Before the junior high track season started, my parents took me to a sporting goods store in downtown Rochester. It was a dim store filled with stock in dangerous piles, a style I now recognize from "Hoarders." It felt like stumbling into your cranky neighbor's garage and having him set aside his cigarette, hack into a Folger's tin, creak his way upright and say: "We probably got something here that will work for ya." They sharpened skates in the winter, they sold spikes for amateur softball players in the summer. And on this day an old man pressed his thumb to my toe, his fingernail long, thick, yellow and talon-like. I'd been watching enough "Married with Children" to understand the plight of the shoe salesman. The armpits of dress shirts damp with onion flavor; breath like the first whiff of an long forgotten crypt. This guy could have been Al Bundy.
My first pair of running shoes were grey with red trim. It was devastating. It was my first sobering and adult reality that not all shopping is good shopping. I understood that something had been purchased for me, which meant that "... But we just bought you running shoes ..." could stand between me and receiving something that I loved and couldn't wait to trot out in public. These were enough to make me quit track before it even started. Until that point, Keds had worked just fine. I'd won plenty of playground races in mine, deigning only to put the shoelaces back into them.
Later, in consultations with Princess Linda, my partner in all things running-related, I learned that her shopping experience had matched mine. So we were a team, at least, of seventh-graders who would visually assault the aesthetic of our junior high track team. Until we got to the first practice and realized that not only could we not find cute running shoes, no one could. No matter how many times you circled the bodies stretching in the infield, fashion did not exist here.
That changed everything. Suddenly I loved the ugliness of being a runner. The damp smell outside the locker rooms, the sweat-dried shirts stuffed into a duffle bag and the vintage uniforms worn for generations. I liked blisters and toes thickened with callouses. The smell of shoes worn without socks. The way mud would stick to our shins after an interval workout in a park. The smell of sun-warmed rubber bus seats, burnt skin and sweat. Dirty hands sharing homemade cookies after a track meet. You could burp here, you couldn't not fart and one time on a 13-miler I used a leaf as a pioneer maxi pad. When an easy-on-the-eyes mid-distance runner cashed his Tahitian Treat in a single flood of chunky red behind a pine treat in Stewartville ... well, that was interesting, too.
I got new running shoes today at a running-specialty store. The kind of place with its own treadmill and lax rules about testing the product on the sidewalk in front of the store. The kind of place that sells, astronaut-style, gel packets that count as food. "I don't know if I could handle that peanut butter flavor," a customer said. "It's not too bad," one of the employees vouched for it. There was a wall with about six brands of show, mostly similar in their meh except for a sexy pair of pink Nike shoes. Hot pink and fast.
The employee watched me walk sock-footed the width of the store. He handed me a pair of shoes and had me run on a treadmill while recording my lope. "You run on your toes," he said and I thought of this 400 runner, a teammate with wild naturally curly hair. A short girl with long legs who bounced from foot to foot and was one of the fastest girls in the Hiawatha Valley League. She was like a cartoon character dodging mines and fire balls. She never looked tired. "I think I've always run like that," I said. At least I don't remember the day this changed. Is that true, or is that the product of not-running, and sometimes saying I'm running when I'm really on an elliptical machine. "I think it would make your calves hurt," he said. Maybe I've condensed my run-style to look like the step taken right before you hit the white tape at the end of the long jump runway.
"I ran college track, you know," I wanted to say. But what did it matter. Anyway, I didn't run college track, I jumped college track and I wasn't even in the top three on my team most days. But I had the purple coat with my name stitched into the front, you'd think I knew how to run.
I studied the wall of shoes more like it was a single piece of abstract art than as individual pieces of footwear for me to choose from. This still isn't a selection process that ever takes color into consideration. The salesman played "Choose Your Own Adventure," yanking down shoes with a certain level of cushion, something for a runner who doesn't over pronate, and probably won't compete in an ultra-marathon in this lifetime -- or at least not this week. At no point does he ask "Which pair do you think are the cutest? Do you like this color or this color best?" And until I leave the store, I don't even notice that this is missing from the shopping experience. That's running for you.
I'd like to be a runner again, to have piles of crusty shirts and socks piled in the corner of the bedroom. To wake up with the creeps and perverts and begin circling the neighborhood, ditching out of civilization and onto paths. My steps perfectly timed to the beat of a Girl Talk album. A free pass to sniff my pits at stoplights, then put my hands on my hips. Come home, drink orange juice wearing just a sports bra and a layer of silt. I realize the only thing standing between me and the distinction of being a runner is, well, me.
I went to the YMCA last night to start this new life. Shiny white Asics with red and blue trim. I fired up a mix that marries Theophilus London and Trampled By Turtles. The Foo Fighters, Cloud Cult, and Coldplay. I made it 1,200 meters before I could feel the lunch I thought I'd digesting shifting above my right hip bone. Chorizo and Cheese Pain. "My fat hurts," I texted to Chrissie! when I slowed to a walk.