The clock says it’s 10:43. The sky is a blackberry sea floating votive stars through its abyss. Beneath the berry void, my feet strike the concrete. My breath is a relentless wind propelling my sweaty body across an unforeseen course. I’ve devoured enough episodes of Law and Order SVU to know that this is a bad idea. Anytime a white woman is running after dark, she’s either about to be the victim of a crime or discover a body. “GIRL YOU KNOW BETTER THAN THIS”– I know better, but I can’t do better. I’m sorry I have failed you, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni.
This night is just a paragraph in a story over two decades old. It was April 1997. I was three– all baby teeth and gumption– when I ran my first race. Too young to grasp the objective but old enough to participate, my brother, my father, and I ran in the Marine Corps Exchange together. We neared the end of the race, and I gleaned the finish line before us. The sight was enough for me to be done. I announced that I didn’t need to go any further. A woman by the finish line urged me to cross it. I refused. In his signature social deafness, my father slung my small body over his shoulder and sprinted through the finish. My brother, Tom, and I received medals after the event for participating. I studied the gold token in my hands. This was how I acquired a taste of achievement, an addiction for validation in someone else’s eyes. This is where the overachievement commenced.
By Kindergarten, my athleticism was evident to my peers and me. To be fair, I don’t know if it is genetic ability or my astonishing intensity that wires my athletic performance. I finished races before my classmates, toted around blue ribbons at field day, and this spared me from the peril of being picked last for any activities. A peculiar phenomenon overtakes me anytime I recognize my talent in an area– anxiety monopolizes all my sense about that topic. I grew fanatical about training for field day as a child. I would vomit from nerves. Goosebumps rose at the sound of “go”. I somehow felt a titanic pressure to perform from no other force but myself.
Moving in middle school warped me into forced introversion. I felt uncomfortable and insecure as puberty ripened my already sturdy frame. My body lulled into a sedentary existence. Then, my parents signed me up for Cross Country. The cohort of lithe bodies was baffled by my meatier build. I began the season as the second slowest girl only to re-emerge for the spring track season as the fastest female on the 1600 meter race. Track ascended me to something akin to cool. I never got there. I will never be cool, but in seventh grade, I dangled somewhere within that zip code. Running the only social currency I had, and I trained with that desperation. Miles during practice, in the morning, after practice– I thought if I never stopped moving, the bad stuff couldn’t catch me. I also binged and purged and starved myself. The less of me there was, the less of me people could catch.
You can’t expect your body to be something while giving it nothing. I was an anatomy of subtraction– the take away of every mile, every calorie. Life does not exist at a deficit. My body started taking back, and when I disregarded my stomach’s growl or soreness in my quads, the volume increased. First, I injured the iliac crest of my right hip, then a stress irritation on the inside of my left hip. The overexercising and eating disorders were a house of cards that my body destroyed when it became too much. By eighth grade, I used crutches. I began recovering from bulimia and anorexia. Bodies are the best secret keepers. I was never overweight or alarmingly small. My skin hid all my hurt in such a normal way that no one knew to look at me with concern. I wasn’t allowed to play sports throughout high school.
Seventeen was the hardest year I’ve ever survived. In a time intended for proms and senior year pranks, I was abandoned and beaten. These are not metaphors. I am not being poetic when I tell you that I have been traumatized. Things worse than I could’ve fathomed happened to me, and I thought seventeen was the end of me. But it wasn’t. I attended Freshman Orientation at Ohio State filled with angst and reservations. Ohio State was my consolation prize. Boston University and future were synonyms in my dreams. I got in. With an acceptance letter, I said I would leave Ohio and never return. Financial aid isn’t as generous on the east coast, and as I calculated the monstrous and insurmountable debt I would incur in Boston, I realized I had to attend Ohio State. I called in my consolation prize. I resented and loathed my circumstances. I endured hell only to fall into this midwestern quicksand.
And then I went to orientation. With the exception of Speech and Debate, my freshman orientation was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere. Like I had finally made it into the right room. I felt hopeful again. After a year in the abyss, there was a light. It was scarlet and gray. My mom and I returned home, and for no reason at all, in the dark evening, I went running. I wasn’t motivated to go fast or far. I just wanted to go, to move, to remind myself that I was still alive despite I the reasons I could have not been at this point. It felt pretty damn good.
I maintained an active lifestyle throughout my freshman year, but in taking on three jobs, eleven activities, three executive roles, two majors, there was no space to run. I gained twenty to thirty pounds. But even then, even in the thick seasons, I’d find myself running after dark from time to time. Five months spanned between my college graduation and finding a full-time job. I’ve never felt like such a failure. Hopeless, I charged through nightfall with my beat up Nikes. The only time I didn’t compare myself to my peers was while I was in motion.
Of course, I found a job. Our hearts don’t always accompany us to the job site. Depression was my best friend in Cleveland. So, I ran again. I didn’t stop. My post-graduate life has been a physically active one. I possess the resources to make my wellness a priority. That doesn’t make wellness easy for me. Depression and anxiety are the ruthless twins squatting in my mind. They love to talk before bedtime. They hold me hostage from sleep until I lace my running shoes and leave. I don’t know whether the dangers outside or the ones in my head are greater but the ones in my head are closer. With that, I run after dark. I used to only run with music. These days, I don’t mind the sounds of huffing and puffing. It sounds like effort. It sounds like exertion. It sounds like life, which is better than not being alive.
Reader, I still don’t know if I hate running. People seem to either strongly identify as a runner, or they loathe it. I don’t feel either way. I’ve been running for twenty-two years. Whether it’s a treadmill or the track, my stomach drops at the thought of running. The whole act is a volcano of anxiety for me. But I can’t escape it. It’s a foundational movement for my body, how I process life with every piece of me. I return to running so much because it’s all I know.
These days, the rubbing of my thighs is the “eff you” to every doubt I ever had that my body was enough. I don’t care how much my ass jiggles as I am sprinting. There’s nothing poetic about my fat in motion– only that I refuse to care more about how my body looks than how it performs. On the good days, I picture all the girls I’ve been before– how each one was running toward her worth. My feet pummel the concrete. My stride makes percussion sections of concrete and self-doubt– how every insecurity dissolves on this destinationless jog. I caught my worth now. I caught it before I broke a six-minute mile or lost weight. I caught my worth when I wasn’t pretty or cool or good or belonged. Worth was always inside of me– a swelling truth I tapped into for my own sanity. I still don’t know if I hate running. All I have is this confusing history coursing along the souls of my feet. I don’t know if I love running. But I know that I love myself. That I’ve lived in this body long enough to love it without reasons. And at 10:43pm, beneath the mulberry canopy of night, as I’m disappointing Christopher Meloni, that is all that matters.