I’m not a runner. I never was a runner. I never intended to become a runner.
Then, last November, just one day before I left for my first-ever trip across the great Atlantic Ocean to visit Italy, my relationship with my feet changed forever.
I was helping a friend stow kayaks away for the winter in his shed, where legend has it a horse groom who lived there had frozen to death decades ago. This horse groom’s ghost is known to be malicious.
We lifted the kayaks up over the rafters. I climbed down from a stepladder and then, celebrating how easy the task had been, promptly collapsed to the ground when my foot landed funny on the edge of a two-by-four lying on the floor on the spot where the horse groom had died.
The pain shot up and down my leg, then up and down my spine. I limped to the nearest house to ice it, but two hours later it was swollen like a balloon. I had less than 18 hours to get on a plane and my one bag, a carry-on, was a backpack with no wheels.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. My feet are like time bombs, waiting to be hurt. The last time this happened was on the afternoon of April 15, 2013. I’d just finished helping to repair a rotted soffit on a house in Mattituck when my leg collapsed underneath me as I carried a ladder down a grade after we’d finished work for the day.
It happened at just about the same moment the bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I spent the night staring at the carnage on the television, crying at the pain in my foot and crying at the selfishness of feeling any pain myself when so many other people had been maimed for life.
This time, I promised myself, I wasn’t going to be a baby. I limped to JFK. I limped from one end of the Paris airport to another, searching for a connecting flight that I was about to miss. Security had their hands all over me when they saw the excruciated look on my face.
“I’m not a terrorist,” I promised. “It’s just that my Achilles heel is, well, my ankle. I’m a Capricorn, you see. Bad things happen to my feet. I’ll show you if you let me take off my sock.”
They seemed miffed that I wasn’t speaking to them in French. I merci’d my way out of there and onto a plane to Venice, where everyone walks everywhere. On cobblestones. Over bridges. Miles and miles per day. It was gorgeous. I fit right in with all the beggars limping around the doorways of the churches. My foot swelled further as I downed Aleve tablets and grinned and drank cheap Venetian wine to quell the pain.
Back in the states two weeks later, my foot was still black and blue. My dog was angry that we were walking at the pace of a demented snail. He seemed embarrassed to be seen with me as I hobbled with him around the neighborhood. Every morning, I shook the numbness out of my foot and tried to hobble on. Every step felt to me like a baby’s new step out into the world.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Nova was on the television. They were talking about what it takes to be a good, natural runner. I was immediately wide awake.
It seemed that people who’d run barefoot all their lives suffered fewer injuries and were able to run farther and longer than people who grew up wearing shoes. I didn’t know this at the time, but it’s been a movement in the running world for quite some time now. There are even scores of special shoes designed to gradually acclimate runners whose feet have become crippled by a lifetime of walking around in ill-fitting shoes.
My foot has now long healed, but every time I get out of bed and put both feet squarely on the ground, I’m still amazed by the solid feeling of my bare feet on the solid ground. Just that little piece of knowledge that your feet know what to do seems to have changed my life.
It feels like a jumping-off point, a promise made by a universe that said to me in the middle of the night — ‘healing you is easy. Now how are you going to take that out and do something good in the world?’
I ordered up a pair of Altra One2 running shoes from Canada. They promised to give my feet the room and support they needed. The UPS man walked them up to my front door.
I laced them up and ran up and down the streets of my neighborhood. Snow was still melting everywhere and the thermometer was barely cracking freezing, but I convinced myself of the reality of spring. Every footfall felt real, connected and purposeful.
The next day, I laced up and ran out again. And again. And again. First I’m going to take on the Shelter Island 10K and then it’s off to the inaugural Suffolk County Marathon. I’m taking it easy this year and only doing the half marathon. I’m not about to press my luck.
I don’t know all that much about running today, but I do know these three things:
1. I’ve never been more aware of what my body is really doing in the world, from every ache to every misstep to every time something moves right in tune. It’s a sport that can’t help but force your entire body to just be here now.
2. Places aren’t as far away as you think they are and you can get there with nothing more than the feet on your feet.
3. When you’re moving, the weather moves around you. You’re in a cocoon in the center of it, warm and self-contained, an observer who can chose at any moment to be a part of the great big world.
I think I’m hooked.