My therapist told me once that courage rarely precedes action. I’m not sure if he got that from Winston Churchill or some other eminent statesperson, but whoever said it, for me it rings true this morning.
I went for a run last night. Truthfully, I can’t really call it “a run.” The most I can say is that over the three-mile course I’ve sketched out near my house, some running was done. Before last night, I hadn’t laced up my neon green Brooks for at least three months. How do I know this? Because since our family vacation on an island off the coast of Maine in early July, my running shoes have been resting peacefully in a cargo compartment in the wayback of my wife’s Santa Fe. In fact, I never would have found them, never would have thought to look for them, except a few days ago I was searching for the bike pump so I could inflate my son’s football. And there they were, stashed amid the bungee cords and spare tire fixings. Fortuitous, because I’ve signed up for a 5K on October 27, and training had to begin sooner or later.
In middle age, men and woman have a tendency to sink into lethargy. Mid-life crisis happens in part because we think our lives are over, that we’ve had all our adventures, that we are the people we will be, static and fixed, for the next forty-five years, until we die. In our culture, women seem to have the monopoly on rebirth and renewal. Almost every woman I know in my age group is taking a CrossFit class right now, or doing an Ease Into a 5K program, or practicing veganism, or in a writing group, or taking yoga classes in the middle of the day. Nothing wrong with this at all. I would do the same if I had the chance.
Meanwhile, men work, sit and stare at screens, drink too much, watch too much football, and have heart attacks. Not all, of course. Some surf and do woodworking in the shed or teach spinning classes. But most men are more intractable than most women. More stubborn. No man likes to be told what to do, although most are on a daily basis. and guess what? They follow right along. Maybe their stubbornness is their way of rebelling against the demands that capitalist society puts on them. Men have to say yes to so many things, so that when it comes to drinking low-fat milk or eating more broccoli or going for that prostate exam or getting on the treadmill, they just say no. This far, and no further. Like Bartleby, a simple no becomes the infinite “I’d prefer not to.”
But men have a choice too. Men can take after women and be born again in middle age. George Sheehan did it. We all have a choice. Every day we wake up, roll to a sitting position and put our feet on the floor, we can choose to live fully or die slowly.
So last night, after the kids went to bed, and during the time I’d usually settle in for a few episodes of Louie with a glass of milk and an entire sleeve of Double Stuf, I laced up my shoes, strapped on my yellow reflective wristband, and crested the hill near my house to begin my loop.
The town where I live in Maine is shaped like a giant hot dog and sits on the western shore of the Kennebec River. It’s also hilly, perfect for training. I run down the main street, lined with old captain’s homes, a street that was once so narrow, the telephone poles rise up from the asphalt of the road and not from behind the sidewalk’s curb. I run past old churches, their steeples lit by ground-level spotlights, shining upwards. I run through the downtown; a few blocks of old red-brick buildings and alleyways, past the department store, cafes, and public houses. I secretly snicker at the folks on the sidewalks smoking cigarettes, taking breaks from their Bud Light and Red Sox games, and I feel superior. I want to yell out, “Keep smoking! I hear it’s good for you!”
But I never do. I don’t want to be chased like the time I was running close to midnight in the winter in Rochester, NY and some guys tried to jump me and one swung at me and connected with my throat even though he was aiming for my head and I screamed like a girl in disbelief, yelling “I’m only running! I’m only running!” Not comprehending that someone who was doing something so innocent could be randomly singled out and attacked in the middle of a residential neighborhood and so I ran into someone’s backyard and hid behind an old refrigerator and waited until I could hear them laughing and wandering off.
Despite this, like other writers I know, I run at night. I love running at night. The darkness in the near distance hides the ground I have to cover. I can run from lamppost to lamppost, marking my way in shorter chunks. Cars can hopefully see me, true. But I’m otherwise invisible, inconspicuous. I float through my town like a chubby penguin’s aura.
Running has never been fun for me. I’ve never experienced the runner’s high. Running isn’t about play or about feeling like a child again. I can’t even listen to music when I run, because if I do, I can’t hear myself breathe and my chest tightens and I want to quit. I’ve tried making running playlists, filled with Metallica, Black Keys, and A Tribe Called Quest. It ain’t happening. I need the silence.
Still, I put these things aside and run. As I have been, off and on for the past thirty years. Because every once in a great while, I do find some small measure of joy. As when I swim or surf, I have the chance to feel lighter than my 230 pounds. In the darkness, running, I can feel reborn.
Fall is here in Maine, and that means winter and heating oil purchases aren’t far behind. My surfing dreams are fading with the daylight, the surfboard I never bought like a hole in the water. Deactivating all my social media accounts has felt like a bitter detox at times. I need to get back inside my own head, to focus on me for a bit.
So even though I’m not a runner, I run. At least I can do this much. As long as I don’t think too hard about it. If I act first, if I lace up my shoes and pull on my hoodie before I have time to reconsider, then courage will keep pace.