By Amy Kaler
1. When I first realized I was doing it, that evening – I was running ten kilometres and would finish squarely in front of the building where I lived – I should have had the right music. 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 and I suggest you listen to it, but it doesn’t have the exuberant finality the moment at first seemed to require. “The Changing of the Guards” is a gorgeous, 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 was the right song for the moment.
2. The moment was a long time coming. I am not an athlete. I inhaled the Cartesian mind/body dualism 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 wasn’t athletic because I equated athleticism with gym class. I regarded people who were athletic in this sense with a mix of envy and mild fear, like the hearty fun-in-the-sun jocks of high school and summer camp. Later I learned about feminism and cultural critiques of normativity, and 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 be something like “mind fascism” and that I might be doing it). So when I turned into a runner at 52, I was heading into terrain that I had never claimed as my own.
3. I don’t mean to tell this as an uplifting story. If the months when I started running were to be released as a biopic or an Oprah appearance or an Eat-Pray-Love narrative, it would be unsatisfying. There are no aha moments, and no inspiring struggles against odds. I started running for a few reasons: because I was getting really tired of yoga; because I had heard there was a runner’s high or a zone of exaltation and I wanted to get into it; because my life was swelling up with midlife stressors that wouldn’t go away and I’ve always believed that if you can’t do anything else, you can always do something new. And this was new.
4. So several evenings a week I went outside and started to run, and then when I started to feel pretty bad I ran a bit more, and when I felt worse I stopped. I had no training or learn-to-run program, and my only accessories were an MP3 player and a Strava app, which quantified and fixed my runs as little maps and nuggets of data. I was gratified that my first few runs weren’t disastrous, that I could keep asking myself “what happens if I keep going a bit more … and a bit more … and a bit more… can I do another ten steps? Yes I can. Another? Yes”. It occurred to me that if I just kept doing ten more steps, I might never stop. I might run forever. And the more I ran, the more I was drawn to the idea of never stopping.
5. Obviously I didn’t run forever. But one of the reasons I continue to run is to get to that place where it feels like I could run right off the top of the earth, a sort of disciplined wildness that had been within me all along, until my pounding heart and the trees sliding past called it out of me.
6. Before this descends in Women Who Run With the Wolves, I’m going to loop back to Patti Smith and the gorgeousness of “The Changing of the Guards”. I live and run in the eastern part of central Edmonton, midtownish, neither hip urban centre nor suburb. It was built between the 1930s and 1960s and is not especially beautiful. Rows of houses are interspersed with walkup apartments and utilitarian throwbacks to the days when people congregated in the neighbourhood – community league halls, schools, churches, mini-strip malls, now mainly underused. At the peak of midday it’s not full of people,
and by 9.00 on a summer weeknight, it’s very quiet. The streets are wide, the sunset is lit up faintly by the refineries to the east and the elms and conifers are dropping shadows around me. I know – something in the air or the light – that I’m up north and high above sea level. I pass fellow travelers I recognize from previous runs: the orange tabby with half a tail, the lone kid in the spray park, the taco truck parked behind the curling rink, but as it gets later these sightings trail off until it’s just me and a hundred different forms of dying light. No one will ever spin a fable about east-central Edmonton but running transforms it into a strange and marvelous world to inhabit, as vivid to me as Dylan’s images.
7. Is this feminism? Because I am a woman, does everything I do with strength and power become feminist? I don’t know. Certainly not everything in my life is done this way, which makes running important to me. Whatever else I do, I will always be the woman who ran ten kilometres for the first time when she was 52, and who could imagine herself never stopping, running right off the surface of the earth.
Amy Kaler is a professor and associate chair in the department of sociology at the University of Alberta. Her academic work can be found here: https://sites.google.com/ualberta.ca/amykaler/home?authuser=2. Her nonacademic writing about Edmonton can be found here: https://edmontonseries.wordpress.com/