Welcome to Open Court, the newsletter and platform space where we explore the things we need to talk about in sports and life. I'm Joanne C. Gerstner, a sports writer, author, decent tennis player, cat lover and advocate of fish tacos. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
The topic of running was always a source of comedy for us. My dear friend Jen, an avid but self-admitted not-awesome runner, loved to hit the road. She did 5Ks, 10Ks, and even a few longer races. It wasn’t about the time, or looking toward milestones like qualifying for Boston. Jen just loved to run, and I joked, she loved buying the shoes even more.
And then there is me. Her close friend. The sports writer. The person who watches humans run all over the place for a living. Me, the PERSON WHO HATES RUNNING. Let me clarify: I do not hate runners, marathons, races, funky shoes or any of the stuff with it. I just do not want to be the person who is running.
I see the hand in the back of the room, you have a question: how do you hate running, but still play tennis?
Aha! You caught me. I will run, decently fast for a hunk of junk, to a target or a place. I will zip to a tennis ball. I will throw down 2 miles on the court in the name of grinding and winning. But run, straight-line, for no tennis balls, for more than 30 seconds? NOPE. Hate it. I had to do a ton of distance running for tennis conditioning in college, up and down our hilly campus, and I detested every step. Our lovely coach would drive in a van by us, sometimes eating McDonald’s, while we ran. Yeah, that was also not motivating for high performance. I ran because I had to. It brought me zero joy.
Then I earned my freedom from organized tennis, meaning running and I officially divorced.
Years later, Jen and I lived in the same area again, and she wanted to do fun things together.
You know where this is going.
Jen, my dear childhood friend that played on sports teams with me, wanted ME to run with her. She was the runner, I was the athlete. She wanted to pick a race, and have us train for it. She was all in. She said it would be awesome. THINK OF THE SHOES! I was 20 percent in, the chunk of my heart that wanted to make her happy. She was a lawyer by trade, and used her best closing argument, all the Jedi mind tricks, to sway this jury of 1: if I really got into running with her, I would be so happy. I was about as receptive as a close-minded person could be.
We tried a few running sessions, and she quickly deduced that I hated every step. She was happy. I was a grouch. Soon, I was released from my torture. She got some other friends into her running. I was again set free from the prison of running.
That was a long time ago - at least it all feels that way. Yesterday was Jen’s birthday. Happy No. 51. She died May 9, 2019, her strong body and mind claimed by acute myeloid leukemia in under 10 months. Jen fought hard, doing everything she could to survive. Many rounds of chemo. All the poisonous medications. A stem-cell transplant. The list of medical torture is too long to go into, but she did it all to stay alive for her three kids.
After she died, a few of us helped her family clear out her house. We sat on the floor of that closet and went through everything for a keep, donate, or trash sort. I discovered we had the same shoe size, and that all the new pairs of running shoes - the ones she would use - would be best for my feet. So I took them. The pink and green Saucony’s. The highlighter pink Nike’s. I brought them home, feeling connected to her, but I was still too lost in grief to want to wear them. I didn’t miss the broken body she left behind. I missed her smile, laugh, naughty sense of humor and intelligence. Even her love of Moscato (ack) and Kenny Chesney (meh). Those shoes were a colorful reminder of what was lost. I was still upset and angry that cancer hurt my friend and destroyed her life.
As time passed, I forgot about the shoes, thanks to stashing them on the tippy-top shelf of my closet. During the lockdown malaise of the pandemic, trapped in my house, I got into a cleaning kick. The step-ladder came out, and the secrets of the upper shelves of the closet needed to be assessed. I reached for the Nike box, wondering what was inside. I opened it and remembered - yep, these were Jen’s.
Perfect. Clean. New. Hers.
The discovery of the shoes was probably Jen’s doing. It was around the same time I was getting into working out and losing weight. There was a new treadmill in the basement, and I was doing daily walking and interval workouts on my iFit app. I would now wear Jen’s shoes while I worked out. She was with me again and her spirit made me smile. My grief was no longer about being angry or upset. (For those of you who have studied the science of grief, like the works of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, I basically followed the pattern.)
As I got stronger, lost a nice amount of weight, my workouts with John Peel and Tommy Rivs became longer and more intense. I was seduced by the scenery and trainers to run one minute, then two, then five, then 10. The running parts were interspersed with walking, so I was not running without a break of a few minutes per interval. That was the key - I could manage to run specific intervals, which made me focus on the time versus just running without end. I found I liked the springy bounce to the treadmill, making running seem less violent. I was looking forward every night to my end of the day workout. I was pushing myself, learning and growing.
As time rolled on, I figured something out the hard way: Jen’s shoes were bad for my feet. My ankles ached in the Nike’s. The Saucony’s fit gave my left foot a shooting pain in the toes. Crap. The cool shoes were death traps. I have flat feet and a reconstructed knee, and definitely needed something with more support to stop my body from falling apart. I could hear Jen laughing at me, her shoes were finally seeing some action, but they were the instruments of my destruction. I went to a local running store, got properly fitted, and the less colorful Asics came into my life. Bye bye to Jen’s shoes for workouts.
Of course, there was no way to let go of Jen’s shoes. At least not yet. I’m not ready. I have them near my treadmill, in a little basket. The shoes being present keeps her with me. The kicks are less pristine, definitely worn in places, and will never go back on my feet to work out. That’s their fate.
I smile when I put on the correct shoes, think of Jen, and mentally say hi to her before I throw on the iFit program for some intervals and my Spotify BTS workout mix. Time to go. Time to live. Time to do the things Jen wants me to do. EXCEPT, I am not running per se. There will be no races or other stuff in my future. They do nothing for me. I found my space in running, in small chunks, and it’s all good.
That crazy girl with the red hair got me running after all.
Happy birthday Jen. Miss you.
See you Friday.
Open Court publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays, bringing you the stuff we need to talk about with author and sports journalist Joanne C. Gerstner.
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