When I started running, I was overweight, awkward, unathletic and not surprisingly, insecure. I joined the cross country team only because I’d just been cut from the volleyball team and had heard that anyone might do this running sport. I was really bad. Literally the slowest girl on the team.
The story I came to tell myself and the high school girls I now coach is an old-fashioned tale of transformation. I worked hard, I loved it and I ended up being good enough to help my team win some meets and went on to run in college. At the high school level, you usually don’t need to have exceptional talent to find at least moderate success; dedication alone can get you pretty far. Working as hard as I did at running changed the way I saw myself, not just as a runner.
Running is a sport that favors the outsider, the uncoordinated, the slightly strange. Every cross-country or track team I’ve been a part of has always been something of an island of misfit toys. But, beyond the reputation distance runners have for being quirky, lurks a more complicated and potentially darker affinity for self-denial. In talking about all the wonderful things running and hard work have given me, it’s tempting to forget toxic mix of Type A personalities and teenage girl competition that can run rampant on cross-country teams. I had told my simple “slow to successful” story so many times that after awhile, I longer realized that that I was glossing over other parts of that experience.
Like the season when, if anyone on the team got her period, she’d immediately be sure to say that it was only because we were tapering. Or, in college when a handful of girls became vegan, a decision driven by aversion to caloric foods as much as concern for animal welfare.
As I got older, and especially as I started coaching, I tried to move away from this aspect of running culture, and instead to delight in the joy and freedom and sense of accomplishment that running can bring. By the time I was in my early 30’s, I really thought that I had left the dark side of relentless dedication and hard work behind. The days of running an extra few miles on Sunday night, or absurdly long warm-ups and cool-downs to hit my weekly milage, were behind me.
When I got pregnant, though, I realized how much this darkness was still with me. It was only once my body no longer felt entirely my own that I understood how used to punishing it I’d become. Sunday night family dinner tasted better if I’d run long and hard that morning. A vacation felt more relaxing if I’d gotten in a few miles—or even better, a lot of miles—on that basement treadmill before leaving for the airport at dawn. It was easier to avoid feelings of anxiety about what I ate or shame over how I looked if I was vigilant about always working hard. I armed myself against self-loathing with the reassurance of practicing self-denial. Through running, I’d first granted myself permission to forgive the overweight 14-year-old I’d once been, but I’d never had to step away from the shortcut to self-worth that running provided. I realized that it was only through running that I had ever given myself permission to feel confidence and pride in what my body could do.
I know some women say that pregnancy gives them this feeling; a sense of respect for what their bodies are capable of. Instead, I felt stripped of permission to honor my body’s capabilities at the same time that I missed the endorphins, the alone time, the fresh air, and the competitive outlet that serious running had come to provide. I remember run-walking one evening when I was about eight months pregnant, slowing each time anything felt uncomfortable, and thinking “I can’t wait until I can put myself in pain again!” While I felt lucky that I could run (or waddle) through my pregnancy, I also felt alarmed at how much I missed putting myself in pain. Instead of offering relief and grace, pregnancy put me face-to-face with how close I still felt to years of shame.
The shift that I once imagined might come during pregnancy (and had felt guilty for not experiencing) did eventually come, but not until after my daughter’s birth. Partly I think it was my complete awe and respect for the physical demands of childbirth and the undeniable way in which labor brought me face to face with mortality. In part, too, I think being the mother to a daughter changed the way I thought about myself. Holding my tiny daughter, I realized something both obvious and profound: my own mom loved me just as much as I loved my baby. And, in that realization, I came to think differently about the forgiveness and grace I ought to show myself.
This is not to say that running wasn’t the first crucial step to that kind of self-acceptance, but that as long as running was the anecdote to something about myself that I longed to keep at bay, running itself wasn’t enough.