Running with Slowphia


I’ve been a runner all of your life and much of mine.  It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing it so long – almost five of your lifetimes.

“I’m going for a run” is a pronouncement I make frequently.   Sometimes because, like now, I am training for a specific race. Other times because it is a beautiful day and I want to be out in it.  Most times, because I just like to do it, whether for 45 minutes or four hours.

What do you think about on those long runs, people ask me. They always seem surprised when I respond “nothing.”  But it’s true. My mind, that busy little hamster on its squeaky ever-turning wheel, is most quieted by the slap slap slapping of my feet on the ground.  What sleep or meditation or yoga or drinking tea does for others, running does for me.

“I’m going for a run” is a phrase you have heard many times. .Often, it’s the reason I am not with you and your daddy on some Saturday excursion.  Racing long distances means training long distances; and in runner’s physics, distance=time.

I always assumed that you didn’t notice one way or another, as long as you were with your daddy.  Divorce can be hard on kids, even sweet natured, balanced kids like you.  I figured that you might enjoy my running absences, giving you as they did the chance to have some one on one time with your dad.

So I was surprised when you piped up a few months ago from the back seat, apropos of nothing.  “Sandra, I want to go on a run with you.

“OK!” I said, thinking maybe we’d race from the car to the doorstep, a race I never let you win, something that, far from discouraging you , has turned you into quite a little speedster.  A trickster, too – you are not above taking off running and then shouting over your shoulder at the halfway point “Come on Sandra! Let’s race!”

But you read my mind and corrected me. “I don’t mean a baby run,” you said with perfect 7-year-old disdain.  “I want to go on a real run.  Like…for an hour.”  You paused, deliberating.  “And we’ll go at night.  With our headlamps.”

Your dad and I exchanged surprised glances.  Apparently, you have started picking up on how we spend our  time when you are not with us.  I wonder which story caught your imagination – was it ourGrand Canyontrip, when we hiked/ran from the south rim to the north rim and then back again?

We had our headlamps on that trek, but it  still frightened me at first, to find myself out there at night, the light from my lamp pushing feebly at the cavernous darkness.   A light is supposed to make you feel safe, but that isn’t how it worked for me; all my light did was remind me that everything beyond that small circle of bright was really. Really. Dark.   It didn’t help when orange eyes glared at me from an overhang; we flinched when a bird flew up and out into the night in a whirl of black wings.

I found myself glancing frequently behind me for your dad, making sure he was still there, and not disappeared into some ancient crevasse of rock, or time.  But when we paused to rest and snapped off the lights,  I looked up at the sky sprawling with stars and felt the light wind cooling my sweating face.  I saw the dim outlines of boulders and trees, I heard the sounds of small animals scurrying away from us in the brush, and my fear melted away.  With the lights off I was no longer pushing against the Canyon but was instead part of it, its breathing mystery and its mythy silence.

More likely you heard us talking about our “Midnight Ramble”, when we hopped on our bikes one Friday at midnight and rode around San Franciscountil sunrise. NorthBeachand theMarinawere crowded with whooping bar hoppers, but the piers were quiet and we paused to breathe the clean, fish-scented air and admire the bridge, uplit as befit a famous beauty, the darkness of ocean and sky merging like a black velvet opera cloak flowing behind her.

“Do you want to run on city sidewalks, or somewhere more open?” I asked you, to which you reasonably replied, “Can’t we do both?”

You were exacting about preparations, no surprise after having watched your daddy and I get ready for so many races.  You asked me my opinion on each item, but then took the choices back to your room to make the final selection on you own, a freedom your dad has encouraged since you were small, and a source of many amusing and surprisingly attractive outfits, my personal favorite being the horizontal striped tights, the polka dotted skirt and the vertically striped sweater (all tied together with a bright pink theme) that you favored at age three.

You chose your khaki all-weather pants, a black technical top, and  s Nike hat on which you strapped your headlamp. You wanted to know what the “N” stood for on your shoes and then wanted to know what “New Balance” meant, which I admitted I did not know.

You strapped on your Camelbak, your newest and proudest possession.  In it you carried our keys, gels, and a walkie talkie, and assured me that I could have a drink whenever I wanted, as long as you weren’t drinking too.

We started our run at the Marina Green, running our first mile alongBay Street, busy with traffic headed toward the bridge.

“Look!” you said, and I looked at the cars going by.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s pretty!” you said, and I realized you meant theGolden GateBridge, and that this was probably the first time you were seeing it at night.

The night was clear and mild for February, and we wore only light jackets.  Cars beeped cheerily at us, and a few late night walkers gave us surprised smiles, their laughter chasing after us.

We took a path through Crissy Field, a pristine grassy plain with an inland marsh where ducks and pelicans float in placid nighttime flotillas.  I told you how it used to be down here,  all broken concrete runways for military planes.

“I like it better this way,” you said, and I agreed.

We kept an eye out for skunks; which are common down there.  You were charmed by my tale of the stripey waddler I encountered on one evening run, how we both backed up in mutual terror, his bushy tail pressed so far up against a fence his pointy nose nearly  touched the ground. We agreed we hoped to see one, but at a safe distance.

You told me about a run-walk you took with your granddad and mom on a visit to the wine country; and how the three of you picked up trash at the side of the road.  A neighbor spotted you and complimented you, insisting on paying you part of the fee he paid to whomever he paid to keep that stretch of road free of the trash dropped by tipsy tourists.

“He gave me three dollars!” you said  “I hid it in a place that’s safe, it doesn’t have a key but you have to know where it is to find it.”   I was amused to note that you provided no other clues. That’s another thing about you – you are a great secret keeper, and always have been.  I told you when I bought a ring and was going to propose to daddy and you kept that secret for nine months, and kept quiet even when he tried to tickle it out of you.

I complimented you on your money management skills. “Now I have money at daddy’s and money at mommy’s,” you told me in  a practical tone, and I admired the sensibleness of this, thinking of all the apocalyptic movies I’ve seen that demonstrate this is a prescient strategy

Mile two was a path along the water.  You marveled at how dark it was, and how our  headlamps created a sort of bubble of light to run in.  You barely missed a hole and we went back to examine how the light from the headlamps gave everything a flattish aspect and how that could fool you, could lead you right into the very trap you thought illumination alone would protect you from.

We ran on, alertly.  You surprised me with your speed but when I asked if you wanted to slow down you said cheerfully  ”I don’t think I can!.”  We agreed that we were going pretty fast, and that the balmy breeze that wafted from the bay felt good but did not quite qualify as ‘wind assisted’.

We had an energy gel and you laughed at the way I laughed when you sipped at it daintily.  “Like this,” I showed you.  “Eat it all at once, like squeezing toothpaste up into your mouth.”

I gave you a choice: orange or espresso.  “What’s espresso?” you asked, and I explained it would taste like coffee.

“Well, I like adult tastes,” you reasoned.  “I like wine and olives and black licorice.  But maybe I better take the orange, and just have a taste of yours.”   When you tasted mine, you nodded to yourself, confirming your wisdom.

Mile three:  we crossedBay Streetand then ran through the winding streets of theMarina, the architecture more Edwardian than in our own neighborhood. We admired a wrought iron gate with a billion curlicues, and laughed when we spied some people watching TV in their living room, the TV bathing their faces in a rippling underwater blue so that they looked like fish in an aquarium.

We were speedier now, whether because of the gel or the idea of the gel I’m not sure.  “Do you want to slow down?” I asked, and again you said no, but I noticed you were bumping into me now, losing your form, so I slowed us in imperceptible stages.   I did not use the nickname “Slowphia”,  a name we gave you to tease you, mostly so we could hear your indignant correction:

“No…I’m Fastphia!”

We passed singles carrying laundry baskets who grinned at you chattering along beside me.  “I need a walk break,” you told me, and so we agreed to a cool down.   I complimented you on being smart about the way you spent your energy.

“Well, my legs are tired,” you said matter-of-factly  “But we can walk fast.”

We passed couples that laughed in surprise at the two of us, behatted and headlamped, and once I caught the expression of the woman in the pair, the way her eyes went far off for a second, smiling secretly at some briefly contemplated image.

We passed groups that spotted you and cried out “Aw, that’s cute!” which made you shrink slightly against me.  You are cute, that’s a fact, but an attention-seeker you are not.

We finished up at a coffee house, where our ride home had prearranged to meet us.  You were quiet at your daddy’s questions, in part because you were tired, in part because that is your way – you are not one to tout your own accomplishments.  You are more a doer than a talker, a quality that you share with your daddy  – and, now, me.

“How did you like it?” daddy asked you, and you shrugged and said “Fine.”  He looked at me for amplification and I shrugged in solidarity with you. Your answer was short, but like our run, long enough.

Fine described it just fine.

About Sandra Stephens

I never thought I'd arrive in my 40s just in time to acquire a ready made family, but there we were: my husband, and his two daughters (who are now also mine): one who lived with him and one who lived all the way across the country from us, in Miami. They are 10 years apart, both beautiful girls, sweet and considerate and independent and interesting. This blog is the story of our journey to get to know one another, among the best adventures of my life.

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