The [Taboo?] Penance of the Long Distance Runner

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Running Times, loosely modeled on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (not calling myself Rilke here!). I had been thinking a lot about how running has changed me, and the things that adult, teacher and coach-me wishes she could tell that insecure 14-year old on the first day of cross country practice. Before I started running (because I got cut from the volleyball team), I was an overweight, self-conscious 13 year old with frizzy hair and braces. I came in last in our team’s mile time trial at the end of the first week of practice, even though the time (still remember it: 8:12) was a PR (though I doubt I knew this term at the time). I wore flannel boxers and basketball shoes to practice. I had to walk more than once on the loop that would eventually become my warm-up.

I was trying to convey how becoming a runner totally changed the way I thought about my body, and in turn, myself. Instead of being embarrassed by it, for the most part, I was proud of what it could do. I wrote about how I eventually ran a marathon faster than that first mile time trial pace, and about how despite spending that entire first season of cross country counting down the days until the season ended, I now can’t imagine my life without practice at 2:45 each day. 

When I wrote the piece, I was coaching at a high school one town over from the one I myself attended, and now, I actually coach at my own alma matter. My high school coach is the boys’ coach and I coach the girls. We run the same routes, and some (though I try to be more innovative than this might suggest) of the same workouts. We return to the same park each October for our conference meet, and each October, I see this park magically transformed from the place where I’ve logged hundreds of long runs, fartleks, and tempo runs, to a place that still makes me short of breath with nerves. 

The piece I wrote for Running Times, though, was only part of the truth. Running did allow me to forgive myself for what I (still, to be honest) do consider the embarrassing failure of my adolescent self. I’ve grown to equate pre-running me with slothful me, lazy me, overweight me, worthless me. In part this is because running gave me something physical in which to take pride, and in the way that distance running has for so many others, the discipline of distance running really did change me as a person. I spent the entire summer after my freshman year determined to run away from the girl I’d been (slowest on the team, chubby, awkward). I can still remember running up Route 33 on muggy afternoons visualizing a varsity letter always a step ahead of me. The only person who wasn’t surprised when I made varsity on a team that went all the way to the New England championships the next year was me. I was too naive to understand that I wasn’t built like a runner, and that even novices don’t typically shave off minutes per mile in a year.

Sticking with running through those first hard months is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Becoming a runner, and everything that entailed (someone who took care of her body, someone who made fresh air, alone time, exploring new routes, pushing her body to the limits of competition and learning not to fear, but instead to relish, that pain) have defined me on and off the track. I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about if I can endure something unpleasant for the sake of something that I think is important. 

After our honeymoon, my husband and I were showing his parents pictures and a few videos we’d taken on our trip to Hawaii. One of the videos Nick had recorded on his phone, mid-run. It starts out with the back of my head, my ponytail swatting around sticky with sweat and the wind from the Pacific muffling any other sounds. Then, I must have realized Nick was recording and I turn to wave, smiling hugely. When his parents saw the video, they both commented, clearly surprised, about how happy I lookedOf course! What in the entire world could be more joyful and free? I was running along the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii on my honeymoon while Connecticut got pummeled with the season’s 438th snow storm! Why wouldn’t I be happy?! Because most people associate running with grueling penance, tiresome drudgery, or side stitches and sore knees, I realized. 

Today, though, I spent a lot of time thinking about how the fact that I started running all those years ago to run away from something about myself cannot be ignored: my own penance. There’s a fine line between self-loathing and dedication, and I don’t mean just for me. I’m often asked what makes a given runner I coach successful, and usually it’s some combination of talent, hard-work, and willingness to be uncomfortable. This answer is something I’ve been surprised to learn makes people uncomfortable. I’m not sure what exactly about this it is that makes people uncomfortable: the idea of success requiring physical pain? The notion of masochism being, in some (if not all) cases, a prerequisite for success? The image of a teenager in physical pain for something as unessential to survival as sport? It had never occurred to me that there was anything shameful or taboo about success in distance running requiring not just a high pain tolerance, but a respect for pain.

Now that I’m pregnant, my relationship to pain, and as a result, to running, has changed. (I expect it will change again in ways I can’t even fathom once I face labor and delivery.) Pain can’t be the goal; avoiding pain is the goal. I’m running, wogging, or, increasingly, walking, in search of fitness and some peace of mind. Today, as I blew my nose into the hem of my maternity dress, I was struck by the realization that the peace of mind running brings me has always been deeply tied to my ability to endure pain.

Of course part of what I love about running I can still do: see new places, get fresh air, have some time to myself. But part of what I really miss, I’ll have to wait several months to experience again. I miss being in so much pain that I can’t think. I miss the high that comes from having made my body do something I doubted it could do. I miss being sore in the mornings or so hungry at night that I’d eat my shower curtain. Part of what running has always been about for me is about obliteration of something shameful (laziness, sloth, a past self buried deep inside), but also about the peacefulness that comes from the obliteration of consciousness. 

I am immensely grateful that I’ve been able to keep waddling as long as I have, and although it’s getting harder to stay comfortable and my pace is slowing, I do hope to be able to continue running for awhile longer. I am, as I hope goes without writing, beyond grateful that I have the luxury of contemplating missing physical pain during pregnancy when so many women are in scary, debilitating pain during pregnancy. But, as I’ve been a little surprised to find out, the escape that running has always offered me is more elusive than fresh air and solitude; it has to do with a mind-body synchronicity that’s almost spiritual for me. Figuring out what specifically I miss (after I blew my nose into the hem of a second maternity dress–not joking) was a relief, but at the same time, realizing that I’m still running away from something–or maybe more accurately someone–revealed a dark underbelly to something that I generally associate with pure, unadulterated joy. 

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