It’s been one of those dazzlingly sunny spring days. The kind that I value far more than the summer days we Brits tend to experience (which I find veer far too alarmingly between overly hot and disappointingly cold and wet).
And I’ve been tired out by an exhausting term at work, and successive nights of interrupted sleep. On behalf of my family, I’ve declined an invitation to a barbecue with friends of ours because I feel the need to limit my interactions with others, and now the noise and chaos of the household, with my reactions culminating in one of my sadly all-too-frequent “mummy meltdowns”, has sent me out of the house for a desperately-needed walk on my own.
The sun is bright. I wish I were wearing my contacts with oversized sunglasses, rather than my prescription glasses with the transitions lenses whose frames don’t quite cover enough of my face to keep out all the glare. Still, I’m grateful, as I move away from the streets of terraced houses and out towards the fields, hedgerows, and wooded paths, for gentler noises and a less visually jarring, more serene and natural view in front of me.
I take myself down into a nearby valley that was once a favourite running haunt of mine.
Only these days, I’m not running. My left hip subluxes more than ever. My ankles frequently give way. My right knee feels constantly off-track and has been so painful over the past few days that I’m walking with a limp on anything but a flat surface. My body – like my family setup – is such that, after two babies, I have not yet managed to get myself back on track with the one form of exercise I love more than any other, and something in me wonders if I ever will. I’ve never been built for running, no matter how much I’ve loved it, and these days I feel further away from it than ever before.
But though I may be moving at a more sedate pace, still I feel the need to clamber over tree roots, pick my way down steep, rock-strewn slopes, and lift myself over stiles. To experience the need to stabilise myself with underused core muscles. To feel the cushioning of lush grass or a carpet of developing leaf mould under my feet.
I run my fingers over the masses of tiny individual fronds of moss that cover grey stone walls, so much in appearance like a high-altitude aerial photograph of forest on a mountainside. I inspect unfurling beech leaves and opening blossom. It’s because my travel is slowed that I can do these things.
I walk along with my arms outstretched beside me, hands shoulder-height. This seems to serve some proprioceptive purpose that would once have been addressed through faster movement, arms pumping. All around me green. Still well within the bounds of the city. So comparatively close, even, to the city centre – and yet still so far removed, so seemingly rural. Birds sing. Insects hum. Traffic is a distant murmur. I sing, hum, and murmur to myself as I move along.
In the city today, a half marathon is being run. Many people I know are running it. And I feel envious. There are so many things I miss about running.
Races, with their communality and camaraderie, but limited small talk or inane chitchat. Chip timing. Counting down the mile markers. Finish lines. Souvenir medals. Celebratory drinks and meals.
Solitary leisure runs, meditative, exploratory, thoughtful. Hard slogs uphill, purposeful, pounding me with the physical feedback my mind and body so often crave. Tempo runs, testing myself, pushing myself. Quick runs around the block, just enough to release a satisfactory amount of post-work tension.
Feeling bodily tired but mentally, emotionally, and sensorily sated.
Of course, nowadays I still have the gym. But it’s not the same.
I make my way past clearings in the woodland. Past allotments. I spy a lone red tulip, abloom at a roadside, petals open wide to the sun, yellow centre and black stamens stark against the scarlet. I stop to take a picture. The basic camera on my budget smartphone fails to do justice to the detail I see before me, although somewhat unusually it does capture a flavour of the vivid, shining Irlen contrast between colours that causes me to see flowers literally glow. I guess the light’s good, today.
Would I notice such a thing if I were moving more quickly? Probably. Even when running, I still tended to spot the detail in my surroundings. An autistic thing, I suppose. But I wouldn’t have stopped to take a photograph. I wouldn’t have looked quite so closely.
I find half-remembered footpaths and bridleways. Half-remembered fields, occupied by horses swishing their tails. Wood pigeons scatter leaves and twigs as they beat their wings to fly from resting-places on tree branches. Half-remembered trees, half-remembered hills. I find myself on a gradual curve back upwards – I can’t be out too long, after all. I get hotter and my breathing gets harder as the incline increases. My right knee aches a little more.
Eventually I’m back home. Later, I read friends’ Facebook posts about the race. It was hard in the heat. I congratulate them on their efforts. And I genuinely do feel pleased for them. Pleased, but still envious. I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it.
As I type this post, my toddler son is asleep, cuddled up on me. He is breathing audibly, but softly. He’s warm, calm, and peaceful, and the soft curls of his hair smell of baby shampoo as I nuzzle my face into them. And I think to myself: I’m quite happy here. This is a place I want to be, and I don’t begrudge that my life is different from that of those out running today. I don’t resent them for it. And whilst it doesn’t give me that “high”, there are other sensory boosts to be gained from a quiet walk, drinking in all that surrounds me.
But oh, how I miss the action of running through the woods, or across the fields. The freedom. The release. The dynamism with which one moves through one’s surroundings.
There is nothing like it, and nothing else that will ever quite fill the same void.