I never look behind me when I’m racing.
I made that promise to myself during my first half-marathon. Chubby, un-athletic, and clad in bulky winter clothes that didn’t do me any favors, I was terrified to come in last. All I wanted to do was check and see if there was anyone behind me. But I knew that was giving in to insecurity, making my run about them and not me. So I never look behind. I just keep running.
Some days I feel tough when I run. Some days the old embarrassment comes back and I hate myself, hate how hard this is with every footfall.
Today, a holiday, sunny and not too warm, was the perfect day for everyone to dust off their trendy running shoes and zip around the waterfront, passing me in their tiny coordinated outfits as I lumber on. Where were these people all summer? They’re probably the type that can just roll out of bed and run a 7-minute mile, I think.
Cut to a memory of my mother, telling me as I voiced my envy of the girls who were graceful on the basketball court “don’t worry, I bet those girls can’t sing a note.”
They’ve passed me. They’re out of sight. I comfort myself by imagining that they are only running a few miles today. I’m running over eight. Next week farther, and farther, and then another half-marathon, my yearly ritual of spiting this body that never quite did what I wanted it to. They may pass me, but I can keep running. Even if I can’t catch them, I can keep running.
So I do. I run through the crowds to a quieter part of my path. There is shade and the sidewalk changes from a harsh concrete to softer asphalt, for which my knees are grateful. Pop music is blaring into my ears and my mind is lost in a daydream.
Suddenly the pavement is rushing toward me. I grunt an expletive before I hit the ground. I instinctively prop myself up on the heels of my hands and let out another cry. Even for a connoisseur of falling like myself, this one hurts. I can’t do the “clumsy-girl-who-laughs-and-gets-up” routine, so I roll over onto my back and bring my knees toward my face. I inspect the knee that recently made forceful contact with the ground. It’s mildly skinned, and my tights are torn.
I sit up. I have ruined everything again. My palms are shredded and crusted with gravel, leaving me with a poor imitation of stigmata. I’m about as far as I’m going to get from home today, and rather than running I am crying on the ground, embarrassed, hurting, and frustrating.
Standing reveals that my knee didn’t twist or otherwise lose its function. I can keep running.
Tears are streaming down my face, blood is pooling in my hands. I can keep running. The sprinklers are on at the JFK Library so I dash up on the grass and rinse my hands, but nothing is rinsing off because they’ve been skinned so badly.
I can keep running. At a remoter part of the waterfront there are no other runners, just a few people fishing. I try not to look at my hands. I’m remembering grade school, and failing at everything in gym class. I’m remembering high school, insisting on trying different sports while my coaches and teachers marveled at the apparent ease with which I humiliated myself. I’m remembering college, and all of the girls are so skinny and so are their moms and they dress so nicely and I all I can adorn myself with is shame.
Just like the women who run with ease, I’m not running from, I’m running past. My clumsy, awkward steps take me past memory, past shame. Tears and sweat are indistinguishable, and all the things I can’t change and can’t undo are lost in the reality of what I can do. I can keep running.