Gifts at Every Turn

A year ago I ran my first 5k. I wandered down to the elementary school on a gray morning in the middle day of one those horrendous 3-day potty-training nightmares, leaving my husband locked at home with diaper-less child (who had to be within 50 yards of the potty, since....she wasn't potty trained). Only having enbraced jogging a few months earlier, I'd never run a 5k before, or done any kind of competitive running, for that matter. It felt scary to do something new, great to be out of the house, and a little lonely to be there surrounded by families and not have my own with me. It also felt lovely to do anything other than wipe pee off the floor.

I won. That's the short version. The slightly longer one is that after a joyful 18 minutes of running, a bystander yelled to me that I was the "second woman". I felt as though I was in the middle of the pack, so this was a total shock. But it galvanized me, and I moved with the final third of the race instead of against it. In the end, I was the top woman in my age group (F30-39), the second in the whole race. It was awesome. I hung around for my medal, missed my husband and baby terribly, and floated home on air....before assuming round-the-clock pee cleanup. (Which was pointless, as I thought grimly today while changing her diaper.)

I ran in a Thanksgiving marathon with lots of professionals, and got a respectable 19th place out of 200 women in my age group, euphoric over hearing beautiful Pea yelling "GO MAMA!" from her daddy's shoulders. And then winter came and I didn't run much anymore. Over the year, I kept teaching my fitness classes, kept biking to work, worked out at the gym, but ran in 20-minute spurts on occasion to squeeze in some cardio along the riverside bikepath outside our house.

Today, I ran that same 5k again, on my husband's advice that I "defend my medal."  This was after some sloth-like jogs over the past month, and after mulling over a colleague's offhand comment that with every year she ages, she adds a minute to her time. Half of me accepted it with worry, the other half sternly reminding that she was embracing a baseless belief that helped no one. (A classic "Don't believe everything you think" moment). This morning, I was anxious. I lay in the hammock in our backyard and imagined having to walk the race, wondered what it would feel like to watch someone else get "my" medal, and felt silly about caring about it at all. My body has been a hormonal battleground for six months, and I'm no longer sure what to expect of it. I thought of it lovingly.

But once we arrived on location on our bikes, my preschooler waving to neighbors from her seat behind me, I got that same thrilling rush: race time! I started at the front as is my way, waving and blowing kisses to my sweeties, and laughed to see all the men rush by me. Within a few minutes, I started passing people. My feet just pounding away, I thought of my husband's caution to stay steady and not expend all my energy right away. Strong women passed me, more than last year, and I worried as I tried to guess their ages. But I also cheered them on in my heart. I sent grateful smiles to the families waving us on at every corner. Mothers and children yelling encouragement from their windows, the town kids waving homemade signs that read "Go runners!" I was breathing heavily and longing for water.

This was a race for our school, and so it was heavy on children. I was silently proud of the two 8 year old boys pacing me the entire time, and silently annoyed by the teenage boys who would sprint until they were winded, then slow to a walk immediately in front of me (three times! But I did beat them).

At the final mile, I was feeling tired. My legs were moving mechanically. At the corner where a year before I'd been told I was "second woman, second woman," I instead just saw smiles. My heart fell a little - no medal? Just as I was focusing on pushing negative thoughts out of my mind, a family gathered around a tree yelled out to me that 99 (my number) was "one lucky number!" I waved to them and ran a little faster. And then a new thing happened.

A very strong woman, a good runner, ran up next to me. I felt instantly that she was in my age group and was my competitor. She wasn't breathing as heavily as I was and she was going fast. She ran on my immediate right side, within a few inches of my body. And then she got even closer. Maybe just an inch, until I could feel her body heat. She actually appeared to be almost pushing me to the side, despite having tons of space around us. I made a decision almost instantly to view this with gratitude. She was a gift from the universe. And I stayed with her.

I ran hard, and I kept her pace. We rounded a corner together onto the last street, with the finish line visible in the distance. I knew she'd beat me, but I knew I could hang on to her a little longer and use that energy, just like I tell the members of my fitness classes to do, to gain strength from the power of the women around them. And I did. It was wonderful. Eventually I let her go, watching her pace forward, and with my body telling me to walk, to stop resisting the urge to slow down, I let go of the chaos in my mouth and legs and heart and zeroed in on something incredibly calm: being in bed with my entire family that morning. Both our daughter and our cat had climbed into bed with us by 6:30 on a cold Sunday, and the image of snuggling with all of them gave me the calm I needed to finish the race, with my two sweeties at my side as soon as I flopped down, red-faced and out of breath, on the green grass.

24:19. My personal best. I got a medal for being at third place, but beating my time from last year - and knowing I'd be better if I trained - meant everything. Well, almost everything. Did I mention what I heard as I crossed the finish line with all those beautiful kids and parents?



The Most Amazing Thing I've Learned in my 30s (so far)

I was lying facedown on my mat yesterday in hot yoga, as sweat dripped over my eyes and I tried to block out the grunting and panting of my impossibly taut classmates, the beefy men and bamboo-thin women so identical to one another that I began to wonder if I was in the presence of some sort of cult. The women were even similarly tattooed - on the inside of the wrist, which seemed unusual. Probably just a trend.

As I caught my breath (quietly - I am not a yoga grunter), I had a thought which I registered as "The most amazing thing I've learned in my 30s." That's a new category, which is probably good since I still have the second half of my 30s in front of me. I might have a few things left to learn.

So what was it? The Cosmic Waitress and manifestation? The fact that the single most important thing we can learn in school may be collaboration? The idea that you can dance until 4am in Miami in your 30s? Have sudden wonderful career moments with no notice at all? "If you can't breathe, back out?" "See the light, know the light, share the light, BE the light?"

No, the hot yoga relevatory moment was that, until I was in my 30s, I'd never understood when conception happens. I didn't know the truth about when the sperm and egg connected, started cell division and then...that most astonishing instant for a parent in love with their child beyond their wildest dreams: person-creation. When and how did she start to grow inside me? My whole life, I thought it happened during sex, just one lucky shot that lined conception right up there after orgasm in a single fantastic half hour. That made sense. Once I reached the age in which I was ready to have children, I learned that it was in fact a complicated math problem. It takes 12 hours for those little guys to get all the way up to a fallopian tube. It takes 72 hours for them to stop swimming and fall away. And the egg appears beautifully one day without a lot of notice, and then disintegrates 6-12 hours later (maybe 24). So the "moment" happens sometime 1-3 days after sex, and the full moon only shines once in that 28-day cycle. Just like the moon, we don't know how lucky we are when it appears.

How was it, I marveled, that I never understood this in my teens and 20s? Because what it means is that conception happens unseen in one regular moment - riding a bike outside in the fall rain; picking up your child from preschool; flossing your teeth while making eye contact with your cat in the mirror; an hour after falling into a deep sleep. How much can be contained in one moment?