I became a runner not by any personal grit but by genetic destiny. My father still holds childhood sprinting records in our area of Australia, and by the age of eight I was flying around barefoot, wearing ridiculously minimal running gear and perfecting my crouch-start. Let's make no mistakes, here: I was good, but never great. A girl with whom I had a regular rivalry in the 100m in my teens is now aiming for the Rio Olympics for Australia (hi, Charlotte!). She beat me because she wanted it more, trained harder, felt the winner's urge to cross the line first and fastest. I just wanted to run.
The fact is that I was an academic kid, and sprinting saved me. Australia is not a good place to be bright: our heroes are on the cricket fields and in the pools, not acing tests. Sports protected me from some of the bullying that would have been the natural due of a grade-skipping socially awkward lump. It gave me a weird edge in the psychotically delineated hierarchy of my posh all-girls' schools: if you're regularly hanging out with discus throwers the size of tanks, other girls are surprisingly unwilling to mess with you.
Running was an element of control and unqualified simplicity in the complex, vicious environments of my childhood and adolescence. You won or you didn't; the time was 13.65 or 13.7 seconds, no errors. You were alone with your legs, your lungs and your self-possession. I had pride in my body as a machine, and the purity of focus — just keep pushing, keep in your lane, there is the line, just get over it — kept me, barely, from going nuts.
Then, at 15, it stopped.
I was banned from jogging, particularly on hard ground. I promptly gained a load of weight through depressed, trapped-in-my-house biscuit-eating (I maintain this was a good response), and was put into physio for my angry thigh muscles, a humiliating experience which wasn't even lessened by the fact that the therapist was early-career-Brad-Pitt handsome.
By some unlikely quirk of fate I'd qualified for the Nationals, and by the rules of a particular type of athletics — the school of "every minute you're not training, the person who will beat you is" — I was working like a demon. I did hours of sprints, lived in my spikes, and ate so many carbs I was probably some higher form of pasta. I refused to complain, hated weakness, pushed harder. But my thigh muscles were so full of damage they were one bad stumble away from tearing like a piece of bread, and my poor knees, which could take only so much, were already secretly giving way.
I'd worn all the cartilage underneath them, the muscles on either side of them had been torn repeatedly, and finally, horribly, they simply gave up. A training session ended with me on the track in agony. My trainer had to carry me off.
I was diagnosed with patello-femoral syndrome (the severe degeneration of the cartilage that cushions the kneecaps — mine was basically gone, leaving me with the scrape of bone on bone), possibly permanent muscle damage, and a host of other horrible stuff. I was told by some very gentle doctors that I'd never run competitively again.
I was banned from jogging, particularly on hard ground. I promptly gained a load of weight through depressed, trapped-in-my-house biscuit-eating (I maintain this was a good response), and was put into physio for my angry thigh muscles, a humiliating experience which wasn't even lessened by the fact that the therapist was early-career-Brad-Pitt handsome. I was so miserable I didn't care.
Gyms and indoor exercise classes depressed me further. I'd been open-air for years, doing hill sprints on cliffs beside a Sydney lighthouse at dusk and running under moth-covered strip lights until 10 p.m. at Friday night competitions. Treadmills would have been a disgustingly anodyne variation of the experience, and I wasn't let near them anyway. I had to do months of water-based exercises to build up my broken muscles, strapped in a pool-noodle groin harness to keep me upright. It was like wearing a dog's life jacket as underpants.
Meanwhile, I graduated, went to university (at 16, which is another story entirely ), and walked everywhere. But every time I passed the university athletics team I'd feel a pang of hopeless loss. I walked every evening along the cliffs where I'd done my sprints, and it was beautiful, but without that forward motion and the awesome capabilities of my athletic self, I felt fragmented, somehow simplified. And as I grew older, running seemed less and less possible, like a magic trick I could no longer do.
"You still need to exercise," doctors admonished me. And I tried. I did no-impact ballet exercises, which gave me abs of hilarious strength and meant I could stand on tiptoe at bus stops if bored, but involved zero aggression and far too many smug people in leotards. I followed Jillian Michaels studiously, bought little 2kg green weights, did sit-ups and yoga and everything that could conceivably be done without hurting my traitorous knees, which still click alarmingly when bent and have to be shunted back in place on occasion.
And then, one Sunday night, I did it. I went for a run.
Still, in the back of my mind, I missed running desperately. I watched all the World Athletics Championships and every Summer Olympics, and critiqued techniques in my head, trying to feel through the screen even a ghost of that beautiful adrenalin rush. People lightly discussing "going for a run" made me itch; didn't they know how lucky they were, to do it so easily? I couldn't even sprint for the bus. On trains and in cars I'd be rapturous about going fast because it felt so correct to be surging forward at a staggering pace. I felt so intensely vital, so cooped-up, lame in a way that nobody could see.
Sometime in the past six months, something broke. I am not good at being told what to do. I had been obedient and patient, and the knees appeared to be behaving from their 10 long years of coddling. I had finally finished my PhD, which at times had seemed to consist only of sitting maddeningly still. I was suffering severe depressive attacks (another genetic inheritance from my dad) that seemed only exacerbated by how separate I felt from my body. So I prepared to run. I bought new leggings, new running socks, a music player, and every day tested the knees a little, to see just how much they might be able to take. They were strong, and resiliently pain-free.
And then, one Sunday night, I did it. I went for a run.
It wasn't a complete success: I tried to do some hill sprints and fell in a puddle, and dropped my phone down a rabbit hole. But I felt like Rocky, or Cathy Freeman, or somebody who'd been let out of prison unexpectedly after being condemned to a life sentence. After the first twenty seconds or so I'd noticed my muscular memory waking up, gliding into a rhythm, back into its years of training without any conscious effort. I giggled hysterically and scared several dogs. A hipster on a park bench regarded me impassively and I resisted the urge to wave.
As with many people who are forcibly deprived of an experience that once gave them great pleasure, I had built an image of running as peaceful, heavenly, an endorphin-fuelled nature romp, conveniently editing out the pain and annoyance of doing 5km runs every damn morning for years. It hurt. My thighs have just stopped being mad at me, but I could not care less.
My doctor is, begrudgingly, impressed. I'm not allowed to run more than once a week for now, must absolutely not sprint on hard ground, and must stop immediately if my knees hurt. (They're not kidding around. "Sit down and call a cab" was the phrase used.) Setbacks are inevitable, mostly because I damaged the knees so much that the cartilage will never fully grow back, and the muscles are still knitted around old scars. But I'm careful, far more appreciative of their delicacy, and intent on keeping them healthy: exercising may help me stave off knee arthritis. And, despite the inevitable difficulty, I now feel even more powerful than I did at my fastest, more capable of flight.
This is the start. The gun has sounded. I am running.