I started running while student teaching at a high school. I was 24 and our older son was a toddler. My supervisor, an English teacher and wrestling coach named Vern, was obsessed with fitness. Horrified to discover that a young mother like me didn’t exercise, he suggested I try jogging.
One day we sat in Vern’s empty room after I had taught my first class alone with sophomores reading Catcher in the Rye. I’d stood on Vern’s desk to snare the attention of the boys in the back row. The students laughed, but I sensed immediately this was a cheap trick. I would need to cultivate a more commanding presence.
After we talked about the class, Vern asked me about the running. “It’s kind of boring,” I admitted.
He thought a minute, his thick glasses making his eyes appear larger than they were. “Why don’t you listen to music?”
Huey Lewis and the News were the first to accompany me. “It’s Hip to Be Square” provided a steady beat for climbs up steep hills around our home in the country. I felt like I was dancing as I ran. I began to really see the Midwestern landscape: corn fields, alfalfa pastures, a lake, and so much sky that, as with Vern’s lenses, everything underneath seemed larger than life.
My husband and I had a second son, and then I began graduate school and got busy. I forgot to run, certainly didn’t dance, and felt old. Then we moved to the city, where I worked as an editor, my husband returned to school, and I started running again. The four of us lived in a tiny apartment. Gloria Estefan’s “Cuts Both Ways” accompanied me that summer as I jogged the neighborhood at night,
sometimes dancing when I knew no one could see. Now I was 33 but felt younger.
I landed a job in a community college, and it was a pleasure to lead the teaching life, plus I had whole summers in which to be a writer. That’s when I began to understand Thoreau’s praise of the morning. Early each day I wrote two hours before our sons awakened and spent the rest of the summer days being a mom. At dusk, the light coated everything with the color of joy. I would put Paul Simon’s Graceland in my Walkman and would run west, into the sunset. Immersed in drumbeats and African voices, I descended a hill, sinking in parallel to the red ball before me.
After a decade, I shifted to full-time freelance writing, and then our sons left the nest. It was all too fast. I keep running, though. I stretch more, protect my skin, and turn the Walkman down to prevent hearing loss-except with B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues.” When my body says to stop, I will, but I hope to run even when I am old.
I am lucky because they sing to me. Van and Joni and Marvin and Paul and Huey. B.B. and Tracy Chapman and Wilco; the Indigo Girls and the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones. Sometimes I think of Vern, who died a few years ago. If no one is looking, I dance a few steps in his memory.
Suzanne Kelsey is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach.