The Tragedy That Made Me Fall In Love With Running

I caught a train across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, early one morning in 2013, to run a half marathon. It was chilly, Sep­tember, and the sky was still a murky gray opal. The carriage buzzed with runners talking the usual nonsense: carb loading, perfect splits, personal bests. Runners can be very annoying en masse.

Three passengers didn’t fit in, young men on their way home after a night on the town. They were smashed when they lurched onto the train, the blotto antithesis to all the athletes dressed in spotless, sweat-absorbent shorts and singlets. Some­thing had to give. One of the boozers started to heckle. "Look at you all," he jeered. "What are you doing? Runners! What the f*ck are you doing?" On he went. A holy fool in strained black jeans, the young man shook his head in disgust and leaned into a pole for balance, mumbling to himself. I looked down at my shoelaces and lingered on a pang of identification. Imagine, I thought, being stuck in a train full of runners on the way home to a clanging hangover. Why would anyone run a marathon? Why did you?

I didn't even bother to put on my sneakers until I turned 30.

When I was younger, I was the person least likely to run around the block. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to orchestrate circumstances that would allow me to avoid running, and I was happier to wait for the next bus than to chase the one rolling to a stop a block ahead. I rolled my eyes at runners in parks and wondered why any sane woman would put herself through such an ordeal.

I did, however, know all about the desire to run, about endurance and its metaphors. When I was 20 years old, in 1998, my father, who loved running, and my mother, who didn’t, died in a plane crash. Life changed, and I found myself with urgent new responsibilities, trying to halt the toxic tail­spin of loss. The decade of tears that followed seemed intermi­nable; I stumbled often. I point to that block of sadness when some idiot asks me if this running business is all transference and I’m really running away from the past.

I started running 10 years after my parents died, and noth­ing was as difficult as I’d expected. I found it in myself to move, finally, and experienced that movement not just as liberation but as transformation. My legs grew strong quickly, and the many pleasures of running through the city were mine; a new geography enveloped me. I’d lived in Sydney for a decade, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to the great sweep of coastline and to the open water beyond it. The world changed around me again, more slowly this time.

Through this tragedy, I became a runner.

Running! Me—a runner! The star of my own one-woman comedy extravaganza. I raved about my discovery to anyone who would listen. "Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else," writes David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, and when I began to run, I thought I’d hit on something really new. My body was a pendulum, swinging across the landscape; my unlocked limbs tumbled and became light. I learned to feel with my feet, to distinguish between asphalt and concrete beneath my shoes, to love the springiness of wooden decking and the unexpected sink into paths made of shredded tires.

I’m a slow runner, complacent rather than competitive. On a shelf in my study is a scrapbook full of race bibs and a pile of the cheap, chipped medals that every runner is given when she finishes a race. In the beginning, I hung on the advice of a few friends and family members who ran too. My notes seem like fragments of poems that bent my world into a new shape: Look up the hill. Let yourself float to the top. Find your pace. When you hit that pace, you can run forever.

Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is. They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers. That’s not true. What you need is some freedom of movement and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace. When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

Excerpted from The Long Run: A Memoir of Life and Loss in Motion, by Catriona Menzies-Pike with the permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016.

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