I have these two cousins who are seriously fast runners. They’re both out of college now, working regular jobs and living like normal adults, but they can still hang; they regularly place in the top 10 overall at our town’s extremely competitive Thanksgiving race. One of them won a local 5-mile race last summer on the 4th of July. We’re talking a mid-morning race on a shadeless road course with notorious hills. It was 80 degrees outside, and my cousin finished in 27:05, beating the second-place finisher by more than 90 seconds. Everyone was thrilled; no one was shocked. When most people picture how a runner looks, acts and performs these guys are who they see.
My cousins are really, really nice people. One of them lives less than a mile from me, and we regularly cross paths in the early morning while out running. We exchange a friendly hello or even a quick chat if we happen to reach the same stoplight at the same time. I have never won a race in my entire life and I’ve certainly never run a single mile as fast as his 5K race pace. Still, he sees me, and he waves. At family gatherings, both he and his brother talk to me about running as though we’re all runners. We are. I don’t have to apologize for being a runner who looks, acts and performs differently; it’s assumed that I run for my own reasons and that my reasons are good.
Looking back at the me who started running in 2005, I see a fervent wish to belong and a perpetual fear of falling short. My dad rowed competitively through college and grad school, and my stepmom played several Division I sports and captained two teams herself. The two cousins I’ve been talking about, on my stepmom’s side, were record-breaking runners in high school and both got recruited to run on collegiate teams. On my dad’s side, I have only two cousins, both close in age to my brother and me, both recruited athletes in multiple sports, both ultimately captains of their college teams. On yeah, and then there’s my brother: he rowed in high school for a nearly unstoppable team and was recruited to two lightweight crew teams at two Ivy League schools (no photoshop, I promise). There are pictures of the four of us - my brother, me, and my two cousins - as high school kids, where you can easily tell which of these things is not like the other. We were pretty close to each other growing up, and I burned with shame when we were all together with our parents in the room and the talk turned to sports. Specifically, their achievements, which were honestly impressive as hell. Whatever gene was involved in producing all this athletic talent must have missed me. I played on teams that didn’t cut anyone, and only because it was not optional. Every sports practice I attended in high school filled me with anxiety, so strong was my sense that I did not belong there. No one in my family was ever anything but kind to me about my figurative participation trophies, but I always assumed they thought less of me, or worse, pitied me. Was I wrong to hope that running a marathon might impress them?
We hear it said constantly that we should want to be active and healthy for ourselves, not for the approval of others, but hearing it, knowing it, and repeating it doesn’t make it so. Of course I started running for myself, for my health and fitness, and of course that’s what I said in the hundreds of Weight Watchers meetings I attended. But really, I started running to change what other people thought of me, specifically my family. I don’t know that I have ever come right out and said this to them, but they must have known how I craved their validation of me. I was a thirsty runner. I wanted so badly to be accepted, to be looked in the eye and told that I had done something impressive. I wanted them to invoke my name at Thanksgiving when athletics came up. I wanted to belong in the family, no asterisk or explanation needed. That want drove a lot of what I did, for years.
This is the part of the essay I always struggle with - it’s the turn, the part where I know I’m supposed to say “and then I did X and now I feel Y and everything is awesome.” You wouldn’t really believe me if I said that, would you? I’m still the same person. I’m still a people-pleaser, I still want everyone to like and accept me, and I still fret about it when I think they might not. I no longer think, however, that there is any running-related accomplishment that will be enough to eradicate those worries. I no longer believe that when I qualify for Boston someday, I will somehow be different, more acceptable, or more lovable. It’s never going to be one single accomplishment that affirms my existence. It wasn’t meeting my goal weight on Weight Watchers, it wasn’t breaking 2 hours in the half-marathon, it’s never been a benchmark or a trophy or a record or any one tangible thing. It’s the long game that I now understand I am playing. It’s the accumulation of day after day, run after run, over 14 years. It’s easier for me to run on any given day than it is for me to not run. When I realized that I had already won the endurance race, and that I am winning it every day by continuing to choose running over not running, I stopped wishing for one single result to justify my existence and prove my worth to everyone else.
A friend who is training for a 50-mile race recently noted (while running, naturally), “I’ve learned to not seek validation from others, but to take it for myself: to assume it.” This, I think, is the leap we all have to work hard at making. Validation, yes, we want it, but it’s not something being withheld until we reach a certain standard. I did think at one time in my life that if I ever ran as competitively and convincingly as my 5-miles-in-27-minutes cousins, my running legitimacy would be universally accepted without question. It never occurred to me until fairly recently that there are legitimate things to want from running besides speed and weight loss, despite what everything about our culture would have you believe.
If you are wondering why I haven’t written here in a while, this is where I have been: acquiring new runners to love and cheer for and validate. (This blog isn’t going anywhere, and YES I do have many thoughts about the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend series finale, but I am spreading my time and my thoughts and my creativity far and wide, within and without my comfort zone). If I could give one gift to every runner I love, it would be this: the total conviction that you belong here right now. I want you to sign up for races because you want to, and I want you to run them with joy and without panic. If you want to get the best performance out of yourself, I wish you the best racing conditions you could hope for. Above all, I wish you the ability to recognize that your efforts are worth it.
And if you need a mantra to get you through those moments when you want to apologize for being the kind of runner you are, listen to the latest episode of MK Fleming’s Morning Mantra podcast. Owning it is hard, and we all need practice. It starts now.