Running: The Beginning

I don’t recall precisely why I chose running and swimming as the counterbalance to studying for the bar exam. In high school I had practiced the 880-yard distance with the girls’ track team, but I’d been too slow to compete. During college, I had persuaded my roommate to jog the hills surrounding campus on Sunday mornings until the opportunity to sleep until ten had outweighed her enthusiasm for the sport. I hadn’t had the courage to run alone so I had put my sneakers away until the summer of 1976. Swimming was the more natural outlet for my mental stress, as I recalled my childhood days at the YMCA, family hours at the local public pool, synchronized swimming groups, and the lure of the rhythmic lap after lap of mile-long swims.

The gift of running found me at the three-quarter mile dirt track at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. In the early years of the twentieth century, the field was one of the key spots to cycle the one gear-no brake bicycles, then all the rage among daring cyclists (though apparently not yet called ‘fixies’). I wore flat-bottomed Keds sneakers, my husband’s khaki shorts from his days in the Marine Corps, and a baggy tee shirt. The first day was hardly memorable. I cautiously made my way through the pedestrian tunnel to the track, waiting until the other runners were halfway around the oval before I took my first step. I firmly placed one foot in front of the other, over and over, yard after yard, no finesse to my rudimentary form. Concepts of proper technique, hydration and nutrition were not yet part of my sport. Today, I would be considered “retro”; then, I was merely uninformed.

I slogged and huffed in relative obscurity, the only woman among the bastion of male joggers. I barely managed a full circle before I collapsed on the grass of the inner field. My legs burned, my calves ached, and my breath pounded. I was sore but I wasn’t discouraged; this endeavor warranted more time. Soon it became a noontime activity, interspersed, on rainy days, with swimming at the pool.

At the track, the number of laps I ran slowly but steadily increased during the summer. My concentrated foot-after-foot placement became more natural; my breathing less labored; my distance measured in miles rather than yards. I had only to compete with myself as I began to feel an incremental improvement in my running gait, speed and endurance. I also began to understand the nascent running movement, encouraging friends to try the sport, extolling the physical and mental benefits of the sustained activity. At the time, only one of our mutual friends ran, but he engaged in an extreme version of the sport, running barefoot (again, before the “natural running movement”), on roads, on hiking trails, on cold and rainy days. I wasn’t quite ready for that level of commitment, but running became a must-do for my days.

After about a month, I moved my practice runs from the narrow world of the track to our neighborhood, conquering hills, running across road median strips, and prancing at stop lights, waiting for the red to turn green. I waved to neighbors, to shopkeepers, to kids waiting for the bus. I began to rush through my studies, anxious to put on my shoes, grab the leash for our dog, and hit the road. Taking breaks to run or swim was critical to my concentration; my other classmates thought I was crazy to take two hours out of each day to do something other than study. I felt I didn’t have a choice; I needed the physical exertion to maintain the mental stamina the intense studying required. It worked.

I survived the two-and-a-half day bar exam at the end of July. My first thoughts after the fleeting “Did I do well enough to pass?” were to bicycle home, change clothes, put on my running shoes and tackle my nemesis, the steep hill just north of our apartment, the reward for the culmination of my twin summer efforts of studying and exercise.

Excerpt from "First Friends: Love, Loss and Life in Humboldt County."