I was in my late thirties before I could string together enough miles to measure my distance in numbers followed by K, but still I grew up in the care of running. For more than ten years and counting, along the same six mile route, I have raised my children, buried loved ones, and negotiated life as the spouse of an alcoholic.
The landmarks I pass show like a shaky old movie reel in the backdrop of my runs. Sometimes, they are stilled by the occasions they mark. The train tracks, when empty, are just connectors from one path to another. But when a train passes through, I take in the scene before me while I wait, always noticing first the high-rise community that was my Grandma’s final address. Behind me, beneath a canopy of cranes, is the hospital where my mother-in-law received a new kidney and enough years to meet my son, who was born in a neighboring tower.
Next to the path is the river where my first running buddy, a beautiful black lab, learned to swim. And over which my daughter swung from one bank to another on a rope late at night while I thought she was asleep. Soccer fields, baseball parks and the schools where my parents and kids attended are all there, too.
As are the markers of invisible moments like the bridge I was crossing when I understood that everything I did was in reaction to alcoholism. Tracing hidden bottles, eventually sought and found, filled too many miles. Replays of empty promises and threats filled the others. A roadside memorial where the road dips below a busy freeway always leaves me wondering what time is left to reverse the damage of reactions I can’t undo. Reactions that were poorly played and forever mine.
Through it all, running ensured I wasn’t alone. The foot strikes that helped me determine my path were taken in step with two women whose invitation to run with them years ago marked the beginning of a friendship that has come to be defined by more than the miles we cover. Miles that have helped distill the moments that matter most, and find meaning in the commonplace so that every day counts.
Along the way, each of us has battled something. With shared strides, we have helped each other through the most challenging times and taken comfort in the camaraderie that can only be found running three across on a riverside path. Mile after mile, we have absorbed each other’s worries, drawn one another out of lonely places, and grieved together. We have celebrated occasions large and small, giving rise to the less obvious but more deserving wins.
All the while, we have maintained our positions. Like seats around a table, we know our place on the path upon which we run. Tucking in and out seamlessly when needed, whether momentarily to make room for a passing bike or temporarily to make room for life.
Over thousands of miles, it has become clear that everyone is negotiating something. On a recent run taken alone, I came around a bend and encountered three young women running together. Shoulder to shoulder, their shadows linked them on the path between us. In them, I saw my own running trio. And wondered what they will encounter in the years ahead. Will they help each other through? Will they stop to laugh? How many miles will they share before they understand how special it is – a friendship born of running?