At Home with Francie Lin: In it for the long run

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  • Francie Lin takes a morning run on North Farms Road in Florence on March 3. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/12/2021 4:10:46 PM

Besides basic life functions — eating, sleeping, breathing — running may be the only activity I’ve sustained for decades without any breaks.

This shocks me, partly because I don’t have a great track record for persistence, but mostly because everything about my childhood abilities indicated that I would spend the rest of my life sitting in dark rooms reading library books or watching seven hours of sitcom TV a day.

I was the proverbial last pick for every game ever invented involving physical skill; I never learned to swim, ski or skate. In junior high P.E., we were forced to run The Mile on Fridays, a recurring event that gave me actual nightmares: suffocation, pain and humiliation, against which death was nothing so much as a good way out.

In college I occasionally went to the gym and did a sad little session on the StairMaster, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started actually running. My boyfriend at the time was a runner; he would come back from long runs and regale me with tales of all the muscle cramps he experienced, and how the humidity made him almost pass out.

He was quite a bit older than me, which may be why I decided to take up running myself, even though everything he said about it sounded godawful. I wanted desperately to be older, to have some kind of authority. Perhaps running would give me that? I lived in Somerville then, near the Davis Square bike path. My inaugural runs were death slogs carried out against heat lightning and dark, heavy summer skies, with exhaust fumes from the Alewife Parkway closing around me like an evil mist.

It’s hard to remember why I kept going after that season of suffering. Eventually I broke up with the boyfriend, but the running — perhaps the only valuable thing I gleaned from that particular relationship — stuck. Why? In the same way that I started running as a way of proving to others that I was Someone Who Knew Something About Things, I continued running to keep up the appearance of being a Runner — someone who derived their greatest joy in life from putting their body through unnecessary feats of endurance.

A lot of folks I met in the Bay Area were such people; I had a friend who biked 100 miles every weekend, another who was ostensibly a graduate student but spent all her time training for triathalons and marathons.

Becoming a Runner

But as I plodded around the blocks of dilapidated student housing and up through the dry hills, a strange thing happened: In going through the motions of being a runner, trying to appear fit and inexhaustible, I actually … became a Runner.

People who hate running will roll their eyes at this point. Fair enough. Every personal story about running has a eureka moment when somebody suddenly realizes they are Stronger Than They Ever Thought Possible. But in my case, I didn’t suddenly realize that I was athletically amazing or anything; I still wheezed and felt like dying if my distance crept up over 3 miles.

But running put me in a different relationship to the world around me. You don’t do a repetitive outdoor activity for six-plus years without learning something about the outdoors you’re moving through. I got to know every little side street in my neighborhood and beyond; I knew which businesses would let you use the bathrooms, and where all the best outdoor cats hung out. I knew where there were patches of wild raspberries in the overdeveloped Berkeley Hills; I knew what time the fog burned off in the morning.

None of these things sounds earth-shattering, but that was exactly what I loved about running. Unlike biking or skiing or yoga, or any of the myriad lifestyle activities you could possibly take up, running was the simplest and most egalitarian; all you really needed was a pair of shoes and some space. Sure, you could go all aggro with your spandex and, I don’t know, diamond-encrusted trainers, but for the most part, running wasn’t about bling, and it required no special equipment or training.

I moved to Asia, moved back, got married, moved again, had one kid, moved again, had another, and through all of this, I kept running. After a while it became not just a hobby but a necessity. If I was having a bad day, all I needed was a run. Trouble sleeping? Run. Marital disagreement? Run. Postpartum depression? Run, run, run.

That makes me sound disturbingly athletic, but actually, for the first 15 or so years of my running life, I never ran more than 5 miles in one go. Old self-images die hard: The days of dreading The Mile were not far enough behind me that I could afford to risk my self-esteem on something more ambitious. I don’t run races, I would say as a point of pride.

Then I turned 40, and something about that milestone sent all that right out the door. I signed up for a half-marathon, trained, ran, swore I would never do it again, signed up for another. Overnight, I turned into one of those obnoxious sporty people who talk only about their sport.

Who even knew I had it in me? I talked about my splits; I talked about my long runs, my intervals, elevation gain, pronation. If anything got in the way of my long weekend runs, I would subject everyone in the house to my misery. My running pal and I logged hundreds of miles. I was always looking for distance races to sign up for.

My knees started hurting; I had trouble walking down the stairs. At an annual checkup, my doctor remarked that if I kept going at my current rate, I had maybe one year left of serious running in me before I injured myself for good.

I ignored her. She wasn’t a Runner.

An injury

And then of course I got injured, just as predicted. This was late 2019, a few months before the Great Shutdown of 2020. During the first few months of quarantine, I couldn’t figure out if I was so miserable because of COVID or because I couldn’t run. It didn’t really matter, because the effect was the same either way: a feeling of being physically trapped.

Over the span of my entire adult life, there had never been anything that couldn’t be fixed, or at least mitigated, by a run. Now running was the problem itself. And the alternatives were at best a pale glimmer next to the glory of the trail and road.

I did online Pilates. I rode my bike. The swimming pools were all closed, so I took the kids to the river and floated around, watching crayfish scuttle over the rocks. In time, I learned that I wasn’t going to die if I didn’t log a certain number of miles a week, that my heart would not burst if I couldn’t run with my running wife every weekend. My knees stopped hurting so much, and my family appreciated the fact that I was home when they got up on Saturdays.

Very recently my foot has healed enough that I’ve been running again. I’m much slower and I can’t run nearly as far. I’d be lying if I said I was entirely at peace with this, but it’s a genuine joy to have that old sense of being free and whole back again. My foot is still pretty stiff, especially in the mornings, and sometimes I catch myself thinking, once it really heals, I’ll be able to ...

And then I remember that my foot is not going to heal in the way I keep expecting it to — it’s not going to go back to the way it was when I was 20. Occasionally this makes me sad, the same way that looking at my kids’ baby pictures can make me sad, but I remind myself that linearity is just the shape of human life.

Would I ever want to go back to being the young uncertain twentysomething who started running mainly because she hoped to be admired or loved?

Not a chance. The only thing I envy of hers is that golden potential for running, for flying. I imagine that if I’m fortunate enough to live another 25 years, I’ll feel the same about myself at my current age. Which is why I set my alarm early, even if the sun won’t be up yet, even if I only run a couple of miles.

Who knows how much running time I have left? I don’t want to waste a minute of it.

Francie Lin is an editor and writer who has a complicated relationship with domestic life. She lives in Florence.

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