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My one little word for 2020 is resilience.

I haven’t written about it much here, either pre- or mid-pandemic, mostly because I have been too busy trying to live it. Resilience seems an obvious choice, perhaps, for someone rebuilding after a divorce; I wondered if I didn’t need a word that sounded a little brighter, more joyful. But resilience, it turns out, is the perfect word for this crazy year, which keeps throwing us new curveballs even as we scramble to field the latest ones. And, along with several of my other recent words, resilience is a perfect companion to my running.

Like so many parts of our lives – exercise, relationships, housework, even getting out of bed in the morning – running sometimes depends on an inner toughness, a willingness and an ability to keep doing the damn thing. This morning I woke up to grey skies and misty rain (though at least it wasn’t cold), and I had to decide to lace up my sneakers and go out for a run, knowing it might be miserable at first. (It was.)

I’ve run when I was tired, when I didn’t feel like changing clothes or getting sweaty, when my hamstrings were protesting from an intense yoga class, when it was cold or dark or I was just not in the mood. I’ve been lucky so far to mostly escape injuries (knock wood), but I have also run after a few minor incidents that had me worried about the state of my body. I want to keep running for as long as I can, and that means not just running when the weather is glorious or when I feel like it. My running is resilient: it has so far survived three winters, a divorce, a move, a stone bruise and the first eleven thousand months of a pandemic. As I keep on with it, I remember that I am, too.

I started running in 2017, when I was following magic to unexpected and sometimes challenging places. Running, as you know by now, has proven to be both. I kept running throughout 2018, when my word was grit – a word applicable to running on every level I can think of. And in 2019, when my word was thrive, I ran miles and miles on paths both new and familiar, determined to thrive even though I had no idea how to navigate the collapse of my marriage and all the attendant changes.

We are two-ish months away from 2021, and I don’t know as yet what my word for the year will be. But I’m betting that whatever it is, it will resonate with my running life in some way. I’ll carry it with me, the way I carry these other words in my bones and blood, all of them invisible but vital to who I am.

“Are you a morning runner?” a friend asked recently, on a rambling (masked) walk along the Esplanade. She’s the second or third person to ask me that in recent months, since the pandemic has shifted all our rhythms so drastically. I thought about it for a second. “I guess I am now.”

When I started running, I started doing it at night – after work and the long commute home, I’d grab a snack and pull on my running gear. I loved rambling alone down the Neponset river trail, even as the evenings grew longer and darker. I bought a running light at Target, and though it made me nervous sometimes, I kept running mostly in the evening for nearly a year. (I do love a morning/noontime run on the weekends, when I don’t have to squeeze it in before work.)

Two summers ago, I was between jobs for a couple of months and did a lot of morning running. When I started working at Berklee, I switched back to evening and sometimes lunchtime running – mostly because I am not motivated to get up early enough to run, shower and then commute to work before 9 a.m. But the pandemic has shifted that rhythm, along with so many others, and these days, I get up and run (after breakfast and tea) almost every morning.

There’s a lot to love about both kinds of running: for me, getting out there to move early in the day can be very satisfying, physically and mentally. I love watching the neighborhood wake up (if I’m out early enough) and the morning light on the water. But I also love a good evening run: it can shake out the cobwebs from a long day at the computer, and the sunsets over the river or the harbor can be truly spectacular.

For now, it seems, the time of day I run depends on the rhythm of my life at any given moment. Which is fitting, given that I want running to be a durable and flexible part of my life. It has to fit, and I’m willing to do what I need to do to make it fit into my days. It’s adaptable when I need it to be, but also sturdy – whether it’s happening morning, noon or night.

It’s no secret that I am a creature of habit and stability: I drink the same tea (usually from the same mug) nearly every morning, write in my journal almost every day, buy myself flowers (at least) once a week and run the same basic route throughout Eastie nearly every day. But I read somewhere that humans need a combination of stability and novelty, and that’s also true for my running route. Sometimes, changing up the loop a bit can be just the refresh my brain needs.

When I lived in Dorchester and ran on the Neponset, this looked like circling through the hills of Pope John Paul II Park, or going out as far as I dared to the point with the wooden pier flanked by beach roses and a forsythia bush that turned shocking yellow in the spring. Once in a while, I’d turn around and run the other way, through the woods toward Milton, but not very often: I loved my water-and-sky views too much.

Here in Eastie, the beginning of my run is always the same: out the door and down the hill, down the harborwalk to the point and back. But once I finish that loop, I have choices.

I can run the length of Maverick Street and take the back entrance to the greenway. Once there, I can loop around the stadium – or go through the playground framed by locust trees (currently a gorgeous golden yellow). Once I rejoin the greenway, I can run straight down it toward home, or if I want a little extra distance, I can go the other way, up toward the YMCA, the playground and the branch library. (The maple trees along that stretch are a glorious red right now.) If I’m just not feeling it, or the skies have opened up, I can turn back through the shipyard after running the harborwalk, and head home early.

The ending is usually the same, too: either past Piers Park or through it, and then home. I love passing the same landmarks on my route: the community gardens, the houses with mums currently decking their front porches, the public art, the patches of asters (in the fall) or daffodils (in the spring). I love paying attention to the small changes through the seasons, and making small changes, as needed, to my route to stretch myself or just wake my brain up.

This is one reason I hate running on a treadmill: it’s endlessly the same. Running outside, even if it’s the exact same loop, always offers new details to see, and the light changes subtly every single day. But there’s also more room for variation in this “regular” route than I sometimes remember. Turning just one different corner can make such a difference to the morning, and it’s a good reminder: sometimes a little novelty is just the thing.

As I’ve grown to love running, and explored various running routes around the Boston area, I’ve been doing a similar thing with cycling.

I used to love riding bikes in my neighborhood as a child, and I spent hours on my jade-green bike as a grad student in Oxford. But I’d lived in Boston for eight years before I got up the gumption to try riding the city streets on a bike. The traffic terrified me, and I didn’t have a bike of my own.

My guy (though we were just friends then) convinced me to try out Bluebikes, Boston’s bike-share program, two years ago after I’d started a new job at Berklee. My first dozen or more rides followed the same route between Berklee and Harvard Square – much more pleasant than the 1 bus, except in driving rain. As I got stronger and more confident, I began trying new things occasionally: turning down a side street to see where it would go, trying out part of my commute on a bike, riding around Eastie when I moved here. I began paying more attention to bike lanes and traffic signals, and I’m still trying to make my peace with the hills in certain parts of Boston. This summer, I inherited a bright pink single-speed from a friend, and I’ve participated in several protest rides, plus a number of long rides with my guy (who is a cycling instructor, advocate and general bike fanatic).

As with yoga, I didn’t really think of cycling as having any connection to running. But they inform one another, sometimes in surprising ways. I’ve gained confidence on a bike in a similar way to the confidence I’ve gained with running: in this case, the muscle memory was there, but it needed to be revived. I keep learning that I can go farther, pedal stronger and even ride faster than I think I can. Sometimes I need a rest day after a seriously long ride. And in both cases, the main motivation is the sheer joy of moving through the world in this particular way.

#run31: rest.

I fell into running almost by accident, but once I did, I fell hard and fast. Within a month after I started running, I was out on the trail four or five days a week. That number has increased with my strength, my love of running, and the pandemic – to the point where I’ll often look up and realize I’ve run seven or 10 or 14 days in a row.

Running is one of my favorite daily rhythms, a way to move my body (and sometimes my thoughts), clear my head, drink in the fresh air. There are so many reasons to love it, and I’ve been writing about many of them this month. But here’s a corollary truth: sometimes I need a rest.

I’ve read a few articles about repetitive stress injuries, and while I’m healthy and strong, I definitely want to be mindful of that. Sometimes my muscles need a day off from the motion and effort of running, whether that’s taking a yoga class or a long walk, or taking a day to sleep in and simply be. (Sometimes, like last week, I need a rest after a long bike ride – 22 miles! – which was fabulous, but exhausting.)

I’m often antsy to get back out there by the next morning, and I’m hoping to keep running six or seven days a week for the foreseeable future. But I’m putting this out there so I don’t forget: rest is also an essential part of any running regimen. My muscles, and my soul, need restoration just as much as they need exercise.

Running has brought me, as I keep saying, lots of unexpected gifts – many of which I didn’t even know I needed. Before I became a runner, I would have said I had a healthy relationship with my body, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say I lived in a state of neutrality toward it.

I’ve spent as much time as the average American woman trying to ignore the conflicting messages we get about our bodies: the magazines that scream at us about which kind of bodies are acceptable, the fashionable clothes that don’t seem designed for real women, the airbrushed images of Hollywood stars or elite athletes. I’ve made an effort to eat (mostly) healthy food and get some regular exercise my whole adult life. But I wouldn’t have said, prior to running, that I loved my body.

I grew up in a culture that prized the life of the mind: my early reading skills, spelling prowess and writing skills earned me a lot of acclaim as a child and teenager. I make a living these days by writing and editing, also activities of the mind, and the Christian faith in which I was raised also emphasized the brain and heart over the body. (The particular brand of evangelicalism with which I’m most familiar has often spoken about the human body in mostly negative terms: the need to subdue and control the body, or what the church believes people should do with their bodies. Those messages make an odd contrast to the notion – which I also heard growing up – that God’s creation is good, and that we, along with the rest of creation, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”)

As I began and then kept on running (and doing boot camps and yoga classes), I started to marvel at what my body could do, how it felt to move through the air with fluidity and grace, the strength in my legs and endurance in my lungs that I hadn’t known existed. Under Erin’s guidance on Monday nights, I learned that I could lift weights and do push-ups and squats and other exercises in a way I’d never done before. I started learning more about my body’s capabilities, feeling more in tune with it. And overwhelmingly, I started to believe: this is good.

We all grow up absorbing some notion of the “ideal” body: through statues or magazines or the messages we hear from media outlets and the people we know and love. I was teased for my curves as they started to develop, and I used to feel inferior because I was short. I didn’t believe my body was the “ideal” body. But I’m starting to revise my definition of “ideal,” and to care less about that altogether.

My body, whether or not she comes up to anyone’s standard, is mine: she’s been supporting and sheltering me for 37 years. She is healthy and freckled, petite and sinewy, curvaceous and stronger than I ever thought she was. She deserves my loving care and attention, and on most days, she wants to run. And it’s a total joy to be out there, in my body, loving my body, moving through the world in this vessel I will always call home.

As I’ve said many times this month, I started running with low expectations, and even a bit of trepidation. I knew a lot of people who got a kick out of running, and I was no stranger to the joys of a long walk or a sweaty, satisfying yoga class. But I knew that if running proved downright painful or unpleasant, I was unlikely to stick with it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel.

I recently reread Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One, and one of the characters, 17-year-old Willow, is a runner. She notes, near the beginning of the book, that “when I run, my body stops being a grouping of parts and becomes a single thing. A fluidity. A living, breathing verb.”

I don’t always feel like that when I run: sometimes it’s a slog, heavy sneakers pounding on pavement. Sometimes it gets a bit monotonous. But at its best, running feels the way Willow describes it: “For me, being good was not the point. The point was cutting through the air, using the air, the way I used the ground. Who cared about good when there was joy like that?”

Running is sometimes meditation, sometimes a much-needed dose of solitude, sometimes a way to work off anxiety or tiredness or a plain old case of the blues. But often, it is that kind of joy: the physical pleasure of my body moving in concert with the air and the ground, the music pumping in my earbuds, lungs and legs and heart working together. It’s not always a conscious kind of magic, but it is always a kind of miracle. And that joy is one of the main reasons I keep heading back out there again and again.

One of my favorite things about running is the way it lets me move through the landscape, whether it’s a new-to-me city (or neighborhood) or my comfortingly regular harborwalk-to-greenway loop. I love the constant nudges to pay attention: to the feel of the road under my sneakers, the air on my skin, the changing leaves and flowers nearby, the dog walkers and rabbits and squirrels on the path.

But this summer, I got seriously lucky: the folks at PangeaSeed partnered with half a dozen local artists (like Imagine876, above) to create new, colorful murals in my part of Eastie. For a couple of weeks, I watched the murals evolve day by day on my morning runs, and I’m loving the gorgeous colors now that they’re finished. This one is in the shipyard, on the building that houses Downeast Cider, and you can see its vibrant colors from all the way across the harbor.

The mural at the top of this post is on the greenway, where I often run; it’s a celebration of the salt marsh sparrow, which is in danger of extinction due to rising sea levels. I’ve seen more of Sophy Tuttle’s work around Boston, and I love the bold colors and detailed depictions of the natural world. There are several more murals in the series, and they’re a welcome splash of color on grey days.

I love public art, especially when it combines beauty with purpose, and these murals definitely fit the bill (like this one, above, by Artists for Humanity Boston). They are all done by women and/or artists of color, and they call us insistently to treasure and protect the natural world. They make my runs more enjoyable, certainly, but I hope they also keep inspiring me – and others – to pay attention to, and care for, the world in which we live.

I know running is good for me physically in a lot of ways: our bodies were made to move, and sweating may help clear toxins out of our systems (as well as improving circulation). I’ve enjoyed building up my endurance and strength by running, too. But I’ve wondered for years about that elusive “runner’s high,” or the feel-good rush from endorphins released by exercise. When I started running, I wondered if I’d ever feel it – though that wasn’t why I kept heading back out to the trail.

Like a lot of things about running, the endorphins don’t usually arrive with high drama: I don’t round the final bend or crest one last hill and get a sudden rush of joy or euphoria. Sometimes, if it’s a particularly tough run, I arrive back home being simply grateful I’ve made it. But I do often feel better than I did when I set out. I feel accomplished, and (usually) satisfied with my efforts. These days, it’s an excellent way to start the day, and when I was mostly running after work, it was a gratifying way to cap off the workday. And – lest we all forget – let Elle Woods remind us that endorphins may help prevent murder. (“Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t!”)

Months ago, my friend Hannah made a comment along these lines: we were talking about the meditative qualities of running, and the fact that we both (mostly) like to do it alone. It got me thinking about the ways running is and is not like traditional meditation. I haven’t tried Headspace or any of the other meditation apps floating around the internet, but I can see how running bears some similarities to them.

When I run, I listen to music, but it’s usually stuff I know really well, or music that can fade comfortably into the background. Unless I’m actively singing along to Hamilton or other music, I want space for my thoughts to tumble and churn and slide as I go along. I don’t often go out on a run with the intent of solving a particular problem, but I naturally think about whatever’s taking up my attention that week, as well as the weather and the light and the signs of seasonal change (right now, all the gorgeous leaves) that I see.

Running is movement-based, of course, while many forms of meditation involve sitting still. I find it easier to let my attention relax when I’m moving through a landscape, easier to let my thoughts pinwheel around without having to move in a linear fashion. Sometimes I’ll get stuck on one thing for a bit, but more often the physical motion helps keep my thoughts in motion, too. A lot of yoga teachers talk about noticing your thoughts rather than getting attached to them – sometimes tough to do when lying on a yoga mat, but I find it a bit easier on a run.

Especially when I’m working – when my days involve emails, meetings, writing projects, chats with coworkers – I also relish the chance to step back from all that on a run. As I move through physical space, sometimes my thoughts come unstuck and drift away, creating space inside my head for new thoughts or simply a bit of breathing room. It’s physically challenging and mentally restorative. Not quite the same effect as a yoga class – and I need both – but a way to create and enjoy headspace, all the same.