I’ve been running for approximately twenty-six years. Not continually, but regularly and wherever I seem to find myself. Along the foreshores of Sydney, on the dried crusted sands of outback Australia, through a grey, dank park south of London, along the frozen Hudson River in New York. Wherever I’ve lived I’ve run. It’s very cathartic for me. Without it I’d likely be medicated for anxiety. At the very least I’d be rather difficult to live with. It also fits my budget…it’s free. All I do is throw on a pair of old runners, fall out the back door and go for a trot.
That’s the easy part. It’s getting back again that I find difficult, for I perpetuate the feminine stereotype of having utterly appalling navigational skills. Absolutely no sense of direction and a complete inability to read maps. It shames my brothers, but if forced to use a map, I flip it to match any turns I make and therefore embraced that navigational masterpiece, the GPS, with more joy than I did my husband on our wedding night. The points on a compass mean nothing to me and unless I waited until the sun set, I would never know where west is. I’m a navigational black hole. Any relevant information enters my brain and if it comes out at all it’s warped. Left seems right, up is down, and as for roundabouts, circling them until you’re dizzy is better than getting on a freeway you can’t escape and traveling for miles suspecting, correctly, that you’re going in the wrong direction.
I think my father thought he could fix the problem by enrolling the four of us in an orienteering course when we were young. We were put in pairs, given a compass and a map, and a series of targets to find somewhere in the bush. The first team back won. I was always put with a family friend who (if he’d been so inclined) could likely have represented Australia in the middle distance running events. Off he would dash, disappearing amongst the gum trees and buggar following the map, my sole objective was to keep up with him and not spend the day lost in the wilderness.
New York spoiled me; its convenient grid meant that even when I was lost, I was still only one block in the wrong direction. I’d forgotten how much that hid my disability when I was briefly back in Australia and working in Darwin, Northern Territory. On my first night there, I stayed with my new boss and her husband and headed out for a jog. Two and a half hours later, heels bleeding, mouth as dry as a popcorn fart, they found me pounding the pavement clear on the other side of town.
In those days I was a fashion workout puritan; old t-shirts with no labels, my midriff securely covered, shorts from my soccer days and definitely no music device. I’ve graduated now - audibly anyway - and strap an ipod to my arm. An excellent device that detracts those pesky talky-trotters from striking up a conversation with me when I cross their path. It is an instrument I wish I’d had as a little girl when my father would drag me from bed for an early morning run. In my entire running career I’ve never met a runner like Phil. He doesn’t seem to find breathing a necessity thereby allowing him to run and talk at the same time. “So Nome,” he’ll say, half way up a hill, “what do you think is the meaning of life?”
These days I sprint along the edge of the Pacific, the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, dodging seagulls, my feet pounding in time to the rhythm of the Venice drum circle, the theme from Chariots of Fire running through my head. Usually I am accompanied by a pod of dolphins playing in the waves where the lifeguards are performing one of their many surf rescues. I’m not sure why there are so many, though it may have something to do with the large number of people swimming fully clothed, which can’t help too much with their buoyancy.
Sometimes I skip the beach, bike ride to a steep set of stairs and run up and down them until my legs shake so badly I can barely ride home again. It may seem like an odd thing to do, but I am never alone. The stairs are always crowded with hundreds of sweating, panting, puffing Santa Monicans all working for the perfect body.
Up and down the steps I pound, head down and eyes on the stairs, which is great for avoiding an embarrassing trip, but gives me no time to prepare for coming face to face – or face to bum as the case may be – with the person in front.
Usually it’s a woman in Lycra pants and matching sports bra because here, a display of midriff is compulsory, regardless of its state. The owner of said midriff may have just given birth to octuplets or placed first in a hamburger eating competition, but still their jiggling abdomens are revealed, shuddering like bacon on a factory convey belt.
And if it’s not the jigglers I run into, it’s the man with the weights, always dressed in a black fleece tracksuit and covered in a weight jacket. The pungent odour of man-sweat trapped between metal and a synthetic fibre wafts behind him like a skunk under threat. Though I do occasionally wonder if I’m not much better. My typical morning involves getting dressed into the pajamas I didn’t wear to bed, (I find them restrictive for sleeping, but perfect for writing) writing for a few hours, then getting out in the sunshine for a bit of exercise. Rationalising that there’s no point showering before a workout, or putting deodorant on either since I’ll only sweat it off so I may as well save the money, I head for the stairs as natural as nature intended. The saying ‘ladies don’t sweat, they perspire’ does not apply to me and it has occurred to me that my natural pheromones may, in fact, be offensive to others.
Now, while the stairs are being pounded by those with the extra pounds, they’re more likely to be lightly tapped by rawboned women, their glossy manes bouncing around their doctor-designed faces, their chopstick legs desperately balancing the weight of their surgically enhanced chests so they don’t topple forwards and land at the bottom of the stairs in a tiny bundle of plastic, collagen and spandex.
LA is the kind of town where if you didn’t have an eating disorder when you got here, you’ll quickly acquire one. They’re obligatory. Like a valley accent, or air pollution, or a passive-aggressive attitude. Here, pre-schoolers do yoga and ladies carry their complexes in their designer handbag. Recently I overheard a woman ask her friend how she stayed so thin. “I haven’t eaten anything that tastes good in years,” the friend replied.
I’ve only been here eight months and already I’ve developed the disturbing habit of reaching under my shirt and feeling my belly pooch every time I take a sip of tea with sugar in it or - heaven forbid - eat the bread my sandwich comes with. Sometimes when I’m running the stairs I grab at it, as if I might be able to feel the fat dissolve with every step I climb.
So here we are, the fatties, the clones and me, all vying for space on the wooden stairs. And just like I can sniff the weight man, I can also sniff the clones’ disdain when they glance at my outfit, my baseball cap hiding my unbrushed hair, the sun cream running milkily down my arms.
“What’s the time?” Clone One asks Clone Two, pointedly ignoring the watch on my wrist. After taking her earphone out of one ear and telling the person on her iPhone to “hang on a minute,” Clone Two looks at Clone One and says; “twelve thirty.” (No self respecting Hollywood-wannabe exercises before noon. Probably because their waitressing shift didn’t finish until three and they also need the morning to blow dry their freshly washed hair). But it’s not really the time Clone One cares about. What she’s really saying is; “how did you convince your surgeon to do your breasts so big? I tried, but mine refused. I knew I should have spent the extra money for the surgeon on that reality show, all my friends did and he did exactly as they asked.”
One of my greatest runs was back in New York on the night of ‘blackout 2003’ (as the commemorative t-shirts said). At first New Yorkers panicked (it seemed a little too much like that fateful September date) but after it was ascertained – and blamed on Canada – that it was just a huge power failure, it was a very pleasant evening indeed. Spontaneous street parties erupted, stores gave away melting ice creams and candles were shared as people gathered together on the brownstone steps. At dusk, not a single light but the fireflies in the trees and the sun setting over the west side apartments, I strode around the Jackie Onassis Resevoir and thought of Phil.
What was the meaning of life? Was it this? A mad-paced city forced to stop and smell the dog pee evaporating from its sidewalks? To recognise that for all their differences, the inhabitants could still be united by a single blown fuse. Or did the clones have it right? Was the meaning of life competitive uniformity? Should we abandon individuality and strive instead for homogenous perfection?
I decided to ask Clone Number Two…if only I could work out which one she was.