Sunday, January 4, 2015

Like the Fox I Run with the Hunted


Two years ago, at 34, I had "run with the hunted" tattooed in typewriter font on the inside of my right forearm. It's my only tattoo, a line from a Bukowski poem that spoke to my constant sense of being an outsider — something that, no matter how unjustified or sophomoric, I have always felt. On the surface, the line suggests being a nonconformist, but I think it really means that the narrator of the poem will go his own way, which may or may not conform to society's norms, and that so long as he does that, he will be free.

Then, of course, there is the literal meaning: running like something is chasing you.

For the four months I trained for my first race, the 2011 Gasparilla Distance Classic half marathon, it felt like I was running away from my non-athletic childhood and toward a grand accomplishment, something I could be proud of, that not just anyone could do. When I began running, I didn't believe that I would be able to achieve that distance or that I'd even improve over the course of the training. Aside from a few months playing volleyball in seventh grade, I had never played sports growing up, and I almost never worked out. But I followed the plan, doing loops around a nearby park and around my neighborhood, and was pleased to find that my pace improved and that some of the longer runs didn't even feel strenuous. 

The morning of the race, anticipation tied my stomach in knots. Thousands of runners, sucking on packets of energy gel and clad in fluorescent sneakers, earbuds, and compression socks, materialized out of the predawn darkness of downtown Tampa to converge on the starting line, and it was overwhelming. I developed a sudden fear that I wouldn't be able to perform. As soon as I lined up, however, my confidence surged and I was again proud to be joining this throng of humanity in accomplishing something so difficult.
But around mile eight, I started to get worried. My legs started cramping, and it was difficult to catch my breath. I did find enough strength in reserve, though, to cross the finish line with a little burst of speed after two hours and fifteen minutes, as my family cheered me on. I was exhilarated and ready to celebrate. We went to a favorite diner nearby, crowded with fellow race-finishers, where I wolfed down a breakfast for two.

I had no idea then how popular competitive running had become or how commonplace it was for people of all ages and abilities to complete a half marathon. As my initial thrill waned, this fact threatened to erode my self-satisfaction. That’s when I realized that self-satisfaction was the whole point.
I work from home, so it’s seldom I’m asked to report to an office. The last time I was, about six months ago, I came home emotionally spent. Doubting what to wear, fretting about my inability to make small talk, worrying about being so distracted by coworkers and the office goings-on that I would make a mistake, and agonizing over getting lost and showing up late (which I did), my insecurities and anxieties were exhausting. Sure I survived it and maybe even passed as someone who is competent, but when I glanced in the mirror in the building’s heavily aerosoled bathroom, I saw a woman who was fragile-looking, tired, on the verge of tears.

Before even going into work that day, I knew that all the time I was wasting on my fears was unproductive and unwarranted, but I couldn’t shake it. As ashamed of it as I am, confidence has always eluded me. My lack of self-esteem too often keeps me from enjoying my successes, from seeing any potential, from seeing any beauty, but completing that first half marathon felt like a turning point. I savored my victory; I felt validated.

My first and only full marathon, a few years and a few half marathons later, was a different story. When I felt a sudden jolt of pain shoot from my knee to my hip at mile thirteen — what I suspect but never confirmed was an IT band injury — I was crushed. My body had let me down. Still, I forced it to carry me over the finish line, but all my training and all my work were trashed, and my confidence along with it. The injury itself would have forced me to take a few months off, but the anticlimactic experience haunted me for a full year afterward, during which I did not run once.
When I finally started running again, just four months ago, the real turning point came: I became a different runner. Running was more personal. Maybe my new approach was born out of the fear that another injury would thwart my efforts, but as I continued training, I found out that I didn't need to make a public announcement about a race to motivate myself to do it. I didn't even need to be part of a race at all. I didn't join a community of runners; I ran alone every time. I forced myself to run despite my negativity, and as I pushed through those feelings, I came to realize that I’d had enough.



On a foggy November morning, I would close my front door behind me and would run alone, for 13.1 miles, without fanfare. I would use the time to think and to heal. After finishing, as with my first race, I felt confident. Not because I made it through training or because I accomplished the distance. This time it was because I was really, truly getting better emotionally. I was confident because I deserved it.

It might be too soon to tell if this confidence can transfer over into other areas of my life, or if it will last. But I trust that because I achieved authentic confidence for the first time, it will be easier for me to do again, just like running. And that's something I'm looking forward to.