Running for My Life

I don’t consider myself a runner. I have no marathon aspirations—the farthest I have ever run (anything over seven miles) is usually a result of getting lost. I only buy new running shoes when my treads are so worn that they’re dangerous-slippery. If you want to measure up against me, here’s my yardstick: 3-6 days a week, I run 3-6 miles and my Nike plus ipod tells me I average about 8 min 35 seconds, something I realized I’ve done for the last seventeen years.

I don’t come from a particularly athletic family—Kistners are bred for brains--so my first experience with running was conditioning for high school field hockey. Our team would run at the beginning of practice, and my two best friends and I would scheme the best shortcuts, hiding in bushes until the team appeared, then jump out at the head of the pack. (Worse, we were the captains!) Looking back, we all loathed our bodies, but never made the connection between fitness and putting some lean muscle on the thighs we loved to hate. Interesting; now all three of us run regularly, look and feel better than we ever did as teenagers.


I packed on the freshman fifteen in college thanks to beer and dining hall ranch dressing. Overwhelmed by the scene at the student fitness center, I turned to running--laps around Cornell Plantations, dashes over the bridges that span Ithaca’s icy gorges, up hills in the snow. The pounds disappeared; the running shoes stayed.

After college, I traveled to Romania as an aide worker in a pediatric hospital and orphanage. Running in the gritty streets of Bucharest, people looked behind me to see what was chasing me, the only reason they could imagine for careening ponytailed and panting through the crowded streets. I would draw a crowd when I ran the crumbling stairs at the empty soccer stadium behind my flat, creased-face leathery men who smoked and shook their heads over this crazy American girl.

Later, I lived alone in Tarifa, Spain. It is hard for me to smell fish cooking and not think of my late afternoons pounding the sand along the beach by the fish factory. I got my first round of shin splints but I couldn’t resist the views from the hill above town—windsurfers like dragonflies on the sea, goats grazing among the ruins of Guzman El Bueno’s fortress, the levante wind in my hair.

As a newlywed, I ran off a rich dinner in Edinburgh, Scotland at ten pm. Not having learned my lesson about old European cities and the fact that you cannot run in a square and be back where you started, I ended up miles out of town. This was probably the longest run of my career, one CD, Moby’s Play repeated three times before I found myself back on Princes Street long after midnight, legs shaking from exertion and relief. Do as I say, not as I do.

I lived years in the Cayman Islands, faced with a running route choice: dodging cars, iguanas and chickens on West Bay Road or zigzagging around rocky tidepools and ghost crabs on the soft sand beach. The challenge of running on this narrow strip of an island is not the heat, but that there are no circular routes, and for a lazy non-runner like me, every step out is one you must come back. I often turn around too early, letting the sunset, the humidity and the mosquitoes chase me back inside for an ice cold coconut water.


Ten years later, I live back in my hometown, where I once hid from field hockey coaches in bushes, running variations of the same route. There are two serious hills on my everyday run. One is called Ex-Boyfriend Hill, a .6 mile slow climb that ends at a beautiful stonewalled park with wooden benches at the top, where for years all of my exes sat in bemused judgment, wondering if I’d make it to the top, if I’d break stride. They didn’t jeer or throw things--few of my break-ups warranted this treatment--but there they sat, smirking, for years.

I took my bridal party on this running route the morning I got married, (guests could choose to run with the bride or golf with the groom,) and I pointed out the benches to my bridesmaids, remarking that they were finally empty—I didn’t need the judgment of old loves driving me up the hill anymore—I was running towards my future.

The other hill is different—legendary. Every runner in town knows Sleepy Hollow. It is barely half a mile, but steep. Short of bringing my husband’s carpenter level out and measuring the hill’s angle at various random points and averaging, I can only guess at the grade, somewhere between 30 and 40 degrees—the kind where you really have to lean into it, so hard that you might graze your chin on the road in front of you. Thankfully, it’s shaded, towering silver maples and ancient oaks that form an arc at the hill’s sharp crest glowing like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

As I imagine with most people who see the light, the glimmer at the top of Sleepy Hollow inspires me to bargain, make deals, mind games. Nine months pregnant with my second son, I shuffled up it in the clinging August humidity, and I told the light at the top, If I run to the top, I will go into labor by tomorrow night. Amazingly, I did, and I did.

And a few summers later, If I make it to the top, I will cure Cherry’s cancer. I did, but I didn’t.


These days, it is often one of my sons pedaling beside me, or sometimes it is my brother the English teacher, talking plot and story arc. I run with my field hockey friend, our toddler daughters in their jog strollers chatting away, passing cookies to each other. But most often it is just me, running just a little harder and faster so Lance Armstrong will join me at the end via iPod: Congratulations, you’ve just achieved a personal best.

I still play in two field hockey leagues and last year I learned to skate and joined an ice hockey team. I love my team sports, the ab workout from laughing, the way you don’t even feel like you’re exercising. Over the years, I’ve flirted with yoga, cardio stripdancing, step aerobics and pilates. But in the end, right about sunset, I’m lacing up my bald Nikes, because though I’m not a runner, I’ve found nothing compares to a quick jog at the end of the day.

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