June 1, 2016

People : Running, Ten Years Later

Historically, I've turned to running when I'm having a hard time in some part (or all parts) of life. It's not something I naturally started as a fun thing to do for its own sake--it served more as a distraction or relief from something else.

During my sophomore year of college, I dropped all my pre-med classes and focused on studying literature and language. I took all humanities classes, took a job editing for a small publisher, and forced myself to take a year of French. I loved reading so many books and sharpening my essaying, but I realized I didn't like any of the avenues this was was taking me. I woke up each morning anxious about what I wanted to do.

So I started running. Until the anxiety dissipated (and I realized that when on my own terms, medicine really was a good fit for me).  And I stopped running.

Then during my senior year of college, I struggled with simultaneously writing my thesis and studying for my MCAT (the most important exam for getting into medical school--and the least relevant to actual medicine). On top of that, we were all trying to come to terms with the end of this period, figuring out what it was supposed to mean, what it actually meant, what should come next. I couldn't sleep more than four or five hours a night. To get to sleep I took ambien for the first, brief and only period of my life (even taking only half meant I felt fuzzy and non-functional the next day so I quickly stopped). It would help me fall asleep, but I'd wake up hours before I needed to, often before dawn.

So I gave up on staying in bed and started running by the Charles River in the early morning, completing the ritual by eating a grapefruit for breakfast (ever since then I've loved having citrus after a run). Then I finished my thesis, took my MCAT, graduated, and stopped running.

The cycle repeated itself in medical school. During my second year, I took up running in winter snow to de-stress from a tumultuous relationship and its tumultuous end.  Then I let it leave my life until the following year when I was miserable on my surgery rotation.

I had a lot of opportunity to look back on these times of difficulty over the past decade because this past weekend, I went to my ten year college reunion. We talked a lot about what's changed. It's a given that the concrete matter of our lives has changed. Jobs, homes, marriage, babies.

But I felt most grateful to hear how we feel our internal selves have changed. "I feel more sure of myself." "I used to think that there were set paths, and now it's--life's messy." "I don't care as much about how I'm presented." "We were much more unaware of our privilege." "You can never really know what will happen." People have moved to opposite coasts of the country, gone away to retreats and returned with goals to learn and teach, committed to one thing only to find that it was best to leave.

I think it's these changes--more awareness of self and less reactivity to others' perception--that have enabled me to make a concrete change when it comes to running.  To weave the movement into the tethers of my constant life, instead of as a response to some low in the timeline of my life.

On my last day in Boston I go for a long run. I find that though there's no current struggle in my life, the run itself is the challenge. When I first arrived, the temperature dipped into ninety degrees and the buildup of humidity falls down in the sheets of cool rain on the day of my run. I've always loved this cycle of saturating the air with moisture and wringing it out with rain. But for the run, it makes me at first want to turn around in the first few miles and call it quits.

But I cross into Boston Common and the public gardens and the lake where swan boats glide in better weather, and I can't leave the lush green against the red brick. I follow the river into Cambridge and back to the river paths that supported me back when I had less ground. I dodge some of the geese (I have distinct memories of being chased by them while attempting to feed them bread, and I'm terrifed but not surprised when one of them stretches its beak vertically wide and hisses at me), run by the dorms (quaintly known as the river houses), feel the dirt trails become mud, and grow glad that I pushed myself to continue in the rain.

Then my phone takes two seconds to go from 20% battery to 1%, the rain transforms from mist and spattering to continuous downpour, and I get lost trying to find my way back to downtown Boston. I'm likely the only person alive who can lose the river, and I'm led astray by two other runners pointing me in a direction I realize is wrong after running a good mile down the road. When I do find the river again, I'm taking no chances so I'm forced to knock on someone's car window at a red light and scare the hell out of the passenger, to confirm I'm going in the right direction.  Then I tuck my phone in my shirt sleeve praying that the water won't kill it forever, and hustle another six miles back in relentless rain.

When I return, hair soaked like plunged in a pool and sneakers squished with water absorbed from me in puddles and cars next to me in puddles, my friend asks me: What did you think about when running without something to listen to on your phone?

After the terror of being stranded passed, and I accepted that my phone might permanently drown and I couldn't do anything about it, I thought about other things. About how this is my absolute favorite weather: bright, fresh green against gray sky, especially after a long winter, feeling the water that's the source of the lush.  About how I created this struggle of a run, just by being me--horrible with directions, not preparing well for a two hour run because I assume it will fall into a place, stubbornly pushing through a small barrier only to face a bigger one. About how I would never have gotten to experience this old, beautiful place in this way, if I'd waited for my life to become difficult to seek it out.

And I see how in a decade, we slowly learn how this exists at once: how much is out of our hands, and how much we carry in our feet. For me, what we've gained is the humility to accept what we can't control and the self-strength to still continue in motion.

One friend comments about another friend, how we can go years without seeing him and when we do see him, it's immediately familiar. He, like each of us, carries a stable essence, but underneath the layers shift, evaporate, desiccate, re-germinate. And it is this friend who recommends a book to me for my flight back from this old home to my current home: Discontent and its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid. Fittingly, it includes writings from his time in three different cities in his life. In its first few pages is this:

"Rereading them now, I am struck by how their writer, which is to say me, has changed over the years. Obviously, there have been changes in writing style and technique. But there have been other changes as well, changes in how I view the world, changes that perhaps reflect how I am in the world, and those changes remind me that I am becoming a different person, that I am inventing myself as I go along, as I suspect we all are."

It's a strange feeling to evaluate change in a setting that feels so familiar. There's no city that evokes for me the kind of nostalgia that Cambridge/Boston does. It was my first real place, my first experience of weather, my discovery of so much inside and outside. No matter what changes, I think we will always want to return to these periods to remember who we were and understand who we are.


  1. This is beautiful, Kim! You weave the poignant and the humor so wonderfully in this. I laughed out loud in this sentence: "About how I created this struggle of a run, just by being me--horrible with directions, not preparing well for a two hour run because I assume it will fall into a place, stubbornly pushing through a small barrier only to face a bigger one." Not because it's funny you got lost (it's not), but I can relate. I was running around Mission Bay a couple of months ago and got lost amongst the construction and was climbing over fences trying to get out because I had no idea where I was. (Not great with directions either.) And my phone died too, in a downpour. But in it all, I came upon a beautiful double rainbow and was able to process through moving to a new city and what it meant to be there. I'm so glad you've been able to run with different memories now too and that it's opening up new things and experiences. :)

    1. I can't believe you had that similar experience! I guess it happens to more people than we think. And you're right--it can lead to different thought processes and experiences, which is what it's all about anyway.


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