On the Run

On the Run: Revisiting my Why

Happy Monday, friends! A quick content warning: this post deals with some body image issues.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my “why” for running. What keeps me lacing up my shoes and hitting the pavement or the trails week after week. The “why” is something we talk a lot about when we get into the mental aspect of running, and it can shift for each of us from day to day and year to year.

For a long time, I’ve told my “falling in love with running” story as the day I ran my first 5K. The atmosphere of a cheering crowd, a sense of camaraderie as we ran as a pack along the closed-down streets of Evansville, Indiana. Never before had I done anything like this, where simply by putting one foot in front of the other, people cheered me on with handwritten signs, and I felt connected to strangers in friendly competition as I passed them or–more likely in those days–they passed me.

And yet… 2020 is the year with no races. Without the formal race atmosphere, somehow I still find myself running week after week, training for the impossible goal of running a half marathon without the cheering crowds I signed up for. So I’ve been asking myself… why do I keep going?

One morning while listening to a running podcast, it hit me suddenly that I’ve been mis-labeling myself for years. Thinking of running as my first entry into anything athletic, anything adjacent to sports. Seeing myself in stories of former non-athletes turned runners because I could relate to them the most.

And yet, in doing so, I was erasing the first 13 or so years of my life, which I spent playing softball.

I don’t talk about that piece of my childhood much. In fact, I probably have a handful of good friends from college onwards who have no idea that softball was one of my first loves.

So I started asking myself why? Why don’t I talk about it, and why am I thinking about it now when I’m trying to re-define why I run?
A few memories stand out from my years on the field.
The day I found out the parents from another team in our league had asked to see my birth certificate, because they thought I was too big and must be lying about my age to pad the team with girls who could hit the ball further.
(This one of many examples that taught a young Amanda her body wasn’t acceptable or normal.)The feeling of running for second base, hurling myself along the ground, sliding for the first time. My thick thighs scuffed up even through my tight compression shorts, a badge of pride as peroxide burned over the wound later. I didn’t care because I had done it, made it safely to second base, met my coach’s challenge to slide into base for the first time.

(The undercurrent of this, of course, being the fact that I was one of the slowest runners on our team.)

The time my parents took me to see a doctor about how much I struggled to breath out in the outfield. He told me to blow into a tube, and I couldn’t blow steady or long enough to get the results he wanted, and he barked, “You’re just not breathing right,” and sent me home.

(It wasn’t until later we learned that I was, in fact, allergic to grass. In case you didn’t know, there might be a bit of that in the outfield.)

The cracking sound of my blue metallic bat making contact with a bright yellow softball, the satisfying moment of feeling that connection reverberate and watching the ball soar into the outfield before I tossed the bat aside and ran for first as fast as I could.

And, of course, the summer before I started high school, when I decided to quit playing. By that point, I had played for two years on a team that made it pretty clear myself and the other new girl weren’t welcome. My sport and I had aged into the years of mean girls, and I’d found myself on the “outsider” side of the fence. As I looked towards my first year of high school, there was a choice to make: Should I try out for the high school team, where I’d spend another four years with these girls who clearly didn’t like me, or quit?

I’ve always said I didn’t want the pressure of being on a team that went to the state championships every year. But I’d been the girl who hit the ball so hard that the other suburban parents tried to get me kicked off the team. I wasn’t exactly not good at softball, and I knew that.

In giving myself some space to actually reflect on this decision, I realize I left my sport behind because, in spite of the pure joy I felt when I sent the ball flying, I’d been getting messages from day one that I didn’t belong.

The end result? I didn’t even try out.

Maybe I’m not wrong to lump myself in with the “never an athlete” running team. After all, I quit my sport before it got “serious” and was never exactly one of the faster runners when it came time to get on base.

But now, as I find belonging and support in my running community, I realize there’s been a quiet healing and a quiet battle going on inside me for years. Since the first time I laced up my running shoes, maybe. It’s that quiet voice that says, actually, you don’t get to tell me what my body can do. What I can do.

I keep running because it makes me feel strong. Because it reminds me I have always been strong, in spite of not looking the way people expected me to. Even when I left softball behind, I stayed active–I joined the color guard, which might not sound like an athletic pursuit if you’ve never done it, but which conditioned me to endure moving around in ridiculous costumes in all manner of hot and cold. Not to mention, those flag poles are weighted.

(High school me was very proud of her flag tossing strength, as this photo from our color guard photoshoot illustrates)
You see, when I run, I’m proving to myself that just because I quit something I loved when I was young and tired of being the butt of the joke, doesn’t mean I am a quitter.  The first few times I started running, I stopped, because from the second I began I assumed, expected, that I would quit. It didn’t stick until I challenged that narrative with: “Okay, but what if you didn’t?”
Every mile I run pushes back on the messaging that told me–that tells me still–that I’m too big, too fat, too “bad at breathing.” That I don’t belong anywhere near a pair of cleats or tennis shoes. Being a part of the wonderful community of runners who “don’t look like runners” is, in some ways, a healing balm to the young girl who let them tell her she didn’t “look like a softball player.” Who spent the 6th grade eating only a cup of yogurt for lunch so she could whittle herself down, so the parents would stop saying she couldn’t be 11.
I run for the girl who stopped doing what she loved because she was too ashamed of how red her face got, how hard she breathed, how slow she was. I run because that was all bullshit and because forward is a pace and a red face is proof that I’m working hard, not proof that I’m not good enough.
I don’t regret the choice I made. There might be a version of my life where I played softball in high school, but I’m happy enough with the weird little color guard nerd who found her crowd eventually. No, this isn’t about regret. It’s about not letting anyone, even me, pre-determine the limits of what I’m capable of.

And that, friends, is my why.

I have to hope that for me, and so many people who’ve have similar hesitations about pursuing a passion because they’re not sure anyone who looks or loves or believes like them has ever stepped into or lingered within that space before. And maybe, just maybe, seeing other people go for it can be a piece of the healing.

When I finished drafting this blog post, I looked at Andy and told him to remind me I should dust off that old bat and glove next time I’m back in Ross visiting my family. After all, the park down the street just so happens to have a baseball field.

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