The Porpoise and the Greyhound

“You have to embrace the porpoise to unleash your healthy inner greyhound.” I was puzzled by my friend’s note, after I’d informed him that my physical therapist said, “No running.” I’d torn my left hamstring; the injured area throbbed with sharp, shooting pain. Recovery would be slow. Running would exacerbate the problem. What does a dedicated, passionate runner do when she cannot run, felled by injuries? I was distraught, sad, frustrated. But then I remembered the times I’d been described in terms of animals.

“Anthropomorphism” is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics. My friend’s comment slowly began to make sense. My situation was sort of reverse-anthropomorphism. I considered my history of naming, wanting to bolster my spirits, to find a way to address the intentional putting aside of running. Perhaps one of those animals that had playfully been assigned to me over the years would provide some guidance.

Porpoises are one of the fastest cetaceans (marine animals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises), with the ability to swim at speeds of up to 34 mph. They generally live in shallow coastal waters. Smaller than dolphins, they can be more aggressive and do not adapt to living in captivity. Female porpoises often give birth each year, with an eleven-month gestation period. Can you imagine, being pregnant almost all year every year?

Greyhounds are a gentle and intelligent dog breed whose combination of long, powerful legs, deep chest, flexible spine and slim build allows them to reach average race speeds in excess of 40 mph. They have short careers as racers; fortunately, due in large part to the efforts of rescue shelters, they are becoming more common as family pets. Maybe that will be my fate?

Sitting on Pacific Ocean beach wall with right arm in cast (ruptured tendon); not the original cause of my running interruption, but one of them!

Roadrunners are long-legged, strong-footed ground cuckoos, living in the southwestern part of the United States. They can reach speeds as fast as 20 mph. They are also mascots for various sports teams, imagery to imbue athletes with visions of speed and winning. One of my favorite pieces of jewelry is a copper roadrunner pin, a physical reminder of this quick creature.          

Rabbits are small mammals, with large, powerful hind legs. Jackrabbits hop quickly and at long distances, perhaps akin to track and field athletes who specialize in the long jump or triple jump. “Rabbit” also refers to someone who paces middle-to-long distance runners to ensure a fast speed, usually dropping out of the race at some designated point (except when an occasional rabbit decides to run for the win!).

During my junior high and high school years, I felt a misfit, chubby, nerdy, without physical grace. I discovered the YMCA as a place of consolation, of acceptance. I spent hundreds of hours with some of the other brainy girls as part of a synchronized swimming group (we called it water ballet back then; arguably more dance and art than athletics, it was not then an official summer Olympics Games’ event). We performed balletic moves to jazzy music; choreographed underwater dances; sewed sparkly sequins on our lacy costumes; participated in competitions. I was a mermaid, a sea horse, even a water baby as the silky water embraced me. I swam with grace and precision while my hair and skin were permanently infused with the faint perfume of chlorine. I could have floated forever. Pisces, my astrological sign, seemed appropriate.

Friends nicknamed me the roadrunner when we backpacked in the Trinity Alps of Northern California. Those granite peaks are glorious, isolated, accessed by little used, poorly maintained trails. The 55 alpine lakes are tucked beneath granite walls of the Red Trinities, the White Trinities, and the Green Trinities. We often hiked to Adams Lake, a tiny, crystal clear, cold lake off a rugged dirt road out of Weaverville, California, an old gold-mining town. I typically led the group, not because I was the natural trail-leader (that was Tom, who hiked to the lake as a child with his uncle) or map interpreter (the U.S. Geological Maps were critical for the hidden passages), but simply because I liked to move—quickly. I couldn’t abide going slowly, that is, until the day a baby bear stumbled across the steep shadowed trail just in front of me. Backwoods knowledge assured me that her mother would be close at hand. I decided that being in the middle of the group of hikers was smart. I curtailed my enthusiasm in the name of safety. Still, once we made camp, while the men fished, I scampered up and down the peaks, maybe a gazelle or sure-footed deer, free—but always on the watch out for danger.

A few years later, I started my life-long love affair with distance running. The activity began as the twin-antidote, along with swimming, to studying for the California bar examination. It morphed into so much more, as my form improved, my pace quickened, my running economy developed. I met other runners, who soon became my best friends, confidants, and substitute family. We logged ten, twelve, fourteen miles at a time. I became a trainer, sometimes even the rabbit, for a few of them who were training for the Avenue of the Giants marathon, a 26.2-mile course that weaves in and out of the towering redwoods and fern forests of the southern part of the county. While we each ran for different reasons, running was at the essence of our friendships, the tool to allow us to develop other passions and reasons to be together.

 Cover of “Swimming Studies,” a delightful book of essays, some but not all about swimming.

I suppose during these years I might have been considered a greyhound, as my silhouette changed from bulky pubescent teenager to slender, long-limbed young woman in the shadows of the sun as I ran the hills and trails above town. I felt freedom unlike any other in my life at that time. Running was my savior and my daily elixir. Those feelings lingered, even through the many years of being a mother, wife, and crazily busy attorney, when running took a backseat to daily life.

My friend is wise, a man I’ve known since kindergarten. He’s suffered injuries at various times, curtailing his skiing, racecar driving, and hunting. We’ve gone our separate ways only to reconnect occasionally by telephone or email or, in more sad times, at one of our respective parent’s funeral services. His admonishment to me was really a favor: find my other strengths. Running isn’t necessarily gone forever, just on hiatus.

So I found my way back to swimming, not synchronized swimming, but lap swimming. I took a few lessons to relearn breathing, to sway slightly, to glide more easily with less disruption through the water. I still need to learn the elusive kick-turn, but it will come. Then one day, swimming became poetry, different than running, but unique in and of itself.

When I swim, I imagine porpoises moving gracefully in the Pacific Ocean, impervious to outside worries (except cargo ships, ocean liners, and big globs of plastic waste). Once I slip into the pool, the laps glide by one after another. Bubbles trace the movement of my lingering fingers deep beneath my arm strokes, like duckling in a row behind their confident mother. I prefer the middle laps of the swim: my body sways slightly side to side and every third stroke my head turns, to the right, gathering breath, letting it out, then another three strokes and the same movement, this time to the left. The slight rumbling of my outlet air, the echoes of water slapping the pool’s edges, the occasional splash from a fellow swimmer are the only sounds to break this reverie. The rhythmic motion lulls me into believing we may once have been a more integral part of the ocean, the lakes and the rivers, the water our long-ago home. As I close in on the mile, I am forced to concentrate, my arms heavy, the kick of my legs less vigorous, and my breathing more labored. Yet I finish, refreshed, tired, and ready to start the work of the day. Running will still be there waiting for me, once my legs strengthen. Until then, the water is my world.

Patricia Burgess

Patricia Burgess

Patricia has been long-time runner, starting while studying for the California bar exam. She is retired attorney, philanthropist, mother, grandmother, and wife. She loves being out-of-doors whether running, hiking, swimming, biking. Patricia has a blog for her musings and has written two books, “Smart Jocks, Long Talks and Pink Socks,” about her father, and “First Friends: Love, Loss and Life in Humboldt County,” about discovering running and friends during a tough time in her life.

Trail Sisters is committed to creating opportunity and participation for women in trail running. Our content is always free to read. Consider a monthly contribution on Patreon to support Trail Sisters so we can continue to inspire, educate and empower others!

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