“It doesn’t have to be running,” the midwife reminded me cheerfully. “It can be any kind of exercise you like.”
But that’s the point. There is no kind of exercise I like. It turned out my resting pulse was a little high, and anyway, I’d been fighting the conviction for awhile. And so running it is.
Running, at least, has the nontrivial advantages of frugality and efficiency. I don’t have to drive anywhere or buy a membership. I just barrel out the back door, wheeze a ways, and wheeze back.
I had done this all once, maybe twice, before: once during a busy semester in college when the doctor listened to my pulse, sent me to the cardiologist, and put me on a stationery bike; once when I was working part-time before kids and trying to keep the crazy at bay. (I’m not counting the three weeks I ran in preparation for the Dales Way, newly pregnant with Pippin, until the time I threw up in my hair and gave up on exercise for the duration.)
A turning point this time was coming to grips with the idea that for me, running is not ever probably going to be “me time.” I get up while it’s still dark, when I don’t have to, and I put on clothes that are hard to put on with sleep-clumsy hands, and maybe sometimes the sun rises beautifully over reddening trees, and maybe sometimes I see a deer, and maybe sometimes I enjoy my audiobook, but mostly, I grit my teeth and do my 10 minutes out and 10 minutes back.
I was slipping into the vocal registers that are not OK, especially with my most threesome three-year-old, and I had done all the self-care measures I actually like, the carving out time for reading and getting extra sleep. I know running helps me to be less anxious, and anxiety and impatience were ruling my day, at least at high-friction times of the day like getting out the door, and the lead-up to nap time. I had apologized to my son enough, and it was time to try something else.
And so I run, and I don’t think of it as me time, or self-care, or all the other things exercise is supposed to be for women like me. I think of it as medicine. I think of it as penance. It is what I am doing to be a better mother, a better wife, a happier human. On those mornings, I am letting go of all the times I’ve failed to be those things, forgiving myself, having already asked forgiveness of those I’ve hurt. And I’m running toward a kinder, gentler future, one grudging run at a time.
At confession, recently, I shared my theory of running as penance with my confessor, who to my surprised relief didn’t immediately dismiss it. “Well, I mean, historically penance has been physical. It’s been bodily. It’s only lately that it’s all prayers.”
Huh. Fair enough. Maybe my Nikes are my hair shirt, my morning jogs a modern-day pilgrimage. A prayer with my body, for calm, for peace.