A few weeks ago, I ran a half marathon. I didn’t do too badly, either (10:40 miles, for those who wonder about such things).
If you had told me a few years ago that I would run for 13.1 miles, that I would run for over two hours straight, I would have just laughed and laughed. Me? The non-competitive, doughy, un-athletic girl who has never ran more than a single lap without wanting to die in her entire life? Um, I don’t think so.
But then life happens. I had a baby five years ago and the only way to get some peace and quiet was to strap her into a stroller and walk briskly. I started breaking into a very slow form of jogging every now and again, and soon enough, I found I could run a mile. And then, slowly, slowly, I could run two. And I started to discover that there was this way to get out of the house and get into my head and benefit my body all at the same time. And best of all—it was free! Feet slowly pounding the pavement, I worked through my thoughts and saw patterns emerging or new puzzles forming or interesting ideas just wouldn’t wander away and I started to get to know myself a little bit better. The years of doing doing doing, of school and crappy jobs and getting married and then new motherhood had made me lose myself, a bit. Running became a way to reclaim a small space, just for me and my thoughts. Although it didn’t feel like the prayer I was used to, it also became a way to notice what God was up to, all around me.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right around the time I started running, I started writing in earnest.
Although I run consistently, I have never been fast, or terribly in shape, or very committed to schedules and training. So signing up to run a half marathon was scary for me. But the past year has taught me a lot about overcoming, about kicking anxiety to the curb, about not giving up and giving into fear. I found a half marathon that looked nice. Easy. There were many pictures on the website of overweight women dressed in pink tutus. The course was flat, along a gorgeous river. There was brunch at the end. This will be perfect I thought. A fantastic empowering experience, surrounded by others just like myself, with cinnamon rolls galore to eat at the end.
The training went ok. I slowly started to run farther than I thought I could. A few miles into my long runs, when I knew I had a few more miles to go, I would be tempted to quit. I would tell my legs you’ve got this. You’ve trained for this. You can do this. It was a little counseling sesh for me, each time. It felt pretty good. At the end, I would feel tired, but accomplished. Sometimes I would remind myself: hey, remember how you almost died but didn’t? How you barely could leave your room for months because you were so worried something bad would happen to your baby? How you stopped driving for awhile? Remember when you moved across the country, how you wrote a book, how you are always putting yourself in a position as an outsider among outsiders? I tried to remind myself of the good and the bad, to recognize how it all has affected me and yet—here I still am. Pounding my feet into the pavement. Expecting something different. Doing new, harder things than I would have thought possible. Hoping that it will work out.
Leaning into faith, undergirded by showing up and putting in the work. There is a reason writers love to talk about running. The metaphors practically write themselves.
I ran a half marathon a few weeks ago. I ran it with my friend Lindsey, who has also had her fair share of troubles and disappointments in her young life. It was a beautiful morning, slightly cold but sunny. I noticed, however, that everyone lining up at the starting gate seemed like actual, well, runners. Long, lean legs. Men with severe faces and aerodynamic sunglasses. Short shorts and energy gels and fanny packs and t-shirts declaring they had run entire marathons before. I started to feel nervous. Wasn’t this supposed to be a slow-lady-empowering-brunch race? We started running, and it became clear that no, it wasn’t. And so began the next 2.5 hours of my life of getting passed by people, feeling slower and stupider with every mile. Still, I trudged along, ticking the miles off in my head, listening to a blend of empowering pop music (“Magic” by b.o.b. and Hamilton featuring prominently), trying to be content within my limitations. I thought about running as a way to combat anxiety, as a way to show my five year old daughter that women are strong, as a way of creating more space for myself and my body in the world. But my the end of the race, these empowering thoughts had left me. I was too tired to keep running, but to walk the last mile or so would have taken forever. So I just went on.
At the finish line, my family was there—my husband and my two kids and my parents and my sister. They cheered for me and I got that last burst of speed and made it across. I sat down in the grass and thought about throwing up. I did not feel empowered. I did not feel proud of my accomplishments. I felt happy to see my family, but overall I just felt very tired, and like nothing much at all had changed. I was still chubby, still slightly sad, still anxious about things both big and small. I thought: I’m still just me.
I have only gone running a few times in the past 2 weeks. It doesn’t come easy. It feels like I have gone back to square one. But it has been sunny and I know it is good for me, so I go. Even though I don’t look like one, I am a runner. Even though I’m not very fast, I can run a long ways. Even though I never expected this for my life, I have two kids and live surrounded on all sides by immigrants and people experiencing poverty, I teach English to people to try and help make their lives better in any small way I can, I wrote a book and soon it will be going out into the world for good and for ill. My life keeps changing, I keep being surrounded by the saddest stories I have ever heard and yet am asked to imagine miracles taking place. “Holding on grimly,” writes Walter Brueggmann, “is an act of atheism.” Ol’ Brueggie is right. Both letting go and taking wild leaps of faith seem to characterize myself these days.
A few months ago I got an email asking if I would like to come and be a part of a writing conference, they were asking me if I would like to speak about something in relation to faith and writing. It seemed so ludicrous to me. Did they know that I slept on a mattress on the floor, that we didn’t have enough money to buy curtains, that I woke up sad most days and unable to do much more than keep everyone in my immediate family alive and clothed and fed? I said yes, but inside felt fraudulent. I never imagined these extremes for myself. I never realized what a hard thing it would be to bounce between being microscopically small in real life, and in plumping myself up big to send words out to a bigger audience. If you had told me, years ago, how mundane and hard real life would be, punctuated occasionally by big grand adventures, I would have stared at you, uncomprehendingly.
Now, all I can do is laugh and laugh. And that, in its own way, feels like a gift I have not earned.
We can do hard things is a sort of mantra I hear tossed out a lot, usually towards and from women, urging us to be strong, to overcome, to empower. It’s the type of sentiment I assumed would carry me through running a stupidly long distance, a sentiment I have clung to in hospitals and waiting rooms, in the dark cold hours of a sleepless morning, the dull hopeless moments of the sun setting down on another night.
Did I do a hard thing, when I ran that half marathon? I talked about it with my friend Lindsey later. We ran a race, that was all. We did it, we felt really sore afterwards, I’m not sure either of us are going to do it again. Lindsey said something that stuck with me. I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life she said. And running that race wasn’t one of them.
When the past few years of your life have been hard, perhaps running along a river with a bunch of other (privileged) people who could afford to pay the entrance fee, had the time to train, bought new shoes with adequate arch support isn’t the most telling indicator of your spiritual and emotional health. It was a thing I did, and now it is over. I learned a few things, like that I am much more competitive than I give myself credit for. That when I do something, I want to do it well. That I can change, and be different, than who I thought I would be at 32. I am a teensy bit driven. I am a teensy bit ambitious. I got mad when all of those other runners passed me, when I thought I would just be thrilled to the point of tears at even making it across the finish line.
But here’s the other thing I learned: I didn’t feel the glow of empowerment overwhelm me at the end, I wasn’t overcome with my own resilience, I didn’t glory in the pride of my accomplishment. Because deep down I knew I could do it. I had kicked my anxiety to the curb a long time ago, and now I am just in the business of managing it. Of course I did a hard thing. I, like so many in our world, so many who live next door to me, live a hard life. And yet we keep showing up for it, day after day after day.
PSSSST if you are at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids this week, PLEASE say hi to me! I will be the one with short, very fake blonde hair wearing serious I AM A WRITER glasses (Warby Parks, naturally). I will be doing a session on Thursday at 4:30PM with Chris Hoke and Dennis Covington on “Portraiture and Power: On Representing the Lives of Others.” I perceive this session to be very interesting and chock-full of questions! I am also very pleased it will be moderated by the one and only Jeff Chu.
I’ll also be on a Saturday AM panel (bright and EARLY at 8:30) with a bunch of the greats (John Wilson, Rachel Marie Stone, Chris Smith, and Richard Kauffman) talking about “The Art and Craft of the Book Review.” If you come to this one I will know you love me bc it is so dang early.
Looking forward to seeing at least a few of you there!