Yesterday morning, I ran my first 5K race. It was my first race ever. It was, as a matter of fact, the first time in my life I've participated in any sort of athletic competition. I never played competitive sports as a kid — neither on a team nor as an individual. And I certainly haven't done so as an adult.
Growing up, I generally eschewed all manner of physical activity. I told myself I wasn't good at any of it. I wasn't strong; I wasn't fast; I couldn't catch or throw or dribble or hit.
I knew that, with practice, you can get better at just about anything you set your mind to. I knew that about playing the piano, learning my 7-times tables, speaking French, and so on — but I never ever thought that way about sports. I was destined, I figured, to suck.
Over the course of the past year, I've developed a new level of fitness, a new sense of self: now, I am an athlete. Now, I am a runner.
Late last year, I set my mind to running a 5K. I can't tell you the last time I'd run anywhere for any reason. I mean, I wouldn't even run to catch a train; I'd say "fuck it, I'll get the next one" rather than pick up the pace. The last time I ran must've been junior high PE and as such, I certainly wasn't running by choice. (Funny story: I actually didn't graduate from high school as I was missing one credit in PE. I did the IB in the UK, so the lack of a high school diploma wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things.)
What a miserable experience PE always was. I dreaded it. I hated playing basketball, volleyball, baseball, kickball, field hockey, or whatever sport the class cycled through. Being picked last for teams was, of course, mortifying. But it was all mortifying, frankly, whether or not others were relying on me as a teammate: I couldn't do a cartwheel, I couldn't climb the rope. (The two weeks we'd spend on square dancing were a nice respite, I suppose, but as I now know the white supremacist origins of that activity, I can't look back too fondly. The only good thing ever to happen in PE was when the teacher brought out the parachute. I would love to learn the origins of that activity, which much like the President's Physical Fitness Test, exemplifies how strange and arbitrary much of what happens in PE can be.) PE went from bad to worse in junior high, when we had to change into "gym clothes" — short shorts and a tee-shirt with knee-high socks, if I recall correctly — adding to the general humiliation of PE by simply having a pubescent body. I distinctly remember, for example, in seventh grade when a classmate informed me it was gross that I didn't shave my legs.
I often told myself that it didn't matter that I wasn't any good at PE; I was good at the rest of school — the part that mattered, I thought (not ever realizing that there were plenty of kids who were made to feel in the classroom like I was made to feel in the gym: awkward, incapable, weak, a failure; and not really thinking that physical activity was, in fact, pretty damn important).
There was never any pressure on me to play sports. Neither of my parents were particularly athletic. Indeed, my dad had sustained a serious injury in PE class at community college, severely fracturing his femur (and rendering him ineligible for the Vietnam War draft) — a major source of mental and physical anguish. So there were no family outings to ski or skate. There were the obligatory swimming lessons every summer, I guess. This was the one activity I truly enjoyed, and I do vaguely remember swimming in an ad hoc relay race one Fourth of July when I was eight or nine. I seem to recall our next door neighbor drunkenly cheering me on, but I couldn't see and I swam diagonally rather than straight across the pool. Our team lost.
"I can't see." That's been such a major part of how I experience the world around me. I found out I needed glasses when I registered for kindergarten. My eyesight was terrible — so terrible I marveled, my mom says, when heading home from the eye doctor's office wearing my first pair of glasses, that the trees had leaves. My eyesight is terrible. Without my contacts, I can barely see beyond my nose. It isn't simply that I'm incredibly nearsighted. I'm also left-eye dominant and right-handed, which helps explain my utter inability to catch a ball, even when wearing corrective lenses. And even when wearing those lenses, my eyesight still is far from 20-20.
No surprise, I've always been fond of the comic book character Daredevil, as he personifies the idea that the loss of one sense — in his case, sight — heightens the others. I'm no superhero, however, and my bad eyesight hasn't translate into better perception in any way. Indeed, my proprioception has been abysmal: I've always been awkward, off-balance, tripping and falling over my own two feet (or moving slowly and cautiously, afraid of tripping and falling).
I've never had high expectations for what my body could do. Even so, when my health really unraveled in 2020 (my heart was broken — literally, metaphorically), I was sort of shocked that my body would betray me. For the first time since PE class, I felt as though my body let me down. But this time, I decided to tell a different story about how I wanted it to feel, what I wanted it to do.
Running was not on the To Do list — not initially. I've spent enough time being miserable in gym class, and as a grown-ass woman — even one committed to "physical fitness" — I swore I'd never do any activities that I didn't love. I love yoga. I love weight-lifting. I love walking. I love swimming. But running? Good grief. All I could think about was PE: how track season would come each spring and after a long, cold winter in Wyoming, it would be glorious to have class outside — right up until the point we were made to run sprints and — even worse — jump hurdles.
I'm not sure what made me decide to sign up for a 5K. Perhaps it was seeing my brother-in-law run in the Portland Marathon and then, only a few weeks later, the Chicago Marathon. Perhaps it was seeing all the runners scoot around Lake Merritt each morning as Kin and I walk the three-and-a-bit miles around it. Three-and-a-bit miles is, of course, 5K — so I must have figured "what the hell." I downloaded an obligatory Couch-to-5K app, and proceeded to run just a little bit, then a little bit longer, then a little bit longer.
And then yesterday morning, I ran my first 5K race.
I did better than I could have ever imagined, coming in seventh in my age bracket and finishing the course in under 10 minutes/mile. More importantly, I felt great, almost bursting into tears as I approached the final stretch as I was so overwhelmed with emotion at having accomplished this. And as I gave the final push and picked up my pace to cross the finish line, I had another recollection about my childhood: I remembered the joy of running with my neighborhood friends, Eric and Rebecca. They were both faster than me — Eric was a fast little fucker, I seem to recall my dad saying although I really doubt he'd have used the expletive. But there was so much joy in that unbridled play. We didn't need headphones or a running playlist or technology to set the pace or a coach keep our form in line and our spirits up. We were eight or nine years old, pretending we were horses, galloping up and down the street — wild and free.
Maybe that's why, when I saw the footage that Kin took of me crossing the finish line, I had to laugh: I run like a horse. I say that fondly, not critically. I run like I did when I was a kid — a nice trot.
But now my legs are strong. My heart is strong. My lungs are strong. I still can't see where I'm going, true, but I'm starting to have better proprioception now — a better sense of where and how my body is moving through the world.