I was raised by a mother who wanted very much to be progressive and forward-thinking and who, in many ways, succeeded. But she was saddled with a troublesome belief that you couldn’t be smart and anything else. She had a very compartmentalized view of me, and decided I was to be academic, not athletic.
My body rebelled. I had run the woods and climbed the trees of my grandfather’s farm for years before school began, so why should that stop? But subtle hints that I was “clumsy” gradually sank in. In our house, I never heard the word, “jock,” unless immediately preceded by, “dumb.” I got the message.
School wasn’t much help, either. I was a pre-Title IX baby. Physical education was little more than an open audition for basketball and softball, with some woodchoppers and jumping jacks tossed in. Too short for basketball, too inexperienced with a glove for softball, my options narrowed to none. I cheered briefly, but quickly became intimidated when varsity tryouts rolled around, because so many of my peers had seemingly enrolled in gymnastics or dance as fetuses. I had one last hope: track.
On the day of tryouts, I had wet palms and a dry mouth. We each had to run a one hundred yard dash down the football field while the coach timed us. I ran as fast as I could. I remembered being able to run faster before hearing about “dumb jocks,” when it was just me and the dogs running after rabbits in the fields behind my house. The coach announced my time, but I had no basis for comparison. I just knew it wasn’t as fast as the others. To my surprise, when they announced the varsity team, I was on the list. How? I had no idea. But I was thrilled. My mother? Not so much.
She reluctantly bought me the cheapest pair of plastic running shoes she could find at the local discount store, unwilling to buy me “real” athletic equipment until I convinced her it was “worth it.” I came to every practice early and stayed late. I wanted desperately to be good at track, like I was at my schoolwork. I busted my ass like I had never busted ass before.
The day of the first track meet came. I arrived at school, proudly carrying my gym bag with my nasty cheap shoes, telling everyone who would listen that I would be leaving during homeroom as soon as the principal made the announcement for all of us to board the bus. “May I have your attention, please? May I have your attention, please? Teachers, at this time, please release the following students to board the bus for today’s track meet at Charleston,” the speakers interrupted, and I grinned like a monkey, waiting to hear my name — MY name — to be listed among the athletes. But when the principal closed with, “Thank you,” I realized my name had not been called.
The coach who had drilled me for weeks since try-outs, who had me running suicides up and down bleachers, who saw me come early and stay late, who watched me batter myself senseless trying to clear one hurdle — just one — had just ditched me. I’m not a crier by nature, but I fought back tears as I realized that all my work had not even earned me a spot on the bench. And I gave up.
I started believing that you can’t be a jock without also being dumb. I started believing that I was, indeed, clumsy. I developed a mother-approved disdain for sports. And I believed I had no innate athleticism.
I graduated valedictorian and a good ten pounds underweight, an undiagnosed anorexic. I flirted briefly in undergrad with the fringes of sports, going for late night runs and subbing for a girlfriend who taught step aerobics at the Wesley Center on campus. I resented the fact that, despite my plans to attend a rigorous, academically-acclaimed conservatory (which I did), I still found myself bound to sports because of geography and chronology. (Damn you, Brett Favre.) After graduation, I worked out at the local hospital’s health center, dabbling in weight training and dance aerobics. By now, I was struggling with a weight problem arising from professional and marital misery. But I had never quite rid myself of the idea I was not cut out to be athletic. I wasn’t “jock material.” And inertia seemed so much easier.
I called bullshit in 1998.
I escaped a teaching career that was literally killing me, and retreated to clerical work and art school to lick my wounds. Who the Hell was I, if not a musician, not a teacher? I had become so numb and lost so much of the joy I’d felt as a child. And I sank deeper and deeper into an increasingly out of shape body, building layers of protection between me and the world that hurt so much. So much was wrong, how could I possibly know where to start fixing it all?
I began sifting through old memories, looking for threads to unravel the shroud I was weaving for myself. I sought counseling for the issues which had led to my struggle with eating disorders. I was tired of ignoring and punishing my body, and I decided to take command of it, instead. Impulsively, I paid the entry fee for a charity 5K coming to town that fall. And I bought myself some bigod shoes. Real shoes. With stripes and swooshes and ventilation. Shoes with cushioning and shock absorption. Shoes for an athlete. Shoes for me. I hit the road.
At first, my lungs burned and my muscles ached, and I was running on sheer meanness. I had to mark my runs in telephone poles, not miles. “Today, I’ll run to the pole with the tar patch on it that looks like The Cowardly Lion,” I’d tell myself. “This time, I’ll see if I can make it to the pier by the ducks.” The first time I ran three miles, I literally cried, because I got it. I was the boss of me. It was my decision to be whatever I wanted to be.
That epiphany led to others. I saw clearly that the path before me was mine to choose, no one else’s. I would no longer be content to mark time at someone else’s pace, so as not to upset their notions of what I am or am not. When I ran the 5K that October, I dedicated it to the coach who had left me behind, crying in my homeroom, disappointed and embarrassed. My motto was, “You think I’m slow now? You should have seen me last year.” I began releasing things which were not good for me, getting rid of dead weight, literally and figuratively. I remembered things I had long forgotten about myself.
I am strong. I am a hellraiser.
I am a smart jock.
In the intervening years, two close brushes with death, an unpleasant divorce, and two miscarriages set me back a bit physically, but I never forgot what I learned running. And I’m happy to say that, as I watch the 2012 Olympics on my television here in Germany, my heart is running with those amazing, beautiful athletes in every event. So are my feet.
Eight weeks ago, I began running the Couch-to-5K regime in my home gym, and I am having a ball. Usain Bolt will never be plagued with nightmares about me. But I have come back from hobbling on crutches in 2006 to running a six and a half minute mile at the age of forty-one. I can lap my greased lightning five year-old on the stairs, when it used to hurt to cross the room. After this, I’m shooting for a half marathon. And I plan on being around a long, long time. After all, there’s loads more Hell to raise, and I’m just the smart jock to raise it.
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