1978. Houston. I started running. For all but one of the first 32 years of my life I lived in Salt Lake City or its nearby canyon, Little Cottonwood. Life was pretty easy; living in the mountains provided the joy and wonder that outweighed little challenges. But suddenly, one day, the ground under my feet shifted. The new owners of the lodge where my young son’s father was the chef decided to clean house. We had no idea what to do. I was 25; he was 33 and had been working in the canyon for 10 years. We had no savings. I left the canyon and took Tim to stay with my mom and dad and my two grade-school-aged sisters in Houston. It was an escape, the only reaction I could conjure up in my fear. Two weeks later, he followed. Of course, Tim was his son too.
We spent a year there before we headed back to the Utah mountains. And this was the year in which I became a runner. It didn’t take long for Tim’s dad to get a job in Houston, and we moved into an apartment in the heart of the city. It had nicely manicured grounds and clean, if tiny, swimming pools. But this was the place where Tim said, “I can’t wait to grow up so that I can say ‘shit’ and kill cockroaches like mom.” Everyone had cockroaches, but I had never seen one before landing in Houston. They haunted me day and night, in my dreams for the entire year. These facts explain why, despite the landscaping and the pools, this wasn’t the best year of my life. But being compelled to start running was was the long-run payoff.
Being outdoors, doing something, that’s who I was. Swimming, skiing, hiking, camping, backpacking, riding my bike, playing tennis, roller skating, anything, with the exception of running. I had always been active, but I was not a runner. Even just days after Tim was born, I was out walking the steep mountain roads. It was July and we were living at Snowbird. Because Tim had trouble sleeping, I would walk his old-fashioned buggy from Snowbird to Alta on what was called the bypass road. “Bypass,” because it was built as an alternative way to get to Alta when the main road was closed by avalanches. We rarely saw a car on this winding road carved into the south side of the steep canyon. It was quiet, set in a jaw-dropping backdrop. When summer ended, Tim started skiing with me, in a backpack. There wasn’t a lot else to do for a stay-at-home mom living at Snowbird. But this also illustrates how my desire to be outdoors and active has at times overwhelmed my sense of prudence. It still does, occasionally. Just three years ago I set out on my bike into an icy world against the better judgment of my husband and came home with a broken elbow.
Moving to Houston led to one more imprudent thing, or at least many people would have viewed it that way. Running was an oddity in the ‘70s. A mother running, just to run, was almost unheard of. There were no gaggles of young beautiful women sporting the latest running fashions pushing big-wheeled baby joggers around the neighborhood. Until 1984 there wasn’t even a marathon for women at the Olympics. So what was it that pushed me out the door into the heat and humidity to run?
We lived in the heart of the gritty, mechanical, noisy, automobile-dominated, perfectly flat city, a sort of “not-Snowbird” in every way. Outside our apartment window, a giant water cooler droned all hours of the day and night. There were rumors that someone had been raped in the parking lot, next to the water cooler, but no one had heard her scream. And the traffic. It was said that 1,000 people were moving to Houston every week, but no one was building even one inch of new roads. To its credit, Houston was green, but there was not so much as even a hill to entertain the eye focused on the horizon. Certainly, no mountains. One day when I was talking to my sister about missing the mountains, my four-year-old nephew remarked that of course Houston had mountains. He pointed to a freeway overpass as proof.
When I arrived in Houston, I thought riding a bike, playing a bit of tennis, a swim now and then would be a good substitute for all the things I had been doing in Utah’s mountains. I was wrong. Riding a bike through Houston traffic, with Tim on the back, in the days before helmets, was completely imprudent. Even I realized that after a few attempts. The tennis courts were several traffic jams away, and I didn’t have a car anyway. And swimming in the lovely pools, though a good way to cool off, could not provide an aerobic buzz. To swim a mile would have required a dizzying number of turns against curvy walls.
I was desperate. Running was my only hope. All it required was a pair of shoes. I started slowly, around the block, around two blocks, around the four square blocks of the apartment complex. I worked up to a mile. One afternoon after Tim and I had gone swimming with my family, I asked my mom to let me run a mile down the road toward home and then pick me up. She looked at me in disbelief. A mile, really? You are going to run a mile? I did. I ran a slow mile, and she was impressed. But she, who spent all day on a tennis court, also thought I was crazy. But the running worked… sort of. I began to feel strong and capable. That mattered. It helped reduce the challenges of Houston. But I could not live without the mountains.
We started talking to the chef we had both worked for in Alta about going back to Utah. Miraculously, he was opening a new restaurant in Park City and could employ us both, working opposing shifts so one of us could be home with Tim. Almost one year to the date, we packed a U-Haul and headed back to the mountains. When we turned up Parley’s canyon, by far the least spectacular canyon going east out of the Salt Lake valley, I started to cry. This canyon, a canyon I had never even thought twice about, a canyon I considered grossly inadequate compared to the steep canyons of Big and Little Cottonwood, became an amazing gift. We were home – back where freeway overpasses are simply that, back where the quiet of the mountains is in your back yard, back where now I could ski and ride my bike and play in the snow with Tim, and even run. Now I was a runner.
Running has served me well. At 28, the crisis that most people have at 30 hit me. But the six-mile run before heading to school that morning made it okay. At 40, I stopped running. The warning, “Running is bad for your knees,” had become real. But then as 50 approached, I started running again, driven to complete a marathon rather than mourn my 50th birthday. I did. Since then, I have done three half marathons. But in the last six months the knees have started to cry out again. I have gone back to swimming and riding my bike and walking. But I dream I can run, and it’s magical. Like the dreams I had as a kid that I was flying, I watch other people run. Some make it look like flying, and I am envious. Some, who are about my age, make it look like a struggle that might not be worth the pain. Still, I am hoping I will run again. The doctor tells me to RICE – rest, ice, compression, elevation. And I do. Then she tells me she needs to scope my left knee. But I also need to ski this winter, so I postpone the scoping, hoping it will get better on its own and I will run again. There is something about running that makes it so hard to let go of. Of course scientists tell us it’s the chemicals the brain manufactures. But it’s also, for me, a little bit about being wild, connecting to a world not mediated by devices or rules, running free.