heart attack?
My brother-in-law called again. It wasn’t such a bad attack. Stacie was doing okay. But I flew out to Regina anyway. I had to see Stacie for myself, and talk to her.
“It was a near-death experience,” she told me. “I saw a bright light. It was very peaceful.”
We walked up and down the hospital corridor, slowly.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I felt like I was floating free.”
I don’t believe those near-death experience stories and I said so flat out. “What comes after the radiant light and the floating feeling?” I asked. “Nothing, that’s what. And nothing is not so beautiful, I bet.”
“You don’t know that,” Stacie said.
No I don’t. But I know that near-death is not the same as death. It’s like a 5k runner telling you how a marathon feels—she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. “The fact is, you didn’t die. Thank God. Now let’s do just one more length of this hallway,” I said.
When I got back to Montreal, walking was no longer enough. I needed to run. Is a sixty-five-year old woman running a contradiction in terms? Not if she runs slowly enough.
I ran. Sixteen circuits. Maybe more. I still got mixed up in the counting. I got new shoes with gelled soles and reflective tape along the sides that flashed as I ran. It could be that I was responsible for melting the snow on the track.
Anyway, the snow did melt. The drab, grey-white field greened to grass, and pale yellow buds softened the stark crowns of the poplars. The sharp white lines and taut nets reappeared on the tennis courts.
I got to know the other habitués of the park: the gardeners digging in their little plots at the corners of the track, the dog walkers, the dogs who believed that running was a game devised for their pleasure. I met other runners. Sleek young women in Spandex and earphones skimmed along. Young men bounded by me, their feet barely touching the ground. They passed me; they lapped me. So what? I was still moving forward.
After our runs, while we stretched and rehydrated in the narrow shade of the poplars, we talked. We talked about shin splints and plantar fasciitis. We compared shoes. We discussed carbs and sports drinks and hitting the wall.
In full summer the poplars blurred into the hazy milk-white sky. On the red tennis courts, green balls thudded and players called scores. Gardeners watered their lush plots, where morning glories tangled with cucumber vines and marigolds glowed orange among green cabbages. Dogs fetched sticks for their owners and mostly kept out of my way.
I ran. Stacie wrote and said she was walking a mile three times a week. “More,” I wrote back. “Go for two miles. Four times a week.”
The other runners talked about races. “Try one,” they urged me, “it will pump you up.”
So I signed up for a 5k. Within the first hundred metres, everyone had passed me. I plodded along, alone and far behind. I wished I hadn’t got into this. “Looking good, number 147!” a kindly spectator called to encourage me. I wondered if I really was looking good. For my age, I mean. I felt better with each kilometre sign I passed. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was, just as they’d said, “pumped” with a sense of my own speed and strength. Everyone clapped, and one runner—I had no idea who she was—hugged me and said, “I love you, girlfriend!”
I tried a 10k next, and then another. And another. I was almost always last, but starting and finishing were what counted, or so all the runners said. “I love you guys!” I told them when we thumped each other on the back at the finish line and compared times. I discovered I did love them, too. Whoever they were, they were runners, like me.
I couldn’t make myself go any faster, but I could go farther. As long as my knees held up, and my will power, I could run. Thirty times round the track. More. It was too annoying to count. Round and round I chased the power of the circle.
I would enter for a half marathon, for a marathon, for an ultra-marathon. I would run till my feet no longer touched the ground, till my body burned itself away and all that was left was pure will to move forward. Round and round I would spin, driven by my own necessity, like the seasons.