Run: Reflections on a Half-Marathon

Run. verb. To move at a pace faster than a walk; a form of exercise I used to hate.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real

Real. adjective. According to Dictionary.com, “genuine; not counterfeit, artificial, or imitation; authentic.”

This is me. In a swimsuit. For all of the world to see.  Things are getting real.

This is me. In a swimsuit. For all of the world to see.
Things are getting real.

 

Let’s get real.

Let’s talk about swimsuits.

Ah, yes. Every woman’s favorite topic of conversation when we are in the humid depths of summer.

If you were not aware, the swimsuit is more than just stretchy fabric made to get wet. In the time it takes to glance in a mirror, it can destroy shopping-day moods and inhibit beachy bliss and ignite modesty debates and ruin self-esteem. This is the kind of power I imagine dictators and Satan might like to have.

And I get to practically live in these little instruments of joy all summer. It is among the many perks of being a lifeguard, which include other wonders such as wacky tan lines, rowdy children, and working weekends.

Let’s just say that my self-esteem does not peak during these summer months, when I spend most of my waking hours clad in spandex.

For one thing, there are those horrid athletic swimsuits, the kind I wear for teaching swimming lessons. The tags on these suits may claim “streamlined” or “athletic.” I prefer the more accurate “skin-tight” and “concealing nothing.” Sure, I don’t have to check for wayward straps after catching kids off the diving board or hemlines that have ridden up when I demonstrate a new kick. When you have to say things like “Watch my legs, okay?” on a regular basis, this is something you worry about. But no one has any doubts about the size of my butt or how flat my stomach is, either.

Then there are bikinis, a swimsuit model I have not yet dared to wear publicly. It’s not because of the whole Modesty Rules debate (which is a topic for an entirely different post and a significantly braver blogger). It’s because I don’t think I can pull one off. When trying them on, I can barely sneak out the dressing room to show my sister. It’s doubtful I could bare my belly to the entire flipping world. Or the occupants of my small-town pool. Same thing. I’ll take splashy patterns and clever fabric camouflage over my midsection, thank you very much.

Summer sometimes leaves me wishing for real-life Photoshop, where some magical clicks could erase my imperfections, shave some inches off my thighs, suck some pounds from my belly.

This could be where I outline my new diet and workout plan and promise to post before and after selfies. But it’s not. Because I don’t believe that getting tastefully ripped would solve this problem. My fitness levels have been all over the place; since college, I’ve swung from working out for two hours per day with the basketball team to working out maybe twice a month in my busiest semesters. Through all of this, my attitude about my body barely wavers. Flaws still scream for attention like bossy toddlers, telling me to conceal this and cover that. So I don’t think working out more is the answer.

Instead, I think learning to love my body right now, as it looks at this very second when I’ve eaten too much guacamole, is.

This is such hard work. It’s hard because my belly isn’t firm, my thighs don’t have a gap between them, my butt isn’t perky and cute. It’s hard when I know that I don’t look like the ideal woman, the one concocted by a culture obsessed with slimness and a Photoshop-wielding media. It’s hard when my body is real.

But let’s consider the alternative. With enough professional training (and, let’s be honest, plastic surgery), I could come closer to “perfection,” whatever that means to you. But then the worth of my body would be in how lovely it looked. Its purpose would be to be admired, a sculpture in a gallery rather than a breathing moving, real human being.

I don’t think my body was made to be flawless. I was not manufactured and edited to perfection, meant to be stared at and nothing more. My body was created to do stuff, to have adventures, to work and serve and love and play. It’s supposed to run for multiple miles in a row and hike the Great Wall of China and catch kids leaping into the pool.

When I’m caught up in my swimsuit woes, I’m forgetting that I have a job to do. And that job is not to look flawless; it’s to teach kids to swim and to offer a trustworthy hand and to do what keeps me happy and healthy.

And thankfully I don’t need a sculpted butt and pancake-flat abs to do that.

 

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