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Joanna Imm


readingWhy I Run

It’s a hot July evening in Brooklyn. Coming home on the Q train, I enter our stuffy Park Slope apartment, dark and without any air circulation to speak of. It’s seven o’clock, my sister is out somewhere, I’m done with work and suddenly a long evening stretches out in front of me. I moved here six months ago, after graduating from college, and besides my sister I know no one. So far it feels like a city of eight million people alone together. After sitting at a cubicle in Manhattan editing textbooks all day, the thought of reading or watching television doesn’t appeal to me. So I pull on my running shoes, shorts, and an old t-shirt, eager to shed the day out in the park.


In high school, I was not, by any means, an athletic person. This isn’t to say that I was out of shape or not active. I liked to canoe, cross country-ski, hike and even bike for miles. But primarily I was a reader, a writer, and a musician. While friends captained the cross-country team or went out for tennis, my instincts were still to wince a bit when seeing two friends come barreling towards me during a pick-up soccer game, to shy away from any ball rushing towards my hands or face, and to exercise alone as a form of meditation, not community or competition.

But during junior year of high school, my friend Abby and I decided to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and join the cross-country ski team. We had gone skiing together since junior high, taking our used 1960s wooden skis out for leisurely runs through Woodlake Nature Center. So why not take the bus out to Theodore Wirth every week and force ourselves to stop studying for a few hours? The team’s coach, Mrs. McNaughton, was an English teacher, which in my mind suggested these outings were accepting of our kind.

Our first clue that we had misunderstood the team’s purpose was the large proportion of spandex on the bus compared to cotton sweatpants layered on cotton tights. Given that it was the mid 90s—known for its flannel-draped concealment of the female form—we embarrassedly averted our eyes at the sight of so much skin-tight fabric, especially on the boys. Second, no one else had wooden skis painted in classic 60s colors of burnt orange or avocado green, lined not in wax but plastic fish scales, and topped with brown leather booties older than the skiers themselves. Theirs were garish neon greens, yellows and pinks with slick ankle-height velcroed boots emblazoned with names I dared not mispronounce, like Rossignol.

Had we missed those two first clues (as self-conscious teenagers they were not lost on us) the third met us when we got off the bus and found the start of our route. It was at the bottom of a huge hill—that went up, ascended—clearly a bunny hill missing its tow-rope. Our peers immediately bounded forward on both poles, pushing off first on their right ski before shifting to glide on their left, like speed-skaters or rollerbladers. Soon poles and skis were thrown into the air in some kind of choreographed chaos of exertion, puffing and sweating up the hill.

Abby and I stood back. We did not know what they were doing, or, honestly, why. We waited politely for the captains and their followers to push up the hill. Then, feigning problems with our bindings, we let the 9th and 10th graders go ahead of us. Finally even the precocious middle school skiers were halfway up the hill. Seconds passed. The snow came down gently.  I turned to Abby.

“Wanna go around it?” I asked.

“Yup,” she answered.

So as our more competitive classmates raced dutifully up and down hills, Abby and I glided gracefully, our skis moving in smooth parallel motion, through the backwoods of Theodore Wirth Park. A light snow that had begun falling when we arrived turned thick and heavy at some point in the afternoon. We hadn’t seen purple spandex in a while, and instead enjoyed the quiet solitude you can enjoy only with someone who has known you forever. So when she unclipped her boots and lay down in the snow to make a snow-angel, I followed her lead. And that’s what we were doing, two meditative nerds in the snow, when the entire high school ski team raced on by. A few skiers embarrassedly averted their eyes. But we were like a pair of does who perk up their heads as a flock of birds flies by but then quickly realizes that the other species means no harm.


I walk up to the grand broad gates of Prospect Park at 3rd Street, with twin bronze lions welcoming me into the pedestrian and biking paths. I start to jog lightly once I enter the park. The recreational paths are wide but free of cars and canopied with massive trees I’ve been missing everywhere in this city. After a day in the city, I feel exhausted from the constant noise and people, the heat of the subway and the contrast of too-cold air conditioning, feeling older than my 22 years. The last thing I want to do is exercise, but I’ve learned that it’s the only thing that will make me feel better. It gives me an hour amidst the green of the park, forces my ever-busy brain to stop thinking and just feel my feet hit the pavement, my thighs to stretch, my calves to tighten and my lungs to ache.

Depression runs deep in my family line—my father suffered from it and my sister and I have both have struggled with its lesser forms over the years. But where my father did not believe in exercise—the way some people not believe in evolution or that smoking causes cancer—my sister and I have both found regular activity the healthiest and most reliable way to maintain good mental health. So I run, my feet sometimes just skimming the pavement, rarely improving on my 11-minute mile, but knowing that I always feel better having run.

I’m struggling up a small hill, face beet-red from forehead to chin, when a woman passes me easily on my right. She’s one of those women who makes it look effortless.  I wouldn't be surprised if her sleek, color-coordinated running apparel has never been sweated in and never will be. Her hair, even in the humidity, is a smooth ponytail of highlighted perfection. I doubt she has come here from a cramped apartment with only two window air conditioners. She easily passes me and something catches my eye. She’s at least six months pregnant. I can only laugh, and force myself to pick up my pace.


When I first taught myself to run, I did it out of the impulse to push myself to master something that I had always believed I could not do. By the time I was a teenager, I felt like my identity had been determined: I was the quiet sister, the writer, the reader, the vegetarian, the introvert. Whatever my sister was, I had gravitated to the opposite, simply to find my own space. But I was starting to feel constrained by those definitions. And for other reasons, I needed to believe that people can change, can constantly learn new things, can keep pushing themselves and finding new challenges and meeting them.

So I started to run, one minute at a time. On the curving, tree-shaded paths of Minnehaha Creek, I ran—first for two minutes at a time, interspersed with some walking, then five minutes, then finally ten minutes and fifteen. All of this was done with my faithful Walkman at my side, letting music guide me through introspective thoughts and fantasies. Then one day, I started jogging as soon as my feet hit the path, ran 1.5 miles to my friend’s house and back home, without stopping. I was so excited, you’d think I broken the two hour mark on my marathon personal best.  But really it was my proof that I could still change, still become something that might surprise myself and others.


The winter after graduate school I returned to Minneapolis to help my father through open heart surgery. Unsure of my future, I had put my life on hold and left my life and boyfriend in Tucson, hoping to help my dad get back on his feet. In the meantime, I worked at a small local newspaper and did freelance editing, both of which allowed me to visit my dad in the hospital and later in the nursing home where he recuperated. In the middle of a long, cold Minnesota winter, I came home to my mother’s house and wanted only to be outside, stretching my legs, no matter how cold. I also needed to push my body to do what my father was right then incapable of doing. So I layered up—wool dress pants (what else could insulate when it’s 10 degrees?) over wool tights, wool socks under my New Balance shoes, a long underwear top under my light ski jacket. I wedged my mom’s Discman into my side pocket and set off in the dark.

                The segment of the population who chooses to run around Minneapolis’s lakes in the dark, cold of a Minnesota evening is an unusual and selective group. They are not necessarily the fittest or most dedicated to running, nor are they the long-distancers or the triathletes. For varying reasons, they are people who shun the bright warmth of the gym and like the silence, the solitude, the stillness.

                As I turn onto Lake Harriet’s path, I begin an awkward lope designed to keep my Discman from skipping. Because nothing breaks the fantasy of winning as the underdog at the 1996 Summer Olympics like hearing Garbage’s “Push It” skip multiple times.

This is where I should stop to mention my fiercely held belief that once I don running shoes and place headphones in my ears, I become invisible to the outside world. No one can stare rudely at how my tomato-red face breaks abruptly to pale white under my chin. No one judges me for the old cotton tank top I’m wearing, or my 6th grade treble clef laces in my running shoes.  “Real” runners don’t deconstruct the flaws in my form, and no one sees me stop in the rain and twirl like a seven-year-old with my face to the sky. Perhaps all the blood needed in my heart and legs is what allows me to be as unselfconscious in these moments as I am capable of being.

So in the cold and the dark, I’m running, sometimes jumping over ice patches, my feet staying low to the ground, cradling a Discman in one hand in my pocket. Towards me comes a middle-aged man, keeping a pace as modest as mine. Despite it being 10 degrees, his arms are bare. He’s wearing light gray dress pants, and a white undershirt. On his feet are what looks like classic gray New Balance running shoes from the 90s. I see him every night I’m out here, but we don’t make eye contact. Probably because he can’t see me.

It’s on the last block before home that I develop a ritual of that winter. From one corner to the other, I run as fast as I can, not letting up until I touch the street sign. I run so that I feel every muscle in my legs and hips stretching. I run so that my legs and heart and lungs and throat feel like they’re going to burst. I run because my father has never believed in it and is now healing in a nursing home, having his chest broken open and put back together again. I run because I’m 27 and too young to see my father weak and vulnerable. And I run because as much as it hurts, as much as it feels like my heart might break, I realize that I’m young and strong and even this pain will soon pass.


One of my favorite old photographs is one of Albert Einstein playing the violin. To me, it reminds me that it is a skill to enjoy doing something you’re not talented at or skilled in. Einstein, while a brilliant physicist and theoretician, was not a brilliant musician. He could have quit, but he clearly got something out of playing that he couldn't get from physics.
And that’s why I run. I’m a bad runner, and I don’t have any great hopes of getting any better. But there’s something I get out of it, still. And so I run.


On a not-too-frigid afternoon in February, I take my boyfriend, Peter, out to cross-country ski. We had gone at the beginning of the winter, and, after catching on pretty quickly, he pointed to some spandex-clad young men, sprinting easily uphill way faster than we could hope to achieve, some even without the aid of poles.

“What’s that they’re doing?” he asked.

“That’s skate-skiing,” I responded. “I finally learned how to do that in high school. It’s a serious work-out if you can master it, but it’s the only way you can go that fast on skis.”

“That’s my goal,” he said. “I’m going to learn how to do that by the end of the winter. How hard can it be?” asked my ever-optimistic boyfriend.

I laughed. “Well, maybe for you. But I think it’s harder than it looks. “ I said. “I never got really good at it, but I think I kinda remember how someone first taught me.”

So after a Craigslist run to pick up a pair of used skis for him, we are back at Highland Golf Course, with our skis waxed to skate-ski.

A woman walks by after she’s done skiing. “Oh my gosh, great skis,” she says to me. “They’re so classically nineties, I love them!” After our snow-angel incident in high school, Abby and I both succumbed to buying garish neon skate skis in high school, although we never did more than ski for pleasure after that. So here I am, still with noticeable outdated skis, hot pink on top with neon green sides and multi-colored neon boots. Once again, I cannot hide how vintage my skis are.

 Peter and I push off. It isn’t easy, even after several months, but we’re starting to get the hang of it. We go up small hills, we go down small hills but then somewhere close to the end of our run, I find that moment. It’s the moment when you come as close to flying as a human can. With a bit of downhill momentum, I descend into a clearing, balancing for what feels like seconds at a time on each ski before I push again with both poles, then again gliding and gliding, hoping for this effortlessness to keep going. The snow is blue-white as the sun dips below the trees. In that moment, my heart pounds hard enough to push every thought, every worthless worry, every doubt or question, out of my head. And I feel that, in that moment, I’m the only human being, for miles around.