Run. verb. To move at a pace faster than a walk; a form of exercise I used to hate.
Six-year-old me looked out across the vast expanse of grass, stretching between me and my goal. My gym teacher had just done a terrible thing. She had brought us out to the phy ed field, told us to run around it four times, and clicked her stopwatch. I had been running for an eternity, it seemed, and yet the finish line was still an eternity away. There was no way my little legs were going to finish that mile. None.
I don’t remember crossing the finish line. I do remember sitting out the rest of gym class in tired anguish, and going home to report to my mom that I wanted to be homeschooled. That way, I would never have to run the mile again. My mom, I am sure, rolled her eyes as she sent me back to school anyway. Once a year, as I wheezed through another mile run, I questioned her judgment.
Fifteen years later, I ran 13.1 miles.
The irony of this is not lost on me. Though I had become vaguely athletic (I was a varsity athlete in high school, and I attempted one year of D-III college basketball), I was by no means a runner. I signed up for the half marathon anyway, just to see if I could do it.
I could. Barely.
On race day, my running buddy and I started slow but strong. Too soon, we were just going, well, slow. By mile 10, I was walking more than running. The last mile, which I forced myself to run in its entirety, felt like that never ending first grade mile run all over again. Crossing the finish line was not climactic. I desperately had to use the bathroom, and I was simply relieved to be done.
That was two years ago. Now, thanks to a convincing boyfriend and an open summer schedule, I am about to run a half marathon again. I’ve spent the past 11 weeks jogging around lakes, tracking my mile times, and building up my leg muscles. Everything I tried to forget about the first experience is coming back to me: the ache of cranky knees, the nerves before long runs, and the probable insanity of attempting to run so many miles. Before every run, especially anything longer than 5 miles, I am tempted to quit. What keeps me going (beyond the peer pressure of that convincing boyfriend, anyway) is how much running is teaching me about loving my body.
My body, like them all, is unique. I am 6’1”, broad-shouldered, with big feet and an athlete’s build. Though I can reach the top kitchen shelves without a chair, my frame often feels fraught with limitations. After all, this body does not blend in. It does not fit into pants with normal inseams. It is not delicate. It does not inspire tact in the middle school students I teach, as I often overhear encouraging, self-esteem-boosting quotes like “she’s gigantic!” whispered from new classes.
These limits provoke my mild intolerance most days. I cannot change the length of my spine, the span of my hip bones, the size of my feet, or the width of my shoulders. So I roll my eyes and resign myself to not wearing tall heels, to wearing dresses that flow gently over my hips and thighs, to joking about how easy my blonde head is to spot in a crowd.
Running helps change that perspective.
After a run midway through my training, I stood in my running shorts and confronted my bathroom mirror. Normally, I would poke my legs, noticing how they were paler and larger than I would prefer. I would examine the grossly fascinating blister forming on my left foot. I would hope and pray that all this running was firming up those glutes for the height of swimsuit season.
But after powering through long runs, decreasing my mile times, and perfecting my form, my muscles deserve more than half-hearted criticism. They have grown and stretched. They have voiced their complaints, and I have pushed them. My quads have gained definition after each run. My glutes have strengthened with every wall sit, lessening the ache in my IT band. The blisters on my toes are hard-earned, from pounding into pavement thousands of times. Using my body shows me its potential. I see all this body can do and how much it deserves my love.
The finish line of my half marathon is quickly approaching. I have no idea how those 13.1 miles will pass. Maybe my training will pay off, and I’ll be triumphant as I near the end. Maybe I’ll feel like a first grader again, counting every step towards the finish line and hoping to never, ever run again. Either way, what seemed impossible will have happened. My body will have survived a million and a half miles of training, give or take a few. And it will have earned my love.