I’m not a natural runner.
When I was younger, I was the kid on the soccer field examining a bee on a flower instead of chasing the soccer ball. I searched for four-leaf clovers while waiting for fly balls in the outfield of a softball game. I spent a lot of time climbing, getting dirty, and exploring the world around me, but I definitely wasn’t doing any of these things quickly. Running never struck me as necessary.
I ran track in 5th and 6th grade because my friends did it. We had to run a mile before every practice, but I usually walked part of it. Shot-put was fun, but I didn’t like sprinting short distances. Or sprinting long distances. Or jumping over handles while sprinting short or long distances. I was worse than mediocre, placed on a relay team with my friends because I was never going to win anything on my own (they didn’t tell me this is why I was on a relay team, but I knew the truth). It was alright, but I didn’t miss it when I entered junior high.
In junior high, I could play the sports I wanted to play: tennis, volleyball, softball. And yet, I was still running a lot. Warm-ups, cool-downs, speed training…always trying to get faster, always an emphasis on the go, go, go! I trained for weeks to make the 9th grade volleyball team, which required me to run for 30 minutes without stopping every day of tryouts (4 days in a row). It sucked in the way that everything sucks at the age of 15. When I (barely) made the team, I was relieved that we never ran that much in practice.
The same thing happened in high school. Making the varsity softball team meant running an 8-minute mile: a daunting task to someone as perpetually slow as me. My best friend and I worked, running a mile four times a week, always training to get faster. It was a miracle I hit the 8-minute mile qualification and made the team, especially with the minuscule tears in the muscles between my ribs (a result of so much running and throwing).
As I progressed through high school, I sunk deeper into my responsibilities on the school newspaper staff and left my sports days behind. By senior year, I was Editor-In-Chief and stopped playing sports altogether. Occasionally, I went to the gym and read magazines on an elliptical machine (before I realized this isn;t actually “exercising”), but I never touched the treadmill. Running was the last thing on my mind.
Running was still the last thing on my mind when I went to college at the University of Michigan, too. I was a regular at the gym, stuck in the same cycle of elliptical machine and some free weights a few times a week, but I didn’t run. Not my thing, I told myself. Definitely not fun.
But every day I passed a running track outside the Couzens Hall dorm. I saw the track while I walked to class. I saw when I came back from class. I saw it from the cafeteria windows. I saw it looking out my dorm room window. Every day I passed that damn thing. I didn’t own a smartphone back then so I spent a lot of time taking in my surroundings, and this running track was impossible for me to ignore.
After a few weeks at school, I noticed this Asian girl with a gawky stride, strange fashion sense, and haphazard ponytail on that running track. Every morning on my way to class, she was out there running on the track. Every. Morning. She wasn’t fast and definitely not agile, but she was out there in her 90s windbreaker with her strange shuffle-trot cadence, running around that track.
I really missed my high school friends during my freshman year, but I managed to make a few friends early on at college. I socialized and introduced myself to people and chit-chatted and all the thing I was supposed to do as a freshman desperate for friendship, but in my heart I felt isolated and lonely. One day, walking back from class with a group of friends that all lived in my dorm, we saw the girl making her usual trek around the track. Someone pointed her out: her weird clothes and pathetic pace.
I didn’t giggle like my friends, and I felt little protective of her. So what? I thought. She isn’t fast, she doesn’t look glamorous, but at least she’s doing something. At least she’s trying.
Without realizing it, I acquired a certain attachment to this woman running (jogging? speed walking? I don’t know how to describe it) around the track outside Couzens Hall. She was a staple in my college life, and I looked for her every day. If I didn’t see her I wondered what happened to her, or if I was too early/late to see her running. It felt weird missing someone I’d never met, but she was an integral part in my realm of familiarity at college. It was almost feeling like home.
Winter came and went, and still she ran. Snow, wind, rain, cold, sun, weekends, weekdays…she was there. I watched for her. I wondered about her. I imagined what her voice sounded like and what she was thinking about. Why was she out there? Sometimes I passed her as I crossed the fired to go to the gym (to the comfortable bubble of my elliptical-weights routine) and I wanted to badly to work up the courage and say something to her.
“What lap are you on?”
“How do you do it every day?”
“Don’t you worry about slipping on the ice?”
“What’s your name?”
“How far are you going?”
So many thoughts raced through my mind, but when I left the U of M campus to go home that spring, I still hadn’t said a word to her. I walked passed her, head down, eyes averted as I walked on by. Still all coiled up inside.
I came back to Couzens Hall my sophomore year. The first two weeks of classes, I looked for the Asian girl running on the track as usual, expecting to see her at our usual time every morning.
But I never did.
The first month of my sophomore year felt like trying to find a groove all over again. Campus felt familiar, but not quite the home it was by the end of my freshman year. I was excited to see my freshman friends again and live with two awesome roommates, but it felt different, too. Maybe it was the girl’s absence from the track. Maybe it was something else. But either way, I felt somewhat off-balance.
I always looked for that girl on the track, but she never appeared. My mind chased all kinds of scenarios about where she went and why. If I spotted someone else on the track, my mind quickly assimilated it to being her…but it never was. I missed the comfort of her routine and the reliability of seeing her out my window. I missed the sense of peace that came with knowing she was there, I was there, and it was a new day of possibilities for us both. But by mid-October, I admitted to myself that she wouldn’t be back. She was gone.
So, I laced up a pair of shoes and picked up the routine she left behind.