Of course I knew that my running was not forever, but as my miles and trophies piled up, I wondered. Could I be different? Could I be the lucky one that runs and runs and runs forever? Could I be the one to defy that inevitable combination of age, time and my body?
Alas, no. Time won and my last day of “real” running arrived. Quietly, at first, slipping in the back door unnoticed, cleverly disguised as an ordinary day with a beautiful foggy loop of a run, but there it was. I looked down to notice a seemingly innocuous looking puff on the outside of my knee. Undaunted, I trudged off to my chiropractor. Surely there was a solution close at hand. Surely there was plenty of time…
At first optimistic, but then as the months dragged on almost frantically hopeful, I made appointments and was treated by trainers galore. My knee was poked, prodded, twisted and stretched, exercised, acupunctured, and x-rayed. An orthopedic surgeon gave me a diagnosis as if a label might settle things. Did it matter what you called it when I could still no longer run? The New York Marathon for which I had worked so hard to qualify came and went without me. Ah, sigh….
Devastated, I was a lost puppy without a master.
Ah but, there WAS my old good buddy. swimming. A buddy more like a sibling, swimming been there from day one. Perhaps a bit annoying at times, what with the chlorine scented skin and hairdos undone, the shivering in the shower and lockers to leaves things that were soon stolen but oh, I did know her well.
We swam in icy lakes in early spring, the warm ponds of summer with fish to nibble on my toes, salty oceans by sugar sand beaches and jumped off boats into turquoise blue seas. We slithered off blue tiled edges of chlorine scented pools, dove into Olympic sized lanes at Universities and stepped cautiously into kidney shapes once filled with giggling children at holiday inns. We taught frightened children how to hold their breath at the local high school pool, met friends at night for a post work swim as a young professionals, and skipped out of work mid afternoon when I started working for myself. When my boyfriend wanted to move to the suburbs, I found a pool with a lovely outdoor view to cheer me on. When I moved back to the city to live by myself, I got up early mornings to park by the pool downtown before the meters turned on. When I decided to be an artist, my first piece with a wall-sized abstraction, shades of blue painted on reflective material, a tribute to the sport I loved, marveling in the beauty of clear sparkling water with my hand dipping in at each stoke.
But Swimming was just swimming, wasn’t she? It was running that was my new glamorous BFF Right? Running was laces-up-head-out-the door-easy. Puppies played, geese squawked, the air smelled so fresh and foggy in the morning it practically threw me out of bed. I didn’t need a buddy to go for a run. i just went. The weight melted away as goal after tangible goal lined up like guideposts forging me ahead. How could swimming ever match the sweet endorphin bliss of a runner’s high? Yet, here she was ready and willing to try.
At the side of the pool, no sneakers in sight, I passed by the sign, the one that says NO RUNNING, and I thought, No kidding! I needed to forge my way back in love with my old sport. Running had one last gift, a good bye kiss and a hug to send me on my way.
Motivated by numbers and self comparison, running had shown me how. Goals ignite my competitive spirit, cheer me on when I am sad, inspire me when I am flat and remind me how to achieve the insurmountable by breaking it down and finding a way. A goal far enough in the future gives me time to make it happen. Run 26.2 miles? Never, and yet I did. Qualify for Boston, New York? Impossible and then it came to be. The Disney Double? Could I do it? Yes I could. Ah ha! Much of what I loved about running was the jumping up to reach a goal seemingly too high and catching it. That is what I needed, a goal.
Swimming camp, an open water one, in the Mediterranean, in Turkey. Yes! That was just exotic enough to entice, just enough of a goal to get me started. I cracked open my running log that had pages of blank entries and start to chart my way. For starters, I needed to get back in that pool and swim, right?
Entries starting filling the pages of my log. Oh numbers! I bought a lap counter that looked like my old running watch to help track my time. All sorts of different bathing suits and goggles and caps piled up in my wardrobe as i searched to find my favorites. I doused my hair with conditioner to keep out the chlorine, drank water to stave off the foot cramps, and took a few lessons from a trainer at my gym. I was on my way!
When a friend mentioned swimming in the Bay, I immediately said when?, yes!, and let’s do that… As the icy water hit my skin, clouds filled the sunset sky with long streaks of color. The sea water was a pale foam-filled green, captured in just a fleeting glimpse each time my head turned from a breath. The clock tower of Ghirandelli Square glowed a soft orange against the cobalt blue of the sky turning darker until it was night. I was hooked.
New goals appeared, faintly at first, but there they were. I tried my first open water swim (weird), splashed in the waters of the Mediterranean (awesome), joined an outdoor swimming club (whoa) and sampled a masters swim (uh oh). Swimming long distance CAN foster the same meditative exhilaration as a long run. The warm friendships between fellow enthusiasts ARE just as possible here by the edge of the bay.
I still miss running— of course I do. As a runner glides past in the park, I remember those perfect memories like the charms on my running necklace. The thrill of mile 16 in Portland, hitting the hill with a speed and confidence I knew would take me to the finish line in BQ time, echoes inside me still. The complete relief of the finish line in Santa Rosa, pushing so hard that I couldn’t eat for twelve hours but I had won in my age group and qualified for New York, brings a smile and pride to this day. The sweet refrain of my regular run around Strawberry Hill, happy or sad, anxious or mellow, through this work crisis and that new love still calms me as i sit in a difficult meeting. The pair of skunks that met me at the curve of every lap, still cheers me along my way.
Yes, I am a swimmer now. I nestle my thermal cap over my head, the black one that is sleek like a seal, pull down my goggles and slip off my shoes by the fence on the dock. Stepping down, my naked feet touch the cold sand and out of the corner of my eye, I am pretty sure that I see fins.