The Pain I Live For

I realized earlier this month that running probably saved my life.

Last year, I ran a charity 5k organized by the club running team on my campus.  I raced it pretty hard and actually ran a semi-decent time (pleasant surprise), which made my non-running friends think I was some sort of superhuman.  I promise you, I’m not: I am dreadfully average.  After I finished, I ran backwards around the course (let’s rephrase that: I ran the course in the reverse direction.  I did not run backwards.) to pick up my friends and finish with them.  This entailed me running along happily with them until the last hundred meters where I proceeded to inform them that we would be sprinting/racing to the finish–no argument–and then to scream at them as we raced.  It was delightful.  (One of many things I miss about running cross country/track is having an excuse to yell at people on a weekly basis.)

Immediately after, one of my friends told me something to the effect of, “Ugh, that felt terrible?  Why do you do this?”  I said, “I live for that feeling.”

Which is only partly untrue.

I do often think to myself during races, “Remind me why I’m doing this?”  But at the same time, I love the raw pain.  Even when I feel dead in the middle of a race, the intensity makes me feel alive and strong and free.  Mostly, it makes me feel.

Running helps me feel.  Even in normal circumstances, my I struggle to process emotions.  They’re complicated and confusing and messy and a lot of times I just don’t know what to do with feelings.  Too often, I think, I express all my emotions as anger (or at least that’s what I think other people are perceiving.)  And at times when my life has been far from normal, this has manifested itself as the inability to feel anything.  I’m simply empty: I don’t feel joy or sadness or excitement or frustration.  Sometimes I can identify anger or pain or an sense of being overwhelmed, but this is pervaded by an overall feeling of desperate, vacuous emptiness.  It’s been in these times–when it’s hardest for me to get out the door–that running has helped me the most.  When I don’t know what or how to feel, at least I can feel the tightness in my lungs and the frantic beating of my heart and the burn in my quads.  I can feel the urge to kick to the finish line or make a split on an interval or slough through a workout.  I can feel something real.  For a few minutes, the pain makes me feel alive.  For a while, that’s all that kept me alive.


I Want To Get To a Place Called Your Heart

I was running to the track today and a random guy who had been playing soccer stopped me in the parking lot said, “Excuse me, I’m lost because I’m new here from Miami. Can you give me directions?”
Me: “Where?”
Random guy: “I want to get to a place called your heart.”
Me: “Uh…never heard of it.” (I should’ve said “don’t have one”…alas)
Random guy: “Well, can I at least get your number?”

That may win a prize for tacky pickup lines, but, whoever you were, thanks for using actual words (particularly “excuse me” instead of “hey you”) rather than catcalling me like most guys do.

But in all seriousness, catcalling is a problem for me. I’m female. I’m a runner. It is summertime. Sometimes I run in a sports bra and shorts. And sometimes, likely because of the no-shirt part, I get catcalled. Or worse. Not just by guys my age, either: one time, I was running on a path adjacent to a golf course at 7 am and some middle-age men driving a golf cart catcalled me. (My thoughts: Grow up–you’re not fifteen, and even if you were, it still wouldn’t be appropriate behavior!)  I personally don’t find (often rude) hollering flattering, and even if some girls do, it’s unfair to those who don’t (which I’m guessing is quite a few, at least based on the limited sample of my female runner friends) to assume that all girls like it. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t appreciate being whistled at like a dog or being addressed as “Hey bitch!”

So why is it culturally okay for guys to shout at girls they don’t know?  Don’t give me that boys-will-be-boys crap.  Let’s reverse the scenario: plenty of guys work out shirtless and don’t get hollered at by passing girls. In fact, if I catcalled a random guy, it would be weird and possibly provoke some sort of retaliation.

Guys, feel free to correct me, but I’m guessing that most catcallers are not actually looking for anything from object of their shouting other than attention: it’s a drive-by sort of affair–something to laugh about with the bros.  See a girl, whistle and shout, move on.  The worst she can do to you is flip the bird.  There’s no risk involved.

I, on the other hand, find catcalling startling, annoying, and occasionally frightening.  As a female who often runs alone, there is risk involved.  [Aside: I think this topic actually relates to the current discussion of so-called rape culture.  As much as I want to dig into that conversation right now, it would be better served by a separate post.  So instead I’ll leave you to ponder this recent clip from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.]  Even if your intent is not to scare me, sometimes you do.  So don’t.  If you think it’s funny because you’re “just teasing,” you’re acting like a fifth grader.  So grow up.  If your intent is to scare me, then you’re just being a jerk.  So stop.  And if your intent is to flatter me, then be more like the fellow today who used actual complete sentences and phrases like “excuse me.”  He may not have gotten my number, but being a man who is brave enough to talk to me as a person will get you closer to my heart than any catcaller ever will.

XC and MS

I just realized I have less than an hour to write a post if I want to keep up with my one-post-per-month goal.  Needless to say, I can’t write anything worth posting that fast.

Instead, I’ll share this: a video about a prep runner from North Carolina.  She’s run sub-17:30–enviable, even for some boys–and she has multiple sclerosis.  (For some context, she ran at Footlocker South today and missed a qualifying spot to nationals by one position–two seconds.  For her sake, I so wish Footlocker had at-large bids for individuals the way NXN does for teams.)  It’s cliché, but her story truly inspires me.


This post is also inspired by a post featured on the Freshly Pressed page.  Last time, I didn’t copy the text, but this is too well-written not to.  The post by skoppelkam of Hope Avenue follows:

How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.

Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.

If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:

“You look so healthy!” is a great one.

Or how about, “you’re looking so strong.”

“I can see how happy you are – you’re glowing.”

Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.

Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one.

Teach her about kindness towards others, but also kindness towards yourself.

Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.

Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or mountain bike because it scares her and that’s a good thing sometimes.

Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you’ll never stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn’t absolutely in love with.

Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture.

Teach your daughter how to cook kale.

Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter.

Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of being outside.

Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide ribcages. It’s easy to hate these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs. She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.

Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.

There’s not much I can add to that (except maybe to link you to this other post by the same author.  I promise, I’m not link farming; I just happen to really agree with what she says.)

One thing that I find interesting is that I actually assumed the author was a thirty-something mother of daughter(s).  Turns out, she’s less than a year older than I am.  Go figure.

I’ve already written some about my issues with body image here; I want to avoid (excessive) beating of dead horses, but at the same time, I think it’s an topic worth addressing again.

I think the best way to share is through a conversation I had yesterday.  A parent friend of mine posted on Facebook asking, “What do you feed your slim child to try to gain weight that he/she likes? Other than peanut butter, nuts, avocados. Ideas? (oh, to have that problem…)”  This friend happens to have multiple children; I and a number of others (incorrectly) assumed her post was referring to her daughter who is in junior high school. Interestingly, rather than giving food suggestions, a great quantity of the replies came back saying to be careful walking down the road of weight management, warning of a) teaching bad habits and/or b) creating body image issues.

I messaged her the following,

So I don’t normally respond to statuses that end in question marks, but I sort of have strong opinions about that topic in particular…

My own experience is that doctors wanted me to gain weight off and on from the time I was about twelve until just before I graduated. And while running a lot probably wasn’t helping the (perceived) issue, at the same time I still never found my weight to be a real problem, since I ate relatively well and since I suspected I wasn’t actually done growing (at least horizontally) for most of that time. I half-heartedly tried the whole eat-more-peanut-butter thing, but my weight just kind of sat. They ended up getting frustrated and putting me on medication when I was 17-ish to make me gain weight, which succeeded in that I gained weight, but had other consequences that I feel like I’m still managing (mostly in relation to body image) which make me question whether all of their concern was really worth it. In a weird way, the doctor who convinced herself that because I was “underweight” I must have something wrong/an eating disorder ended up offhandedly inducing a body image issue that I’d never had before (ironically…recently when I went to the doctor for a sports injury thing, the PA told me my BMI was actually too high…).

I recognize that what doctors say about kids needing to make a certain BMI is a valid concern in regards to calcium absorption or in terms of whether someone has an eating disorder, but personally I feel like if someone is generally active/healthy and there’s not an imminent health risk or an eating disorder, the bigger issue should be eating well and not actively trying to gain/lose weight. In general, unless there’s an underlying digestive problem or whatever, the body will eventually figure itself out and land at a weight at which it’s happy, even if that does mean going through some gangly years (during which “happy” = a BMI that is lower than the growth curve). It seems like there’s too much genetic variation in terms of body type as well as development rate for the statistical “average” to be relevant for everyone at all times

But if you’re determined to try something, which in no way do I mean to say is a less-than-valid response, and adding more fats has already been done to no avail…maybe more high-protein foods? People use high protein diets to lose weight, but they also help add muscle, which weighs more than fat and makes doctors happy…

Basically, as everyone else seems to be mentioning…gaining a few pounds now may not be worth bad habits and/or body image issues in the future, even if those things do not necessarily follow.

I suppose a lot of what I wrote was under the assumption that the person in question is female… but even if s/he isn’t, guys can have issues with bad habits and/or body image as well, so I suppose it’s still relevant, just in a different way. But yeah, I didn’t mean to write that much… I sort of feel strongly that the issue gets overblown a lot though

So that’s my story.  It’s funny, because I’ve never been that explicit with anyone about the issues I’ve had with body image.  Okay, so I wasn’t that explicit, but it’s more direct than I’ve ever been before, and by more direct, I mean it’s probably the first time I’ve mentioned it directly.  Odd for me, since I don’t even know this person that well.

I feel like I’m just starting to come to terms with the fact that I do indeed have a bit of an issue with body image.  I’m also starting to realize that I’m not sure I’m ready to give it up, because I’m still holding out the hope that it will somehow help me lose weight.  I recognize that this should be an illogical position to hold, particularly because during the eight months that I was in the best shape of my life, I wasn’t weirdly obsessed with my weight or figure.  Granted, I watched my food intake, weight, and resting heart rate like a hawk then (I kept a food log, weighed myself daily, and slept wearing a heart rate monitor), which might sound like I was obsessed with my weight, but I was actually just obsessed with trying to run well.  It was different than it is now.  Then, it was purely results driven: I didn’t care what I looked like and I didn’t have urges to binge eat or not to eat at all.  My diet was a little bit spartan (plain lentils with brown rice was one of my favorite lunches), but mostly I just ate when I was hungry, ran my workouts, and got in really good shape.  (I did have a rule that I wouldn’t eat any sweets, but it wasn’t a hard rule to follow because I never craved sweets.)

Then I went through the aforementioned medication thing, and my obsession with running well turned into an obsession with losing weight because the weight was making me run poorly.  That’s when things went south.

I remember trying to make myself throw up a couple of times, but it never worked because God blessed me with a freakishly strong gag reflex.  (I’ve literally thrown up once in my entire life, and then only because I drank too much water at once.  Five glasses, right after a big dinner, to be precise.)  I never ate lunch second semester this past academic year, which I said was because I didn’t have time (I went straight from class to the lab three days a week; the other two days I had class through lunch hour) and because I wasn’t hungry.  I suspect those may have been self-delusional lies.  And lies that made other people impressed when I told them I only ate two meals a day.  I’m pretty sure I was actually hungry (my breakfasts and dinners started getting noticeably larger over the course of the semester) and that I somehow thought that eating fewer meals a day, even though lunch is usually my smallest meal, would make help me lose weight.  Guess what?  I didn’t.

Honestly, I’ve been afraid of the scale for more than a year.  The disappointment and frustration (and perhaps even guilt) I feel when I see a number higher than I want/expect simply shakes me too much.  I try to rationalize, reminding myself that some of the weight I’ve gained is muscle, to which the little voice responds, “Yeah, but muscle weight can make you slow, too.  Besides, you still have a Buddha belly.”

Which brings me back to the original post.  When I was little (by little, I mean when I was perhaps 8 or 10), my mother had me do situps every night before bed because she didn’t want me to have a stomach that stuck out like Buddha’s.  One time when I was taking swimming lessons, there was another girl in the class who still had quite a bit of baby fat.  My mother said to me, “See, if you didn’t do all those crunches, you’d have a tummy like that.”

That comment mostly washed over me, but I remember it, so it must have had a little bit of an impact.  I should add that I don’t blame my mother for my body image issues.  They’re mine, not hers.  You could say that to someone else and they probably wouldn’t think anything of it.  It’s not her fault I find myself constantly comparing myself to other people–not to fashion models, but to runners.  Ooh, so-and-so is 5’3″ and weighs 112, and this person is 5’2″ and weighs 103.  I used to weigh that.  I want to weigh that.

I also play the clothes game.  See, how your clothes fit is a double-edged sword.  Whether your jeans are getting tight is definitely a better indicator of your body fat content than is the scale, but as my pants or shirts get increasingly tight, I grow increasingly paranoid.  And unfortunately for the worrier, wearing clothes is a cultural necessity.  Another little bit of self-delusion: I say I wear running clothes all the time because they’re more comfortable and because it’s more convenient.  Both of those things are true–but I also think it’s because it’s easier to ignore nagging squeezes and pinches when you’re wearing loose-fitting clothes with lots of elastic.

This is tighter.  I must be heavier.  Do I have a muffin top?  Runners shouldn’t have muffin tops.  My boobs stick out too much.  Runners shouldn’t have boobs.  Yes.  I want less boobs.  How many women would kill to say that?

Most people think I’m really healthy because they see me exercising a lot and eating a lot of kale and tofu at the cafeteria.  I happen to enjoy all three of those things.  What they don’t see is the obsession with my body.  They didn’t see the nights I would consume an entire box of cereal at once.  I’m not sure if it’s worse that I would crave the entire box of cereal or that really I would only be eating it because I felt like it, not because I was actually hungry.  They can’t see the conflict between the drive to run fast, the desire to drop pounds, the obsession with having a better-looking (whatever that means) body.

I’m trying to judge my health more on how I feel than what the numbers or the mirror says.  Did that run feel better or worse than last time I did it?  Did I lift more reps or bigger weights than last time?  The occasional Do these pants fit better than last time? sneaks in, but I feel like that’s a least a little more healthy than staring with one eye at the red numbers glaring up at me, while I glare back at my reflection in the mirror with the other.

Why I Run, Reprise

A year ago today, after the Run of the Mill 5k, I wrote a post called “Why I Run“.  One day after this year’s Run of the Mill, my sentiments are the same: runners are incredible people.  I don’t say that as self-flattery; I mean it in an admiring way.

If you read last year’s post, I mentioned a runner I vaguely know named Katie.  It turns out that we’ve kept in touch off-and-on for the past year–yay Facebook–and that she’s going to college to run with one of my high school friend’s cousins.  The running community is strange like that.  (For example, a lot of post-collegiate runners end up marrying each other–that sounded…not quite right–so then you get an interesting web of athletes with the same last names.  The genes for being a good runner also tends to run in families, which complicates matters further when siblings marry other siblings.  Let’s just say that the predominance of speed in the Pacific Northwest is probably not going to go away any time soon.  But enough of this aside.)  She was in the senior all-star race (the division I ran last year) yesterday, and I didn’t have a chance to talk to her, but randomly enough, her mother walked up to me and said hello and then offered to let me leave my bag in their car while I ran.  I happened to have a parking spot about fifty meters away from the start/finish line (despite arriving 45 minutes before the race started; I got the last of two spots in the entire lot), so I politely declined, but the fact that someone who’s effectively a stranger (she was one of my dorm’s chaperone’s at cross country camp two summers ago, and I have spoken to her at a couple of races since then, but otherwise I don’t know her) offered to let me use their car for storage struck me as a very runner-ish thing to do.  It’s saying, “I’ve been where you’ve been; I understand.  Implicitly, I trust you, and I know you trust me, even though we don’t actually know each other.”  The running community is strange–in a good way–like that.

The second, probably more poignant story, from yesterday is that of the final finisher.  He was a big fellow–probably six feet tall and 400 pounds.  (As a slightly creeper-ish aside, after some Facebook stalking, it turns out that he appears to be the uncle of one of the leaders of another cross country camp I went to.  This may contradict my observation about running running in families, but who cares?)  While I was cooling down, I saw him walking, accompanied by the trailing cyclist, either a paramedic or a police officer, I’m not sure which.  One thing that struck me was the the paramedic/officer acted as though he was in no hurry: it was no burden to him that he had to snake back and forth on the trail as he peddled slowly along; it was no irritation that it took him a half an hour longer to finish his duty than it otherwise would have; it seemed to be more of a joy than a bother to spend time talking with this final finisher.  After I’d finished cooling down and was going back to my car, suddenly I heard shouting from the finish line, “Everybody, he’s coming!”  In my head, I suddenly understood why the finish line, clock, and timing mats were still up, half an hour past the posted time for the course to be reopened to vehicular traffic: the race management and the city permitted it to stay up so the last finisher could cross the finish line.  (The city of Mill Creek just won big bonus points in my head.  I understand that this obviously isn’t practical/possible in many circumstances, but kudos to the Mill Creek police/city officials as well as the race directors, the timing company, the volunteers, and whoever else for making it possible.)  Apparently, someone had asked race volunteers stay around, if possible, to cheer the last participant through the finish line, since it was his first event and he just came with his brother.  What turned out was probably close to a hundred volunteers, racers, and patrons of nearby restaurants and businesses lining up along the finish line, cheering and clapping as though he were the first one, not the last one, through the chute.

“Dav-id!  Dav-id!  Dav-id!”

I think he was honestly a little bit surprised.  If it were me, I would have been dreadfully embarrassed.  (In cross country and track, and to be honest, at RotM last year, my main motivation not to be last was my fear of the “consolation clap”.)  I think, though, he could tell that people–myself included–were genuinely excited for him.  Despite what the world would tell him, he finished, in a few seconds more than two hours.  Afterwards, I found him sitting, exhausted, on a bench.  I told him, “I don’t know how to say this, but, you inspire me.”  He just said, “Thank you.”  I hope he didn’t think I was just being polite, because I mean it.  I hope he wasn’t offended, because I wasn’t inspired because of where he is–I’m inspired because of where he’s going.  On the days that I feel challenged, I’ll remember the people who face such bigger challenges.

This is why I run.

This is Where the Healing Begins

I’d like to start by saying that after everything that transpired this week, it is good to know that the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has been apprehended.  Nothing can ever really bring closure to the few thousand people who weren’t able to finish their marathon–much less to those who lost limbs or, worse yet, loved ones.  But I hope and pray that the knowledge that justice will be served brings some peace through the trouble, pain, and anger.  Shalane Flanagan did an interview with Runner’s World after Boston, and I think what she said really reflects how I’ve been processing everything that happened:

More than anything [Joan Benoit Samuelson and I are] obviously sad, but we’re pretty much pissed. We take it pretty much personal. I just feel like more than anything we’re pissed off that someone did this.

I hurt for the people who didn’t get to finish, who may never run, who will never see their loved ones again.  I’m even frustrated for the all athletes–but especially the professional runners–who poured so much into this race, only to have their performances overshadowed by the horrors that followed.  But mostly, I was angry that someone would have the audacity to (attempt to) assault something so beautiful, something that represents so much, something that people work for and and love.  I’ve never even been to Boston–much less run the marathon–and I still respect and love the place.  So to me, and I believe to many runners, it was almost like a personal attack.

As a result, after the initial shock began to wear off (and for some, even before that), we all came out with our haunches up, defiant, angry, and ready to fight back.

Today, I ran at the St. Louis Unity Run for Boston.  The St. Louis running community is still nothing like that in Seattle, but it was nice to be with people who care the same way I do, even if I don’t know any of them.  One thing I noticed was that before the run commenced, they had a pastor from a local church pray–not just a generic “God bless America” prayer, but one that actually sounded like it might be prayed in a church (it turns out that the pastor was from a Church of Christ congregation).  That definitely would not happen in Seattle, but I thought it was a very nice touch.  Most of all, seeing so much blue and yellow in Forest Park today was incredibly encouraging.  Runners running to and from the two Boston remembrance runs today would glance at each other with a knowing look, as if to say, “We’re here because we care.”BostonMarathon2013_04

This is where the healing begins, oh
This is where the healing starts
When you come to where you’re broken within
The light meets the dark
The light meets the dark

~Healing Begins, Tenth Avenue North

We ♥ Boston

If you recall the New Yorker cartoon I shared at the end of yesterday’s post (included again below in case you didn’t see before), I just wanted to share a reader’s comment from the image posted on The New Yorker’s Facebook page:

“Sweet cartoon.
We can love Boston and love the people, and stand with them…
Doesn’t mean we need to like the BOSOX.
About midday on 9/11 +1, I was walking on a side street on the Upper West Side in Manhattan when a pickup truck pulled over next to me. The driver leaned out, waved a ham of a forearm at me, and asked how to find the Javits Center, where rescuers were mustering. As I gave directions, I saw the truck, with three guys in front and four more and gear in the back, was Boston FD. They’d left at dawn and driven straight through, but got a bit lost right at the end of the journey.
Damn, I said, thanks… got choked up and all as they started off….
Then I remembered: “WE CANNOT LET TERRORISTS CHANGE WHO WE ARE!!!” Or something like that was in my head.
So I shouted, “HEY!… Good luck, guys… but the Red Sox STILL SUCK!” All four guys in back gave me enthusiastic and grinning Beantown variations of the finger. I waved bye.
Thanks again, Boston. Love you for that. Forever. And I hope now NYC gives whatever aid Boston needs.
But however the Big Apple helps, we cannot ask Boston to love the Yankees. There are some things even scum-of the-earth terrorists, wherever they are from, and whatever their intent, can never, ever change.”
~Thomas R Lansner