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When I first realized I was doing it, that August evening in Edmonton — when I realized I was running ten kilometres and I would finish squarely in front of the building where I lived — I should have had the right music on. I had my running mix singing through earbuds, and in a perfect world I would have been hearing something triumphant, David Bowie’s “Heroes” or one of Bruce Springsteen’s anthems, or even something embarrassingly dramatic like the Rocky theme. What I had instead was Patti Smith’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Changing of the Guards”. It’s a great cover, but it doesn’t have the exuberant finality the moment seemed to require. It’s an allusive song filled with fragments of enchanted landscapes: banners flying over fields and witches holding flowers and a town of merchants and thieves. It doesn’t really add up to victory and personal best, and that is why, in the end, it actually was the right song for the moment.
That moment was a long time coming. I am not an athlete. I inhaled the Cartesian mind/body dualism for most of my five decades, and I lived it long before I had words for it. I knew from earliest childhood that I was a mind (or rather, an avid reader who was good at school, which seemed like the same thing) and therefore I could not be a body as well. I was no good at anything involving dexterity because I am severely left-handed, with poor vision in one eye and a vexing inability to locate objects in space, which I now understand as the proprioceptive equivalent of dyslexia. Ergo, I was no good at throwing or catching. Ergo, I was not athletic, because I equated athleticism with gym class at my high school. I regarded people who were athletic with a mix of envy and fear, like the hearty fun-in-the-sun jocks of high school and summer camp. Later, I went to McGill and learned about feminism and cultural critiques of normativity. Somewhere in there I learned the term “body fascism,” which I applied liberally, if inwardly, to anyone I didn’t particularly like who seemed to be in great physical shape. (It didn’t occur to me that there might also be something like “mind fascism” and that I might be guilty of it.) So when I turned into a runner at age 52, I was heading into terrain that I had never learned to claim as my own.
I don’t mean to tell this as an uplifting story. I started running in May, and if the intervening months were to be released as a biopic or an Oprah appearance or an Eat-Pray-Love narrative, it would be an unsatisfying production. And boring. There are no aha! moments, no inspiring struggles against tall odds. I started running for a few reasons: