With my not-so-long legs, I ran too slowly to sprint the 400, and I could handle that better than the mile, so the coach stuck me in the 800-meter race because so few people wanted to run it. I don’t remember ever placing first, second, or even third, and though I would never join the track team in high school, that season in eighth grade gave me a better prize, something I would carry through the decades.
I ran my sophomore year in high school to lose weight, and then to keep the weight off. I ran my senior year in that teeny town when some of the most popular other options were drinking, smoking, having sex (yes, I was square). I ran in college during the early morning hours to prepare my mind for classes, the rhythm of my shoes thumping against the sidewalk, smoothing out the rumples of my worries.
In my 20s, when I taught in Mexico, I ran even though I was the only woman in shorts looping around the park a half-mile from my tia’s house. I grew accustomed to glances and stares and standing out. I let the silence protect me.
In my 30s I ran to sort out my new marriage, to remind myself I could still do things solo, and when we got divorced, I ran faster and harder, the air thick in my lungs. When I wanted to scream until I lost my voice, when I wanted to get in my car and drive a thousand miles away, when I wanted to become someone else or make time pass me by, I ran, and running became a reverse magic trick, a way to stop myself from disappearing.
Years later, when I met the man who would later become my second husband, he told me he wanted to run with me, and that bloomed more beautifully than a bouquet of flowers, which always wilt and never last. Running could endure, and it gave me hope that we would, too.
In my 40s, on the days that followed the one when I was diagnosed and told the things I would have to lose to stay alive, I had to work up my nerve, and I laced up my shoes and told my husband I needed to run alone: I took to the streets and ran until I understood how fast I could go, until my legs ached more than my fear, until I remembered how strong I was.
A few years ago, I ran my first and only 5K and placed first in my age group, second overall for women. The award felt good, but the reward of running — of feeling alive — still overshadows any contest and propels me to wake up even when the light is still a milky gray, even when I am tired, and to step out the door and into the world and find my center. I run just for myself, sometimes by myself, and do not use a timer. I run to calm down. I run to stay young. I run to grow wiser.
I am slow some days, nearly all days, but I do not care. It only matters that I am still moving, grateful for the prize I won in eighth grade of learning how to keep on, this lifelong gift, and surprised this running thing and I are still together, and happy, after all of these years.
Shuly Cawood is a writer and the author of three books, including the memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and the forthcoming short story collection, A Small Thing to Want.