Initially, this frustrated me. Why couldn’t I define running’s pull on me more definitively? There’s a good reason for this, though: my reasons for running, and what I get out of it, have evolved and changed in the same way that I have over the course of 42 years of life.
My first brush with running came in fifth grade – a hard year for me. I sprouted large breasts I didn’t want; began menstruating (and had no idea what the brown stain in my underwear was or meant); had acne on my back; stank from body odor; had no friends, and thus wandered the playground alone at recess; and while I my school shuttled me to a “gifted” program once a week, what I really wanted was to be athletic, despite being painfully uncoordinated and slow. Though everyone seems to remember being picked last for teams in gym class, I really was – and I couldn’t even blame my classmates. They didn’t want to lose.
Neither did I, of course. And I tried my hardest, whatever the sport. But whether the game of the moment was softball, kickball, relays, dodgeball or basketball, I sucked.
Then my gym teacher announced a program with a hopelessly square title: Run for Fun and Fitness. With each mile you ran on your own, outside of school, she’d place a small sticker dot next to your name – which was on a long, green-and-white printout list of students, taped on the gym’s cinder block wall.
At that age, I loved visual symbols of achievement (I was that girl who earned 10 badges during my one year of Girl Scouts). They helped counter my lack of self-esteem in every area but academics. And besides, I told myself, unlike the gym class games that invited my classmates to despise me even more, because I failed to perform at a certain level, running was something I could do by myself. I wouldn’t let anyone down, no matter how slow I was.
So, at my request, my father measured out a half mile marker from our house that I could jog to, and then run back. Though my pace could be categorized as “plodding,” I ritualistically stopped at that halfway mark to catch my breath, and I even stopped once between that point and home, too. So I struggled. This was not something that was going to come easily. (It still doesn’t, after all these years and miles logged.)
But not being scrutinized by my peers, or even adults, while I clumsily ventured into running freed me. I got to experience an endorphin rush (though I couldn’t identify it), and feel kind of athletic and virtuous (albeit temporarily). Though all the other things happening to my body made me feel powerless, running made me feel strong. Continue reading