A reluctant athlete, Holly Robinson, started jogging to get in shape—and along the way, she found the calmness and clarity she craved.

By Holly Robinson
April 15, 2020
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“You’re not running today, are you?” My husband nodded toward the bruised rain clouds.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll be fine.” I laced up my sneakers and set off.

We were in England, staying near the Kennet and Avon Canal. The last time we’d been there, many years before, we’d explored the canal. Back then, watching a woman jog by, ponytail bouncing, I thought, “It must be nice to be able to run like that.” Now here I was, running that same path. My ponytail days are over, but I wore a bright headband and tights. I almost couldn’t believe it was me.

Ever since I’d started juggling motherhood and a job, I had little time for workouts. I wheezed like a bulldog when I climbed stairs. Shortly before my 60th birthday, I saw an ad for a Couch to 5K program. I assumed it was too expensive but emailed the coach anyway.

“It’s free!” she wrote back.

“I’m 59. Isn’t that too old?” I responded.

“I’m 70,” she replied.

Good Lord. So I dug out a pair of sweats and drove to practice. To my relief, most of the other participants couldn’t run a lap around the track either. Despite my legs and lungs begging me to quit, I stuck it out. And after eight weeks, I ran a 5K. Two years later, I ran my first 10K. This was an achievement—but it wasn’t as important as the discovery that running pauses the world around me. I began running trails instead of roads. Occasionally I startle wild turkeys and deer. Once I spotted an owl watching me from a branch. One route leads me into salt marshes, where egrets and herons feed.

Running has also been the best salve for emotional turmoil. It got me through my grief after my father-in-law died, and my sorrow after my youngest child left for college. In Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being ($16; barnesandnoble.com), she describes nonbeing as “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.” We’re on autopilot. Being happens during those rare times when we’re fully conscious of our surroundings and feel connected to them. We’re all guilty of too many hours of nonbeing. Various tasks fracture our time, tech fills our heads with noise, and we stop paying attention to anything beyond ourselves. When I run, I have to pay attention. Running lets me be completely in the world, noticing small details, experiencing the joy of moving through snowflakes so big, it’s like floating through lace.

Along the English towpath that recent morning, I flushed pheasants out of bushes and passed brightly painted boats. After five miles, it started to rain as I ran by a man in a tweed cap and rubber boots. He smiled and waved.

I waved back, and I thought about how we were sharing this moment. To him, I was a woman in a bright headband, admiring the dizzying patterns of early morning rain on the river.

Holly Robinson is the author of six novels and The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir ($10; barnesandnoble.com). She lives in Rowley, Massachusetts.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Real Simple.