This story begins in a parking lot in Michigan. And it wasn’t just any parking lot. It was the enormous, newly paved “rink” that surrounded Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium. It was spring and we were young, armed with inline skates and hockey sticks. We were free, my new husband and I and about 30 others who had broken up into several pick-up hockey games. We played fast and rough. And in that singular way those who live in climates that drive them indoors for several months a year feel when warm weather finally ends their confinement, we were full of that delicious, fizzy combination of pent-up energy and careless, 100-proof joy.
Fortunately for me that day, I broke my leg. Just like that. It wasn’t even spectacular. One minute I was up, the next I was down, and there were stars. Then the stars were replaced by the banged-up knees of my teammates. As I lay there on the warm asphalt, it occurred to me that I really had no business playing with guys like this. At 28, I had only recently grasped the idea of my own mortality, and here were these 19- and 20-year-olds looking down at me, shocked that someone had gone down and stayed down.
I said it was fortunate that my leg broke that day. Here’s why: Without that screeching halt, I’d have never started to notice what amazing machines our bodies are, how strong I actually am, or why movement moves me.
See, this lucky break happened about two months before we were to pack up all our worldly belongings and drive west. I’d planned this road trip for months, had even spent careful consideration on the perfect cowboy boots in which to drive off into the sunset, a plan suddenly curtailed, alas, by the honking plastic boot that replaced my cast. I drove the width of Wisconsin and South Dakota with my left foot working the gas and brake, useless right leg flopped over the console in the middle of the Ryder truck. I stumped around rest stops on that trip instead of swinging out of the truck in the dusty boots of my imagination.
Once I finally traded in my boot for a smaller brace which I could fit right in my tennis shoe, I had the opportunity to nurse my poor, shrunken leg back to health. And in Washington, where I knew no one, had no idea where I was, and almost everything was utterly foreign, I began to gingerly explore my new home on foot.
I walked miles in those first few months. My favorite place to walk, though, was along the river and marsh at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. At first, I’d walk a ways then find a place to sit and write or read or whip out my field glasses, then walk some more. I could feel my leg getting stronger.
A few months later, after my walks had gradually become jogs, and then runs, I met the Ft. Steilacoom Runners’ Club in Point Defiance Park. I’d never considered myself a runner even though I was now regularly running about three miles at a time by myself. I thought I could hang. As it turned out, they were running their usual five to six miles on the trails that day and I balked. They coaxed me to join them, however, and I did, in fact, hang with one runner named Jim (who’d also recently overcome an injury) for the whole run. I felt triumphant as we sailed down the hill to our cars and I remember crying tears of gratitude and something like pride while I drove home from that run. I was astounded by my body’s ability to repair itself and bounce back. I was hooked on running and on a phrase that started circling in my head that night and has roosted there ever since: “Physical activity will save your life.” Truthfully, the original phrase was, “Running will save your life.” I have since learned, after various running-related overuse injuries, that it’s sometimes OK not to take inspiration literally.
And as long as we’re talking about the truth, there were a couple years since my Point Defiance epiphany during which I fell off the wagon—hard—and couldn’t hear my mantra anymore. Luckily, though, I eventually found a great gym near where I lived.
One day, as I held an impossible pose in a yoga class, I clearly saw my little interior flame spring to life. It was back. I was back from some difficult times in my life. As I stopped straining against the pose, against gravity, I concentrated on that flame, on using my breath as a bellows to nurture it. Physical activity was, in fact, going to save my life. Again.
Today, I’m a cross trainer, a weight-lifter, a step aerobics fanatic, a yogi on occasion. I love pilates and kickboxing, tai chi and salsa. I drag my husband to a nearby field to play Frisbee, I walk to the grocery store, the dry cleaner, the gym. I’m a fitness instructor and a proponent of the “walking meeting,” (preferably conducted while sucking down an Emerald City Smoothie.)
My relationship with physical activity has been a complicated one all these years: From the reckless parking-lot hockey games, to the discovery of how a long run in the rain can temper my confidence and resolve, to dark days when physical activity was the furthest thing from my mind, to today. Today, I awaken every morning and I ponder, “How will I work it in today?” Circuit training? Weight training? A long run? A casual walk? Mowing the lawn? As I lay deciding, my little flame burns, the day awaits, I feel strong and ready for anything.