Running Away: A Writer on the Move
Lydia McOscar of the Brookline Booksmith, a booklover's paradise that has called Brookline home since the 1950s, teamed up with Grub to curate a series of personal essays from debut authors about our fair city of Boston. In this edition, Jennifer Brown, author of Modern Girls, writes about how running, Red Coats, and wicked cold winters helped her turn Boston into home.
Sweat dripped down my neck, though it was a cool April morning, as I darted down the wooded trail. In the distance, I could make out a figure moving toward me, a rigid gait to his step. As we moved closer to each other, I saw him, marching, musket in hand. A Red Coat! His jacket, trimmed in gold, dusted his knees. A white wig peeked out from beneath his black tricornered hat. The musket nestled in his side as he strode with high knees.
Red Coat and Minutemen sightings aren’t rare around Arlington, where I live, but I still become a giddy school girl when I spot a member of the Revolutionary forces. I whipped out my iPhone in an attempt to snap a photo before we passed. When he saw what I had in my hand, he narrowed his eyes and stared hard at me. His face twisting into a sneer, he said with a hiss, “Witchcraft!”
People say nothing good happens before 7 a.m. Those people haven’t been running with me.
I began running in my early twenties, when a thirty-minute jog once or twice a week would have those extra beer pounds melting away. I kept it up sporadically, but as I neared my thirties, I realized that running wasn’t just about shedding pounds (which was a good thing, because soon running had no effect on my waist size), but about my sanity. I was working long hours at an Internet company in Seattle, the pressures were intense, and a good run set my equilibrium for the day. I craved my runs. When my then-boyfriend (now husband) was wooing me, he ran with me. Together we did many sunrise jogs and a half marathon.
Then came our honeymoon. He timed his news well.
We were lying in bed in our blue-ceilinged Tuscany hotel, the sunlight streaming in, a spent bottle of champagne on the nightstand, when he rolled over and gently stroked my hair. “Jenny,” he said quietly.
“Mm hmm?” I murmured, still half asleep.
“I have to tell you something.”
I rolled over, not ready for daylight. “Yes?”
He leaned close, and in a soft voice, whispered in my ear, “I hate running. I mean really hate it. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
My eyes flew open. I’d been fooled, nay, hoodwinked! How could he do this? Was this a breach of contract? Why didn’t I add running into our ketubah (the Jewish wedding contract)?
I had a running partner no more. What made it worse is that my husband dragged me all the way across the country, from my beloved, hippie-dippie Seattle to buttoned-up sports-obsessed Boston where I knew no one.
Boston did not make a favorable first impression on me, though to be fair, I most decidedly did not make a good first impression upon it either. I moved here reluctantly. He wanted to go to business school; my requirement was it had to be in a major city in which we could stay, I would move just once. Chicago was too frigid for him, I’m convinced San Francisco is going to fall into the ocean, and we agreed that New York is simply too expensive. Boston it would be.
But Boston was pricier than I had expected. And colder. And the drivers terrified me. To make it worse, I didn’t quite fit in with the other “partners” at the business school. Doesn’t “partners” sound so nice and inclusive? Too bad every single one of us was female and our welcome packet had a list of laundromats and grocery stores (I checked—my husband’s packet had none of that). There was even a club for us. The Partners Club. Dues were $125 a year. The logical thing would have been to move on and find friends elsewhere. I never been known to let logic interfere with my life. I paid my $125 and joined in.
While I did find a few likeminded women, with whom I still keep in touch, the vast majority weren’t quite as fond of me. I’m thinking that blogging about them probably didn’t help. The possibility exists that I may have nicknamed them the CWITs. Which may or may not have stood for Corporate Wives in Training. I won no popularity contests my first year in the Hub.
Boston and I were off to a rough start, so I did the only thing I knew how to do: I returned to running. My jogs took me through Arlington, where I discovered, by chance, the darling reservoir with its mile loop around the water. I loped down the Minuteman Bike Path, appreciating leaf-peeping season for the first time in my life. I explored neighborhoods, ogling the historic homes and hidden parks in town.
But this idyllic interlude was short-lived. My runs soon changed from an almost-graceful trot to a plodding amble as my son’s presence made itself increasingly known in my growing midsection. And then, I gave up. My bouncing belly became too uncomfortable, so I consoled myself in my loneliness with gummy bears and movie rentals.
After my son was born, and I was given the green light, I hesitantly returned to the pavement. I preferred running without my son. When I put him in the jogging stroller, he immediately fell asleep. I hated wasting his naps on my runs, as I desperately needed him to sleep at home while I worked as a freelance writer and editor. Suddenly, my non-running husband was no longer a liability. He was an asset. I’d skate out the door, leaving plenty of pumped breast milk, and say, “Sorry! You knew I was a runner.”
Mothering challenged me. My son was an easy baby, though I didn’t realize it, as my post-partum anxiety often got the better of me. My children (I had a second along the way) are fabulous little people, but it turns out, I’m not so much a baby person. Those tiny creatures are so dependent. It’s terrifying. What kept me sane were my runs (and, to be fair, a lot of therapy). As a bonus, those runs got me out of diaper duty. I hate diapers. I know, everyone hates diapers. But does everyone hate diapers enough that they sign up for a marathon just to get out of changing them for four hours at a time? Because I did.
Running for ten to twenty miles at a stretch, by necessity, forced me to expand my territory and my friend base. I discovered a few running groups and we trained together for races. On those glorious Saturday runs, I wasn’t a business school partner, I wasn’t an unpublished writer, and I wasn’t a human milking machine. I was just Jenny. A runner.
Those runs took us along the Charles River in Cambridge. Down the bike path to Bedford. Through the woods of Battle Road. My fellow runners and I chitchatted about blisters and side cramps and plantar fasciitis. As we grew to know each other better, our conversations turned toward the personal. My favorite companion had studied mortuary science, so while I shared stories about my attempts at novel writing, she shared embalming mishaps. I definitely got the better end of those talks.
Even my shorter weekday runs took me to new places. I would leave my house in the dark, on foot, and watch the sun peek over the towering buildings of the city in the distance as I ran hills near Robbins Farm Park. Leaving the house could be traumatic—crying children, crying husband, leaky breasts—but once I was moving, I was sure I could run forever. It wasn’t about the speed—I rarely broke a ten-minute pace—it was about the freedom.
That first marathon, I made every novice mistake you could imagine—not keeping pace, losing my fuel gels, standing behind men in a Porta Potty line (not to be graphic, but I probably should have thought, “Hmmm, why aren’t those men just peeing on the side of the road? Why would they bother to wait in the Porta Potty lines?”). But when I saw my husband and fourteen-month-old son on the sidelines, cheering me on, it pushed me through, and as broken as I felt at the end, I knew there were more marathons in my future.
Running for me is not about running. It’s about sanity. It’s about friendship. It’s about moving therapy. Every Saturday morning I run with the same group of women, and while I can tell you that our discussions cover every topic you can think of, I can’t tell you specifically as those conversations are vaulted, the run's sacred. My family will be quick to tell you, if an injury or travel sidelines me, I become not-a-nice person. The endorphins are addictive. Without running, I couldn’t write, as there’s nothing like a pre-dawn solo run to work out plot problems and character development.
Running provides a rhythm to my life and is the way I’ve come to know my adopted state. Fall is the Apple Harvest Ramble in Harvard, a run my friend Kate drags me to, even though I’m never prepared for the hilly ten miles, even though I curse her the entire way, and even though I swear each year that I won’t do it again. Somehow, by the time I’m sipping my latte from the Harvard General Store, I’ve forgotten the pain and I’m thinking of the gorgeous scenery and looking forward to next year’s race. Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without first completing the Gobble Gobble Gobble, chasing racers costumed as turkeys through the streets of Somerville, the chill of the crisp November morning turning that last dash through the finish line in Davis Square into a burst of anticipation for the food yet to come. And spring always means a race to shake off the winter blues, which this year will be a Maine half marathon.
I don’t run anonymously any more. I run as a mother. As a writer. As a friend. As the woman who needs to hurry back to get the kids to morning activities on time. Running hasn’t turned me into a Bostonian, but it’s helped me find my place here. I will always say “water fountain” instead of “bubbler,” I can’t “bang a uey,” and I refuse to go swimming in the freezing August ocean. But I agree that the winters are “wicked cold,” I do love a frappe, and I occasionally let my kids go to Dunkies.
We’ve lived in Arlington for fourteen years now and we’ve kept to our word about moving just once. We plan to stay in this town, in this house, near my running trails. When friends from Seattle come out to visit, I try to lure them out for a morning run, with promises—depending on the time of year—of bright red and gold trees, a post-run dip in a reservoir, and maybe even a Minuteman sighting or two.
Now, I even have a new running partner. Two years ago, my younger child took up running with an afterschool program called Fit Girls. She trained with her teachers and friends twice a week and last year she and I ran a 5k together right here in Arlington. For the first time, she ran the entire distance without needing a break, and the joy I felt when we crossed that finish line—she just a step ahead of me—was like the joy I felt when I finished my own first race.
What a feeling. It was almost as amazing as running into a Red Coat.
Jennifer S. Brown writes, runs, and mothers in the suburbs of Boston. She has a BFA in film and television from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, Seattle. This makes her uniquely suited to write film reviews, which would be great if she hadn’t stopped going to the movies when her kids were born. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in Cognoscenti, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Southeast Review, and Bellevue Literary Review, among other places. Modern Girls is her debut novel.