Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why I will run the Paris Marathon

Running the semi-marathon in March

I was recently told that “women your age don’t run marathons.” While I understand "women my age" are more prone to injury, I have never seen an age-only warning on a pair of running shoes. So when a friend asked me why I would run a marathon, I didn't have to think about it, the answer is simple:  because I can. I run because I have the health and as a woman living in the West, I can. I run the marathon in celebration of a body that has got me this far in life, to obey the instinct of a body that, for reasons I can’t explain, has been charged with the imperative to run.

I don’t run fast, in fact, like most things I do, I run slowly.  I do the obligatory strengthening exercises to ensure I will run as fast as I can, and I do the speed runs, but I still don't run fast. I won't be running to win on April 12, but rather, am motivated by a commitment to fulfilling my own potential, and a curiosity to find my own limits, to reinforce that I can; that's what keeps me going. What I didn't reckon with was that training for a marathon I would discover so much more about myself than my physical limits. I am learning, about commitment, about finding my rhythms, how to self talk my way through "the wall," but most of all, I am learning how to believe I can.  

My training schedule is all pleasure and joy, thanks to the fact that I live in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, a city that looks gorgeous in every light, no matter the weather.  My long runs are measured by the number of bridges along the Seine. Each week as I have built up miles, I ran a few more bridges until eventually I reached Sèvres and the Bois de Boulogne.  It's a long way, but I get to see Paris in a way I never have before. Some mornings the sun shines so brightly on the river that it sparkles, some mornings the smoke from the chimneys on the outskirts of Ivry appears like a hologram, surrounded by a cold grey, but always translucent sky, a sky that reminds me winter is not quite done.

I ran my hills in Canterbury, sometimes running as far as Whitstable, with a headlight as the dark falls so early in winter. That was until I fell on the entrance to the A2 to London, a bad fall that knocked my confidence, and had me running a far less ambitious route, but still with hills. I don’t enjoy running the hills, and the cold wet England night air can be challenging, but this is when I start California dreaming. It’s what I love about running—there are no limits to what I can imagine when I am running. When I run the Whitstable Road in the dead of winter, in my thoughts I am usually somewhere between Santa Monica and Venice Beach, in the sun and the sea. 

The hardest thing about training for the Paris marathon is the hardest thing about living in Europe in the winter: the cold and dark. I don’t run in the early morning, I don’t get up particularly early, but there are days when my long run is scheduled, so I do it even as the snow begins to fall. There are people I know from my runs, most of them homeless, panhandlers, council workers, the man who walks his dog at the same time I am stretching, the security guards at the bank, the man who sells lunch to the workers from a caravan on the Quai de la Rapée, the woman who sits at the entrance to the toilets on Quai d’Orsay. Very occasionally I see someone I know, from my other life, from those hours of the day when I am not running. All of them, no matter who it is, whether I know them or not, if they smile and say "bonjour," put a spring in my step. I get more energy from seeing familiar faces on my run than I ever have from gels and power drinks.

Four years ago, I announced that I don't run marathons and I never would. What changed? It’s easy. Running is the most resolute reinforcement of my identity, it reminds me who I am, it gives me independence and completion. To run a marathon is a celebration, a celebration of life, of health, and being an independent woman. When my undergraduate women students tell me with long faces that they are conditioned to fill a given social role, to live up to the expectations of a world in which women take their place behind men, I tell them they don't have to comply. They can do whatever they set their minds to. They don't all believe me. Age is changing me. I realize that there will be a time when "a woman of my age" will not be able to run the marathon. I figure that while I can, I need to pass on what I have learnt if I am to fulfill my life’s purpose. And so, I will run the marathon to show to myself and the generation of young women who don't yet believe that they can do whatever they dream, that anything is possible!

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