How To Run: A Beginners Guide To Social-Distancing From Grief

Photo credit: Evonne Ermey

Unclench your fists, shake out your wrists, relax your shoulders. Now, run.

To run far, runners should relax into their stride, which, like a fingerprint, is unique to each person. Some people have a long stride, a strong kick. Some people stare at their feet, some people’s shoulders roll like a panther’s beneath their workout gear. Some glide, some shuffle. I don’t know what my stride looks like. I’ve been told that I make running look easy, which makes me proud. Running isn’t easy.

Sometimes I run with tears streaming down my face and goose pimples on my arms. Sometimes that’s the cold. Sometimes that’s the brain. On good “easy” running days, I high-five palm fronds and droopy tree branches. Are you my dad? How about you, are you my dad? Is it weird to assume my dad is hiding under every rock and leaf along my route?

My dad died eight months ago, and I decided to run a marathon.

A lot of people run marathons in memory of people. I didn’t. I wanted to run away. Literally. I collected money in his name, for a charity that he loved. I even chose a race he would have run. But every time I laced my shoes, everytime I kicked my feet out on the broken sidewalk near my house, I was running away.

If a person leaves point A travelling at a speed of 9 minutes a mile for the first 5 miles and then 10 minutes a mile for the remaining 17.6 miles, how long will it take for that person to arrive at a place that is not grief?

I learned a lot of tricks while running. I learned to run north to south instead of east to west. New suns, like new beginnings, can be beautiful but intense (running into a full sun can be absolutely brutalizing.)

I learned to plot a course. I hadn’t considered that I couldn’t pick a direction and run in it for as long as I’d like, uninterrupted. Canyons, cul de sacs, crowded and slow turning traffic lights threw themselves in my path. Familiar streets held unimagined obstacles.

I learned how demoralizing it was to have to unexpectedly backtrack, to retrace stretches that I’d already kicked my way out of. I’d push aside palm fronds and droopy tree branches I’d high-fived 2 miles earlier. ‘You are not my father, are you?’ I’d hiss, suddenly certain that he existed absolutely nowhere and in nothing. People will tell you to think happy thoughts when you run, but I will tell you that angry thoughts work just as well. Sad thoughts, on the other hand, are quicksand.

At first, I could only think of my dad while pretending to be thinking about something else — the miles, the gear, the song on the playlist. And now I can write about him, but only when pretending to be writing about something else — the run.

Honesty is difficult when there’s something to lose, like your mind.

Dreams of my dad are scrambled like a radio out of signal or a channel I’m unwilling to pay for. Sometimes he’s healthy. Sometimes he’s sick. He’s never dead. He’s never sent me a message from the other side. My sisters tell me about the visits he pays them in their dreams. With tight chest and burning face, I reach for the shoes and throw all my anger out at the universe. “Of everyone, I worry about you the least” he told me once. I lean on that often. Unclench your fists, shake out your wrists, relax your shoulders. Now, run.

I like to run in the rain. There’s something baptismal about it, though my only religion right now is running and my only church is the pavement. If rain washes away grief, the sun squats in the sky dispassionately baking it in. I hate running in the sun. But I do run in it. Sometimes we do things because we have to, not because we want to.

I ran the Marine Corps Marathon on a cloudy, post-rain day in October. I flew across the country to do it. The route, the streets, were unfamiliar, never touched by my Nikes. New. I brought my dad’s ashes with me. Funerary jewelry that I hadn’t wanted to wear until then, which I had, for some reason, wanted to chuck into the ocean the moment I received. Unclench your fists, shake out your wrists, relax your shoulders.

We started at the Pentagon. Dark and nothing to see there. We ran a hill up the still sleeping streets of Arlington. “If you can beat this hill you can beat anything!!” A poster screamed from the sidewalk. Signs crowded the sidelines.

The track turned into highway and wound its way through forest. The sidelines empty. Hushed. A brown road sign for the National Conservatory told us to turn, but we stayed the road quietly panting together. I didn’t expect to find my dad on the track, and I didn’t. I didn’t find him there.

My dad has never come back to talk to me. For several days after he died, while I lay awake unable to sleep from the horror of it all, I felt something holding my shaking heart. I didn’t imagine this feeling. It was as real as my feet making contact with the pavement on a six mile run. For a week it was like that, and then it was gone. He was gone.

There is a bridge that crosses the Potomac, connecting D.C. and Arlington with Georgetown. When I met it that morning, every severed strand of DNA came kicking through my veins. The sun cast yellow light on the river. Rowers pulled in sync. A large church spire climbed higher than any other roof in the fresh sunned sky. And I felt myself seeing for my dad. And breathing for my dad. Being my dad. I can’t explain it. And I can’t tell if it was him or me or both of us holding my shaking heart as we turned toward the bridge.

Unclench your fists.

Shake out your wrists.

Relax your shoulders.

Now . . . Run.

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