“Running is the greatest metaphor for life,
because you get out of it what you put into it.”
– Oprah Winfrey
I started running because I’ve never seen a fat runner. The two looked mutually exclusive and I’ve struggled with body image for my entire life. It seemed like the logical conclusion. When I started, I was already deemed “fat” by the United States’ BMI scale, which pits height against weight in an unlikely, but somehow important, competition to be enough. Considering something like 65% of America is overweight, it felt like an extra low blow. Apparently, it didn’t matter that I could still fit in my vanity size 8’s. The United States said I was fat, so it must be true.
I started running because it was free. Free is a loaded word. It could mean anything. Don’t we all long for freedom? We say we are free, but are we really? When I am running outside, I really am free. I can empty my thoughts and dump them in God’s lap because I can’t deal with my worries and my breath all at the same time. I have to choose. And when faced with that choice, I choose life and oxygen every time. My mind is free in those minutes just like my wallet is free every time I choose to exercise outside rather than closed inside a gym, running on a treadmill like a hamster on his wheel.
I started running because I wanted to impress my son. He is this athletic and muscular anomaly in the midst of our family. He stood alone in his uber fitness in our family of six and, even though I’m the mom who’s supposed to inspire change in her children, he inspired me. I wanted to be better for him. I wanted to be healthy for him. I wanted to be more for him. And so I swallowed some of my pride, asking him for help to learn how to run.
He taught me to breathe instead. I’ve been breathing without intervention for over 37 years, but I’ve apparently been doing it wrong all along. Who knew? There’s a rhythm to it. It takes focus initially, and when we started, it was the only thing I could keep in my brain. 1-2-3, breathing in, 1-2-3, breathing out… over and over again because it was as high as I could count as I tried to breathe. When my breaths got to only 2 in and 2 out, I knew I was in trouble. We would have to walk. We took 8 breaks over the course of 0.8 miles. It was pathetic. I was pathetic. And my son was so not impressed.
I started running because I had something to prove. When I saw that look in his eyes, I knew I had to run by myself for awhile and improve my ability. More than anything, I wanted something in common with this boy and this seemed like the perfect thing. If only I could learn to do it well. And so I started running on my own every morning after he left for school. I got up to a 4-count breathe in, breathe out cycle, and I quickly improved my distance ability. 1-2-3-4… 1-2-3-4…
But my speed was still painfully slow. After running with me for a few months and developing shin splints, my son informed me he could no longer go along with me. His coaches would be angry, he said. He was running far too slowly and it was bad for him. I couldn’t keep up with the speed at which he needed to run and so I couldn’t run with him.
I once tried to run at his speed, urging him to “run as fast as he needed to and I’d try to keep up” but I blinked and he was gone. I didn’t even know legs could move that quickly — mine certainly couldn’t — so running at that speed wasn’t an option for me. This thing meant to unite us was quickly causing a divide. I could feel it. He could too.
I started running again after a six month break in which I licked the wounds left by my slow reality. Life is cyclical and I’ve circled back to that same fear of overweight. I’m ten pounds heavier today than I was at this time a year ago. That number looms aggressively in my brain, taunting me and reminding me that I will always struggle. You see, I started running long before I really started running. If I can only outrun my own negativity, maybe I can find joy at the finish line.
“You’re not good enough.”
“You’re not fast enough.”
“You’ll never be enough.”
All the “not enough’s” race to keep up in my brain again as I slowly sink back into learning to run on my own again. Will I ever be enough?
I keep running back to running because I am better when I run. I started for all the wrong reasons, but I can keep going for the right ones. Running slows the negativity tapes in my head. If I want to continue on for another mile, I have to tell myself that I am strong and I am capable. I may never stop worrying over my weight or become a fast runner, but I can get better. Better at running, yes, but better at patience, persistence, and self-acceptance, too. After all, that’s why I started running.
Kristi Stokes is a non-traditional honors English student entering her senior year. She lives in Hershey with her husband and four children. More of her work can be seen in TheBurg, Moms Always Write, Fission, and From the Fallout Shelter.