Running With Sheep, Part I

July 1, 2005

I am a runner.  This was a perfectly normal thing to be when I lived in Washington, D.C.  I’d make my way down East Capitol Street from Lincoln Park, and join the running hordes on the Mall, passing the softball games, soccer games, ultimate frisbee games and gangs of happy tourist families enjoying the Smithsonian museums.  I was watcher and watched, part of the scenery, one of hundreds of runners going by, nothing special.  When I moved to West Kerry, things changed a bit.

Running is a much more singular undertaking in the west of Ireland.  I am not just a runner.  I am THE runner.  In the early days, while the locals were still getting used to me, all activity would stop when I ran by.  Farmers would gaze, builders would stare with hammers raised, women would freeze with laundry half-pinned to the line, and cows would stop munching, slowly raising their huge heads to look at me. 

Occasionally there would be words of encouragement ("keep going girleen, you’ll win the marathon yet!") or a bemused "Dia dhuit."  "Dia is Muire dhuit" I’d reply as I ran past, thinking "This is brilliant.  For all they know I have the Irish" and making sure to speed up quickly to avoid the additional conversation that would have revealed me as cupla focail imposter.

It was clear that runners were scarce in these parts. In fact, I later discovered that running is considered a singularly mad pasttime, utterly unnecessary, and possibly indicative of a deep inner unrest.  One friend told me, over a pint in the pub, that whenever he saw a runner, he felt like stopping his car and getting out to give them a hug.  I want to tell them "it’s ok, you don’t have to run" he said. 

Other friends gently suggested that perhaps my running was a manifestation of an inner desire "to run away from something."  "What are you avoiding?" they’d ask with a meaningful look in their eyes.  "What do you not want to face?" 

The man who cut the meadow-like grass in my garden was similarly perplexed by my running, although for different reasons.  Once I came back from a short run on a sunny day, happily sweating, and waved cheerfully to him from the road.  He came over to me, obviously upset, and finally stammered out "A lady like you… shouldn’t have to…" A small wave in my sweaty direction completed the thought.  "I like it," I said, with an endorphin-stoked grin.

I could have gone further with that thought, telling him that one of the main reasons I like running is precisely because it is "unladylike."  I’m running.  I’m free.  I’m not wearing makeup and I don’t care what my hair looks like.  I sweat.  I pant.  I splash through puddles and muck. If it rains I get wet.  But I had a feeling that was exactly his point.  No need to disturb the man any further.  He’d get used to it.

And people did get used to it.  The farmers smiled. The mechanics at the garage waved as I went past.  The postman stopped me on the road to have me sign for a package.  Friends and acquaintances looked for me the way twitchers look for a rare bird.  A sighting was always reported ("I saw you running today!").  I evolved into a sort of pet American, doing this comical American thing for the entertainment of the locals.

Sure, it was the least I could do.

Next: Running with Sheep, Part II (featuring actual sheep)