Running for Life — or a Lifeline


Contemplating the Pacific before Marathon Day 2006 (Author photo)

In the untroubled days of my long-ago, think 1940s, central Virginia childhood I was not what you’d call a stand-out athlete.

Back before Little League transformed playtime into organized sports, a kid needed to be agile at kick-the-can and ferocious at dodge ball. I was neither. Oh, I wasn’t the last one chosen, but I also wasn’t often captain.

Intricate heirarchies were built around who could climb highest in what tree; I would get to about the three-quarter mark and start thinking about broken bones, of which I had my share. In short, the time and place called for a degree of bravado I desperately wished for and basically lacked.

But I could run.

Early on I learned that running could win friends and influence social standing. So I was a clutz at catching (or hitting) softballs? Get me on base, somehow, and I could fly. Pinch runner was my best position.

Fleet feet were my secret weapon, largely because I, along with most of the other kids in town, went barefoot beginning on the first balmy day of springtime.

I was really good at going barefoot.

The farm kids, traditionally strongest of us all (child labor laws did not apply to family farms) had to wear boots because of what they were stepping in all day. But except for classes or formal occasions I spent roughly half the year barefoot. As a result, my feet were like leather on the bottom by April. Cinder tracks for Field Day relay races? No problem. Don’t believe those depictions of Hermes in sandals; bare feet can be a superpower.

Photo by Irina Kalinina on Unsplash

When I got around to raising my own children, shoes were definitely in, and running was not yet. Well into the 1960s, if you’d been seen running around the neighborhood, by now I was in another small town near Atlanta, everyone would assume you had just robbed a bank. Or forgotten to turn the stove burner off. I kept up a passable tennis game, and team-sport skills served me well when the parents played the soccer kids. (The kids still always won.) I biked to freelance jobs; that was no fun.

Suddenly, beginning in the 1970s, running became A Thing. Hallelujah!

By now my children were looking at colleges, I was juggling several careers, my marriage was unraveling and life seemed to be coming at me with three questions for every answer. The search for answers began when, no longer barefoot, I laced up my sneakers and took off running. 

In those early days of the running craze, it was possible to find a 5k or 10k neighborhood run every weekend, everywhere, rain or shine. There were fundraisers for nonprofits, celebrations of obscure holidays or just get-together excuses. We ran for T-shirts or free pizzas or occasional awards. It took a while for women and girls to turn out; I was in my early 40s when I took home an engraved plaque declaring me Oldest Female Finisher.

And again, running was my salvation.

The problems that seemed hopeless at 3 AM could dissolve into possible solutions while jogging around leafy streets at dawn. We formed running groups of friends who turned into supporters. I wrote my best articles in my head, ready to type on return.

I did not turn into a great winner (other than the Oldest Female Finisher and a few red ribbons) but running helped me win other battles. Several of them coalesced into my first Bay to Breakers race. In 1992, having won, or at least survived, a few of the dark-days problems cited above, I began a new life in a new marriage in a new city, San Francisco.

How about all those people behind #33911? Even if they’re mostly walking (Author photo)

Before leaving I had contracted to write a magazine article comparing the Peachtree Road Race, then featuring a lot of crazies, to the Bay to Breakers, featuring certified crazies by the dozens. Feeling duty bound to complete the race although I had not trained a single day, I pulled on a pair of worn, comfy sneakers and set out to walk it.

It could not be done.

At every other corner were singers and dancers, cheering (drinking) people, jazz bands and throbbing music. It was impossible not to dance — and run. After starting at the back of the mostly-walker crowd I broke out running whenever the route was not straight uphill. My knees were in revolt for the next three weeks, but I got the story in on time. 

Speaking of hills. San Francisco quickly reduced me to a walker. Partly because my new home city was too beautiful to learn at a running pace and partly because very few consecutive blocks don’t involve mini-mountains, my running career ground to a stop. It stayed dormant while I traveled the globe with the excellent Final Husband, while I went back to school for an MFA and generally lived a blissfully happy life.

Suddenly I had passed my 70th birthday.

One day I woke up thinking everybody should run a marathon before turning 75, and I had never run a marathon. So I filled out the forms for the Nike Women’s with its Tiffany gold necklace prize, talked my daughters into joining me and began training (the three of us plus one young friend all in different states.)

I rediscovered the sheer joy of fast-paced movement and quickly remembered the benefit all those endorphins brought. Even doing the hills — I trained on segments of the planned route — brought back the old exhilaration. Clear head, clear thoughts, or sometimes no thoughts at all.

Four months into my marathon training a lump in my breast brought plans to a screeching halt. Instead of going on a training run I was being wheeled into surgery. It was mid-February.

Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

That was the bad news. The good news was that no cancer cells were found in my lymph nodes, so I skipped radiation and the bad chemo, and went straight to the mild and manageable Tamoxifen.

By mid-March, my racing partners were reaching their projected times. I was feeling like a slug.

Until one morning when my husband said, casually, “I wonder if being lopsided would affect your running gait.” Which started me thinking about the gold necklace again, and the fact that the race was still more than two months off.

I traded a few messages with the race people, who assured me it would not be called cheating, under the circumstances, if I wimped back to a half-marathon. And more importantly, I could still have the necklace. Besides, it was paid for, and I am basically cheap.

I went back to training. There were always others doing the same thing. I got more than a few strange glances, the little old lady loping up and down the hills? Mostly I got thumbs-up signs.

Perseverance pays. By the time we four members of Team Gran assembled for dinner the night before the race we were equally pumped, if unequally prepared. Plus, the matching T-shirts had arrived on time.

#3911 nearing the finish line ahead of a clearly unhappy #3855 (Author photo)

The race, my first and last marathon, began on a chilly morning that quickly turned into a brilliant San Francisco day. I ran for some of the route, jogged other sections and walked a few uphills. People passed me — a lot of people passed me — often shouting words of encouragement, sometimes asking how old I was. My husband, who knew this town like the back of his hand, would pop up at unexpected places holding “Go, Team Gran” signs for us. (The team ran the first few yards together and then split into our respective time-slots.)

This is the best possible way to end a race: When I got to the half-marathon exit I felt like I could’ve gone on for miles. I still had sense enough to know I wouldn’t have made it to the end. The word ‘cancer’ had never crossed my mind.

At the pre-arranged meeting spot we four eventually picked up our formal certificates, the swag bag and the coveted Tiffany gold.

That necklace, the Oldest Female Finisher plaque and a few dozen ribbons, certificates and T-shirts have slowly disappeared.

I walk the city hills now, two or three miles of them on most days, but no longer break into a run for fear of breaking something else. But the pure delight, the thrill of spotting unexpected beauty, the clarity that fresh air brings, the joy of motion . . .



  1. I loved this writing, Fran it was so exciting!! I am waiting for Alison and Westy to arrive. Life is so good. Your story makes me feel very happy. I know the joy of releasing endorphins. You have always inspired me. I loved your leading us at Mt Hermon. I think you are amazing with your quick thinking and caring about so many. And you are a good Photographer I especially like learning about your life. Because you are so talented it helps to know you had to find your way like the rest of us. Keep on
    Leading us, Fran. You make our lives fun!

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