For most of my life, I’ve started every day with a run or a walk. Early is best: right out the door, a sudden immersion into a new day.
From kindergarten to grade 13, every weekday of my life started with a walk or a bike ride to school. I progressed from a 400m journey to a two-kilometre one, increasingly laden down with books, binders, and a viola or violin as elementary school changed to junior high and then high school.
I almost always walked to school alone, though my walks home were often in the company of friends who lived nearby. I pity today’s kids, so many of whom are driven to school by overprotective parents, and have lost the independence and adventure of choosing their own route and time for their school commute.
During most of my twenties, when I was living either at my parents’ house, in a York University residence, or in a communal runners’ house near Earl Bales Park in Toronto, many of my days started at 6:30 with an easy run or a flat-out tempo run. No stretching, no warmup, no coffee. I didn’t need it then.
An early-morning run is a wonderful way to start the day, but in some ways walking is better. Unlike running, walking is not all-consuming. I’m more observant when I’m walking; I can fully appreciate everything I see, hear, or feel. At the same time, if I want to I can turn inward. I can be oblivious to the outside world and pay attention to my own mental overdrive.
In the morning, I’m optimistic. Every morning is a new start where everything seems possible. Morning is the time when my brain fires off new ideas. Maybe my subconscious mind has done work for me while I was sleeping. So, too, the dreams I recall in the morning often fire my imagination, reveal my own secrets to me, give me new ideas for stories or articles.
Walking in Brussels
Aside from my childhood walks to school, two other periods of my life have included regular morning walks. One of those periods was the late ‘80s, when I spent intermittent months in Brussels with my husband Paul, who was doing his Ph.D. at the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics.
Paul worked long days at the Institute, studying, doing experiments, and writing, but we did hard running workouts together four mornings a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I ran with Paul in the huge forest (La forêt de Soignes) that we could enter directly across the street from the Institute. The ten-kilometer bike ride from our house apartment to the Institute was our warmup. On weekends we ran directly from our house; we could quickly run to forest trails or do a workout at a nearby gravel track.
But Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were my cross-training days, and when Paul left to ride his bike to the Institute at about 7 a.m., I headed out on foot to either the gym or the pool.
My routes were a rich mixture of back streets with old houses and some stretches of busy streets lined with shops and their elaborate window displays. I might pass the chocolaterie, the pâtisserie, the boulangerie, the fromagerie, little clothing boutiques, and some bigger, more modern grocery stores, sometimes stopping (especially at the chocolaterie) to look longingly at the contents displayed. The walk to the pool also took me through some wooded trails.
I loved those early-morning solitary walks. They served a purpose; they got me to my training places; but what I enjoyed was becoming part of the world that day. Listening to a weather report is one thing, but what does the day feel like? What does it smell like? There is the smell of rain, the smell of wet earth and decaying leaves, the scents of flowers, the smell of carbon monoxide from hundreds of cars on a busy street (this smell seemed especially strong in European cities).
Paradoxically, though the smell of carbon monoxide isn’t a nice one, and I don’t like the noise of traffic, I enjoyed getting outside and hearing the bustle of the morning rush hour. My morning workout gave my life a purpose, but unlike the people in those thousands of cars whirring around the ring-road near our house, I wasn’t chained to a nine-to-five job. Instead, my life in Brussels was built around my training and racing. During those years between 1986 and 1988 I was fitter (and freer) than any other time of my life.
First walks at Klahanie
For a long time, walks were no longer a part of my morning routine. That changed when I moved to the Klahanie neighbourhood in Port Moody almost two years ago. For the first time, I was living on my own, after helping my coach George move to a seniors’ residence and leaving Paul in our family home.
Almost every morning I walked to my gym, an easy 11-minute trip at my brisk pace. My memories of those first couple of months of walks at Klahanie are sad ones, because George (though we didn’t know it) was struggling through his final weeks of life. Two or three mornings a week, I met him at the gym. His workout by that time consisted mainly of getting out of his car and into the gym. I took his walker out of his Nissan Cube and together we greeted the gym owner, Stan, who was always very kind to George. I did my usual hour-or-so workout while George did a few easy exercises alternating with lengthy periods of sitting on the equipment and joking around with the older “regulars”. He still spotted me on the bench press, but laughed ruefully at his own painful efforts–he could no longer press even the weight that I was doing. Still, he tried—up to the day before he finally went to the hospital.
George always drove me back to my apartment after our workouts. We’d stop for coffee at Starbucks or McDonald’s. One time we tried the Booster Juice near my building for a change. I noticed that George seldom drank or ate much of what he’d ordered. All his systems were failing and nothing tasted good to him anymore. I knew he just wanted to spend more time with me. Looking back now, I wonder: Why didn’t I linger with him longer? Why didn’t I give him more time?
We seldom know when it’s the last time: my last time at the gym with George, the last time he drove me home.
After he died it seemed very strange to be at the gym without him. It hurt. It’s probably just a distortion of my memory, but when I think of my morning walks to the gym in the weeks after his death, there is always a mild, gentle rain falling. I’m walking with my iPod and listening to Melissa McClelland’s “Brake” over and over.
And quiet hearts are always bound to break
Where am I walking to now?
After a while I got used to George not being at the gym. Stan the owner sold the gym, and some of George’s old buddies left too. The new owner cancelled Marina’s Pilates class, to my great sadness (I wrote about it here).
Everything changes. When my membership at that gym expired, I joined the Port Moody Rec Centre, which is closer and costs less than the other gym.
My morning walks to the gym are a constant in my life. They are still my best, most optimistic time. On good days I’m almost exploding with caffeine-enhanced energy. I walk rapidly, eager to start a real workout. Sometimes I have my headphones plugged in and get totally carried away by a song.
I wonder sometimes whether I should be trying harder to get a regular 9-to-5 job. If I did, I might be on the Westcoast Express every morning instead of striding along to the gym at whatever time fit in with waking up, having coffee and breakfast, and writing what I felt like writing. I can’t fool myself that walking to the gym is my life’s purpose any longer.
Yet maybe it is still essential for me. On those mornings I haven’t slept much…my brain feels thick. My morning face in the mirror horrifies me with its puffy, slitted eyes. But when I get outside, the fresh air buoys me up and I know I will be all right.
Walking is my meditation, my creativity, my way of matching my rhythm to the world’s.