Originally published online and in Runner’s World Magazine
There are many advantages to starting to run later in life. Among them is the ability to use running as a means to rediscover memories long forgotten. For me, running is the key that has unlocked the most foreboding doors in the cellar of my psyche.
Having had a life before running means there are many people and places which exist for the pre-running me. As that pre-runner recedes into my past, I’ve found I need a guide to take me from the person I was to the person I am becoming. Running has become that guide.
The need for that guide became clear on a recent run through my childhood neighborhood. As a child of the 50’s in a small-town Chicago suburb, my house and the elementary school defined the edges of my world. The streets and alleys and playground in the 3 square blocks around my house were my world.
Running through the old neighborhood, I was struck by how small the houses seemed. Those monuments to the strength of juvenile male bonding and the uncertainties of preadolescent male/female bonding looked positively ordinary. In a few strides I ran past the houses that were the sites of my earliest interpersonal successes and failures. Those adult strides helped me understand both the power and the silliness of my memories.
Running to the elementary school playground brought me face to face with eight years of victories and defeats. From marbles to basketball, baseball, and dodge ball, the images were still painfully clear. It was on this nondescript asphalt that I learned what it felt like to punch and be punched, to be in and out of love, to break a youthful heart, and to have my own heart and spirit broken.
This playground, this absolutely ordinary playground, was my private Roman Coliseum–the place where I often was the lion, but just as often the Christian. This playground was the site of epic battles for turf, for pride, and sometimes for nothing at all. Now, looking at the rusty basketball hoops and chain nets, I wondered what any of it meant.
I ran around the baseball field. I hit the home runs I never hit, stole the bases I never stole, made the sensational catches I had missed, and struck out the best batters. In that moment I reclaimed my right to be a hero, if only in my own mind. Thirty-five years later, I finally was not the last person picked to be on the team.
Running faster, I passed the houses of the childhood friends who taught me about loyalty and the bullies who taught me about pride. I ran again with Lenny and Rich and Lester, but this time I was running in front. This time, I out-kicked Tommy Regala to the corner.
I could have run forever that day. But, just as when I was a child, the time came for me to run home. I had reached the edges of my neighborhood, the edges of my memories, and the edges of my dreams.
That run taught me that there are still playgrounds and ball fields and friends and bullies in my life. The battles I fought as a child are being fought again every day in my adult world. I am still seeking to prove to myself and others that I can play their game, that I should be on their team, and that I shouldn’t be picked last.
And I hope I’ve learned that the daily victories and defeats in my adult world are only as important as I allow them to be.
Waddle on, friends.