Southern Voice: Jennifer Bostwick Owens
I’ve never been a runner. Years ago, I tried to take up jogging, but I trod heavily and lumbered along uncomfortably. Now in my 50s, with an old foot injury and creaky hips, I prefer walking — and still tend to view marathoners as overachievers putting excessive wear and tear on their joints. When the Country Music Marathon started back in 2000, I studied road closures and learned alternate routes for driving out of our in-town neighborhood. But this year, having signed up to walk 13 miles of the (rebranded) St. Jude Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on April 28, I’m gaining a fresh perspective. I can see now the value of heading into this huge springtime event instead of skirting it. I’m excited to join the crowds along Nashville’s main arteries and celebrate race day.
A few months ago, I wasn’t as peppy. Having spent the fall traveling to help with my 84-year-old dad’s illness and then his passing, I was wiped out. Dubbing the first month of 2018 “Healing January,” I asked my neighbor Michele if she’d like to go for a walk some afternoon.
We headed out in our winter coats. Michele, newly retired from her full-time job and about 10 years older than I, said, “This is perfect because I need to start training.”
I peered out from my hood. “Training?” I couldn’t imagine for what.
We’d been neighbors for almost two decades, and I’d never pegged her as the marathon type.
“The half-marathon in April,” she elaborated. “You should do it.”
“I don’t think so,” I laughed. “I’m just out for a walk, no strings attached.”
That evening, she emailed me the training schedule she’d used in 2014. The fact that the old schedule synced up with both the distance we’d just walked and the current week of 2018 seemed like a sign: “Jan. 15-21, 2 miles.” I printed it out and made a check mark by Week 1.
But I was far from committed. Because of my old foot injury, I was nervous about long distances. When Michele emailed me the race registration form, I ignored it.
Confused and somewhat immobilized by my dad’s death, I wasn’t sure how to go forward. My girls were suddenly grown, and I could see that, even with part-time work and volunteering, a big space was opening up in front of me. As wife, daughter and especially mother, I’d dedicated myself for 25 years to supporting others — to being there for them. Now I waffled and grieved, uncertain how to proceed.
The first five weeks were doable. But watching the winter Olympics with my husband, I still found myself saying I might walk the half-marathon with Michele. I wanted this option to bail out. I argued with myself: Michele’s older, and if she can do it, so can I.
My husband poked gentle fun at me: “You don’t need to train to walk 13 miles. You just put on your shoes and go.”
I laughed. But my half-joking answer to him was, “If it’s so easy, you do it.”
Increasing from six to eight miles was a mental challenge. I tried to not be a whiny child on a long car trip: How much farther? Are we there yet? In the past, many of my strolls had ended at Provence bakery, where I’d sat with friends enjoying tea and a muffin. Now, six miles in, my mind and body clamored to sit down and eat a croissant. Michele chatted about her renovation, her podcasts and her new part-time practice, while I snuck glimpses at my phone to see how far we’d gone and how much longer we had to go.
At the same time, the walks began to feel good. The machinery of my body hummed. I breathed deeply, and my heart pumped. It was invigorating to be outside pursuing a new experience and a goal. Walking around the McCabe golf course on a chilly afternoon, I took in the spare gray beauty of the crowns of leafless trees in the fog. Images left intense impressions as we walked: mud puddles we tiptoed around, an old split-rail fence alongside us, an iron bridge with wooden slats under our feet, a wide-open magenta magnolia blossom right by my face.
In March, I was shocked by how far eight miles is. After walking from Hillsboro Village all the way out Belmont Boulevard to Second Presbyterian, then turning around and walking back down Belmont past Bongo Java, over to Music Row and down to the roundabout at Demonbreun, we started back up Music Row, my foot and hips aching, and I thought, this is as far as I ever need to walk in Nashville. Michele was reassuring; she understood the challenge. We approached a construction worker who told us we couldn’t cross the blocked-off area.
“Oh, please?” I said, not wanting to add an extra step. “We’re training.”
“Training?” he asked, in all seriousness, “for the Olympics?”
We laughed, enjoying his absurd idea.
At around the six-mile mark, it started to rain. Normally, I would have headed home. But now I was determined, knowing that if we quit, we’d have to start over to complete our eight-mile goal. Michele said she’d heard that a storm was on the way with hail likely. Soaked in the pouring rain, we pushed on, my wet sock bunching around my pinky toe, where I could feel the sting of a blister starting. I called out in the rain, “Bring it, hailstones! We’re training!”
At home, I dug up Michele’s old email and paid the registration fee. She’d begun to talk about race day with more frequency — about what time we’d need to leave to get downtown, the portapotties, the loud bands along the way and the parts of the course with the most spirited spectators. It surprised me how often she talked about race day. To me, the challenge was adding yet another mile each week to our walks. I thought I was already doing the marathon.
“You’ll see,” she said. “The race itself is another animal entirely.” She tried to put into words the huge multi-sensory experience.
“Wow,” I said, “I can’t imagine it,” but I did begin to feel the magnetic pull of these marathons that take place all around the world. “Do you feel proud when you finish?” I asked.
She paused. “Yes,” she answered. “You really do.”
Now we’re relying on each other. On our 10-mile walk, Michele got quiet and said she wasn’t feeling right. As we ducked in to a gas station mini-mart to buy her a coconut water and a banana, I felt a new protectiveness toward her. We’ve got to get through this together.
Friends of Michele’s from grade school and high school will be arriving from out of town. It sounds like a giant wedding weekend, full of festivities, and I can’t wait to be part of it. In the same way that it’s generous of friends to host a party, it’s generous of Nashville to host this city-wide event raising money for St. Jude Hospital — for pediatric cancer treatment for families that otherwise could not afford it. The marathon represents enormous efforts by all involved — 30,000 people in a colorful parade of runners, walkers, spectators, musicians and volunteers, all joining together, all dedicated to renewal and support of one another. From what Michele says, the marathon has its own heartbeat, its energy alive and electric.
Jennifer Bostwick Owens works as a writing coach of graduate business students and volunteers with economically disadvantaged preschoolers. An experienced technical editor and writing teacher, she lives with her husband in a Tudor cottage in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village neighborhood. Their two daughters, raised in Nashville, are now wonderful young adults.
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