Riding along on my bike, being overtaken by all the fairweather cyclists who have come out of hiding since the weather warmed up and reflecting on my lack of running success, I realised I have sucked at every sport I have ever tried. Here’s an exhaustive list.
In my day I have sucked at: skiing ( I regularly cry when faced with a too-steep slope), climbing (never progressed to being able to lead any route) , running (my 10 km speed record run at a speed which I overheard my workmates once describing as well but nobody runs that slowly), surfing (I might have stood up once but not for very long), hockey (it was long ago and in another country, but I sucked quite comprehensively), and riding a bike (as evidenced by the fact that all the hipsters on single speeds are flying past me with the wind in their beards).
Anyway, apparently it’s edifying. One of my students said that the best things she got out of years of playing school volleyball was ‘learning how to lose,’ which actually might not be such a useless skill.
A month or two ago, I started running. Though it’s hard to call it that- the word carries the feeling of speed and wind in the hair, a tinge of exhilaration. My style is something more like a cross between a limp and a shuffle. I feel gravity weighing on me, and all my joints protest against it. I have to buy a gigantic bra with a scaffold inside so that my lactating chest doesn’t fling me off balance.
I persist for the sheer pleasure of leaving the house in the evening and the sweaty little sensation of virtue that blooms in me when it’s done. I love the park where I run, down a damp green avenue of European trees (everyone else in my family would be able to name their species) that sway and sigh in the wind. I love the fat and solitary goose that sits on his wooden pontoon in the middle of the pond, and the ordered little family of ducks that swim across it, one after the other. There is a couple of young lovers whose idea of a hot date is to head off with their fishing rods to try their luck here too. The playground is always full of kids, though mine are long in bed.
Marcin runs too, on the nights when I don’t. It was his idea first, and he is far ahead of me in the distance he runs and the pleasure he takes in it. He has a heart monitor and a watch which tells him how many calories he’s burned, and he always reports back on how real runners mistake him for one of their own and give him a laconic, gadget-based greeting.
I try to distract myself from the actual physical act I am performing with admiration of my surroundings. I have picked running because I have to do something, and it’s cheap and uncomplicated. My body, however, doesn’t necessarily agree that this is a good idea. I seem to be lacking some centrifugal force that the beautiful runners (the ones who look like they’re moving on springs) possess- none of my body parts agree on the direction they are heading.
Even at my very fittest, I have never been a runner, so I don’t expect much besides a little aerobic buzz. Then one day, a miracle takes place. Instead of checking my watch every 2 seconds to see if I’m allowed to stop yet, I find my 4 minutes is up before I know it. My organism synchronises with itself, and I am hypnotised by the sound and rhythm of my feet hitting the ground. At last I understand why people do it. It’s a long way from a marathon, but I taste victory anyway- maybe I am a sporty person, after all.
The thing I miss the most about normal life is, without a doubt, physical activity. Now I have found a way around it and have regular nocturnal adventures- walking in the mountains in Vermont in a forest blazing with autumn, cycling up a winding road on a volcanic island, rebelling against the new Iranian style rulers of Poland, etc.
At first I would wake up with a guilty feeling, quickly followed by relief when I came to my senses and realised I hadn’t really been running up hills all night – like the dreams ex-smokers have about having a fag. But after a while I started to look forward to my nocturnal adventures, and felt cheated when (after watching Alien) I got a night of recurring nightmares about being stalked by a giant crab instead.
My other escape is literature. With the appearance of a Kindle in my life, I’ve retreated into my own language and now read constantly in English. My current solution for absolute maximum escapism is to read about something as far away from my own experience as humanly possible. So I am reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about Henry the Eighth’s minister Thomas Cromwell.
It has taken me years to come around to historical fiction, but now I easily lose myself in 16th century England- kings and courtiers, plagues and intrigues, the burning and utterly alien ambition of Ann Boleyn, the changing fates of those in the king’s orbit. My ignorance allows me to read it as a real novel, not knowing what will happen next. When I look for portraits of the main players on the internet, I am surprised at how static they are, bound in their finery with their motionless faces. In Mantel’s book they are plastic- they sweat and twitch and make jokes in an entirely credible fashion.
It removes me entirely from my own circumscribed world, which is exactly what I want and need.
Zakopane, late February. Icicles hanging from the eaves, the whole town pillowed in snow.
I am learning to ski and my elementary knowledge of physics has informed me that it will be easy because gravity is on my side. I have failed to take into account the effort required to brake, especially since we are temporarily between insurances and I have no wish to break a limb, and so am braking more than I otherwise might. I also suffer from the morale-dashing experience of being hopeless at something which everyone I know has been doing for at least 2 decades. Also, the fact that -unbelievably- there are people who are more hopeless than me doesn’t provide much comfort when they are running into me from every direction as I attempt to stay on my feet.
To add insult to injury, we meet one of Marcin’s friends in the train station on the way home. I am exhausted and feel as if I have spent the weekend being kicked in the thighs by a wild stallion, and can barely wait until we’re in the train before falling asleep. She is 3rd in Poland in cross-country skiing, has spent the day racing and looks cheerful and energetic. I sulk briefly before falling asleep to a self pitying litany which runs something like why am I the worst at everything? (everything means winter sports and speaking Polish).
Off to try again this weekend after watching 200 youtube videos on how to progress from the elementary snow plough to parallel turns.