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Life

The Human Race

Running together at dawn, chasing small ecstasies.

Dorothy Woodend 5 May 2006TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Two years ago, I woke up, put on my running shoes and showed up at my sister's apartment only to have her open the door dressed in full workout gear. We are twins after all and both of us had awakened that morning and decided it was time to run. From then on, that's exactly what we did. In the rain, occasionally slipping and sliding in the snow, or in the sun, watching the gradual curve of the earth change day by day, the sunrise a little bit earlier in the spring or a little bit later in fall. But mostly, we ran in the dark. We had to go early, before she started work and while my young son was still asleep.

At 5 a.m., the city is a very different place. Coyotes still roam the street, watching us with curious looks, these huffing, puffing humans in their weird outfits and shiny shoes. Pairs of skunks trot down the sidewalks and raccoons shine their dark eyes on us as we go by. We run different routes. We look at houses. I keep finding money in the street much to my sister's annoyance. Occasionally, we trip and fall. But mostly we talk about everything. What it means to grow older. Should she have a baby? Should I go back to work? Why are men and women the way they are? Why does money never stay in one place for long? If there ever was a metaphor for life, running is it.

Stumbling

Yes, it's a cliché, but so much of life is. We tend to forget about our bodies (when we're not obsessing over them, that is) but running can teach you things. You might think the almighty brain rides your body like a jockey, high and mighty and wielding a big whip, but that is a fallacy. Your body is smarter than you think.

My sister has a habit of falling down; sometimes I manage to capture her, one-armed, but sometimes she lands right on her face. The other day, the same thing happened to me. I tripped, sprawled and spent what seemed about ten minutes flying forward with my nose skimming the pavement. And then a funny thing happened. While my rational mind tried to prepare for the inevitable -- the hard landing, the pain, the blood -- something deeper, and far older came roaring out the back of my head, pushed aside my thinking mind and pulled me up, like a plane out of nosedive, back to level flight. The power of that instant stayed with me for days.

I've been trying to listen to what my aging body is telling me lately, its silent communiqués: keep moving, don't waste time, I want to be alive.

With the ubiquity of cell phones, Blackberries and computers, it sometimes feels like we live in an aphysical world; a place where we can leave our leaden bodies behind and float free. This might work for a while, but there is always something missing: the pure animal joy of movement. With the arrival of spring, along with the new buds, comes a fresh crop of runners emerging out of the long, dark Canadian winter into the miracle of light and warmth. It gets me every time. Thank God, spring has come again. With spring, your winter-beaten and weathered body gets frisky as a colt. A fizzy concoction of chemistry, flesh and filaments of desire, like a miniature version of madness, sings in your blood like a storm.

Chasing

Research has recently proposed that there are different rudimentary brains in your gut, your heart. But anyone who had ever felt grief can tell you that you don't feel grief in the front of your skull, you feel in your gut and your chest. The deep, sick pain of nerves, like a poison tooth, buried deep in the centre of you. Running has been one of the tools to ease my heart, not over any specific grief, but over the pain and terrors of ordinary life.

But sometimes, I wonder what else is chasing people. One woman in particular, who my sister and I call "skinny lady," is out there every morning, running around the same three blocks, in cold weather and in hot, at the same blistering pace. There seems to be something odd there, like a rat who would rather press the endorphin button than eat. Recently, at age 37, we signed up for our very first marathon. We now spend a lot of time talking about hill repeats and training schedules and discussing whether spitting in public is a good idea. But aside from the quotidian reality of getting up every morning, tying on your shoes and heading out the door whether I feel like it or really don't, what has all this running around really taught me?

Only this, as Bob Dylan once warbled: there is nothing to do but keep on keeping on.

There is another elderly woman that we see every day, whom we call her "our lady." She is always alone, but she walks very fast and ramrod straight. We nod hello as we run by. Just seeing her makes me feel hopeful for the future.

Changing

In the early morning, the side streets are largely deserted. It is so quiet, I can hear my own breathing and the steady staccato of footsteps locked in sync. Inside this instant, time is suspended, like the moment both feet leave the earth and fly free. Here, now, I am alive and moving. Even if the inevitable chill of mortality is always there, the pain in my knee that takes longer and longer to go away along with the stink of car exhaust and garbage, at the same time, there is the first crocus. There is the change in the air from winter to spring.

In Vancouver, the daffodils are out, the buds are unfurling and the scent of new green growth is suddenly everywhere. The world is suddenly so utterly beautiful, but it is much easier to see this first thing in the morning, before the ordinary day takes over. My sister and I run together and we try to figure out where it is we're going, even as everything in our lives changes faster and faster. The road falls away into the darkness. We put one foot after the other, trusting that we will land safely.

Dorothy Woodend other times leads the sedentary life of The Tyee's film critic.  [Tyee]

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