This excerpt is the first of a five-part forthcoming essay on running and life, based on my experiences as a short, middle, and long-distance runner.
Part I: Get Set. Go.
Flashback: I’m nine years old, and I’m starting to notice how much is wrong with me. I have thick, unruly dark hair, which I’ve somehow been convinced to have cut short. (“Like Katie Couric!” my mom says. Like a boy, says everyone else.) My fashion sense includes stirrup pants and prints that are garrish even for 1990. I haven’t heard much current pop music, and I’m not allowed to watch TV. I don’t know how to play any team sports. I seem to come down with one cold after another, always looking for the tissues. I speak so quietly that people give up trying to listen. I’m the youngest kid in my class, and I spend recesses playing tag instead of chatting with other girls. My best friend is a girl who builds her identity on putting me down. My talents — piano, schoolwork, tree-climbing — turn out to be worth very little in elementary school social capital.
But at age ten, I discover that I have speed.
Our school gym teacher was called Art. In fifth grade, Art tells us we’re going to learn to race. You have to run a certain way to reach your top speed, Art says. You lift your knees high and use your arms to push forward. It’s called sprinting. He demonstrates, running in place in an Adidas track suit. There’s a swell of laughter. “That’s how Rebecca runs!” say some kids who know me from tag. For several minutes, we all practice “sprinting” with our knees up and our arms swinging, prancing around the gym and enjoying a bit of freedom to act ridiculous. Mostly, I’m just relieved we don’t have to throw any balls today.
Art takes us outside and has us form a line. One by one, he times us over what he calls a 25-meter “dash.” Standing around waiting, our ten-year-old personalities get a little silly — chatting, teasing, laughing. When everyone has run, all we really care about is who was fastest.
I don’t know if I’m surprised it was me. I just know that everyone else is. In fifth grade, we believe in simple, predictable narratives and stock characters. I am not supposed to shine in this context. As we line up again for a 50-meter dash, there’s less laughing, especially from the boys. In the back of my mind, I understand that they believe they’re supposed to be faster than girls. Especially this girl. I know that beating them won’t make me more popular. But I also have nothing to lose. I run. I win, again. “I knew it,” says Art.
At first, my speed does not compute. Those dashes weren’t real races, after all. We’d each run alone, against only the clock. People seem to need the storyline to be corrected. Kids stop wanting to play tag with me and instead challenge me to race outright, head to head. I keep accepting, keep winning. I get to know my top speed and how to find it. (“So what? You can’t make any money by running,” said my best friend.) It isn’t long before the boys stop asking me to race. For them, the results are the facts.
But among the girls, a consensus nevertheless forms that a different one of us should be the fastest. Mandy is a popular and reliable all-around athlete, unlike my scared-of-baseballs self. A race is arranged: a course set, competitors recruited, and spectators corralled. We run. I win, unacceptably. “Do it again,” kids yell out. Back to the starting line, and Mandy and I take off a second time. As we speed by, someone implores: “Let her win, Rebecca!” For one second, the open call for a fake loss throws me off. It’s so blatant, and I don’t understand it. But Mandy hisses “No!” through labored breath, snapping me out of my confusion. I find my fastest gear and pull ahead of her, to the disappointment of most of our audience.
But at our makeshift finish line, she smiles genuinely at me and says, “good run.” For the first time, I realize that my speed is not one of the things wrong with me. Mandy heads back to her friends. The narrative shifts.
Lesson one: Defy expectations, and write your own script.