Athletic is not a word that I would use to describe myself, but it is a word that I am trying to make room for. There are many things that I would hasten to predict I am bad at: most sports, lifting heavy objects, fighting anyone who is not a child under the age of 8. However, I want to confirm those things for myself, not take them as fact because they were assumed of me in teenagehood. I don’t mind being weak or uncoordinated, but I do mind having self-limiting beliefs that prevent me from pursuing anything and everything that piques my interest.
This morning, a new friend told me they would have guessed that I was a soccer player in high school. When assessed against my constructed story of self, I found that amusing, but apparently, it’s a very reasonable supposition otherwise. What the world believes is true for us is often more generous than the self-dialogue we offer ourselves. Strangers don’t know the ways in which we categorized and pigeonholed ourselves. They see us as we are, without insight into the conclusions we’ve reached over a lifetime of navigating a social existence that relies on hierarchy and grouping for order.
Up until recently, I had very little faith in Britney as a runner, but I had heaps of faith in a fairly typical 22-year-old girl’s body. Fortunately, I am (inhabit?) both - and the latter undeniably so. (The former is predicated on the faulty, piecemeal collage that is identity development, so I acknowledge that there’s room for debate on what it actually means.) Four months ago, when I considered whether or not I should try to run seriously for the first time since freshman year of high school, I took an objective approach. I saw no reason why a person with an able body and stable health condition should not or could not be a runner. So, as I am fortunate to have both, I made an attempt. The attempt grew into a habit. The habit grew into a hobby. I’m hoping that soon, it will grow into a part of who I am.
When people tell me that they are not runners or that they couldn’t possibly run a certain distance, I know they are lying. I know this because my lived experience and a vast body of science attest that the human body, with its expansive gluteal muscles and nuchal ligament, is uniquely capable of forward motion on two legs.
However, it’s rude to accuse someone of lying, so I usually settle for, “You could totally do it if you wanted to!” I think that is true for most things in life - that we could totally do it if we wanted to. Maybe the trick is allowing ourselves to want the things we want, not merely the things that we believe are within our capacity.
Doubt and denial are powerful defenses because they preclude us from even trying. After all, why go for it if we’ve already decided that we’ll never succeed?
But imagine a stranger meeting you for the first time. Amazing you, with all your promise and verve. I tend to think pretty highly of the human species, but even a cynic would concede that any given person is capable of something worthwhile. What is your something? The thing that seems far-fetched at the moment, but that is perfectly within the realms of believability? Don’t be afraid to name it, even if putting it out into the world means that you’re obligated to give it an honest effort.
My thing is running a marathon. I think that you think that I can do it. I agree with you.
There’s a line from Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that says something about children being made ecstatic by movement alone. I can’t find the exact phrasing because I exclusively read library ebooks, meaning I have long since returned my digital copy and can’t ctrl-f to pull up what I’m looking for. Even so, the simple memory of that line informs my relationship with joyful movement.
Running is one of those great acts that is so simple it becomes profound, like a full night of rest or a hug where your heads line up just right so that one is nestled under the other. It’s a rare combination of familiar and exciting. Sometimes, I start crying in the middle of a run and everything flows at once: my stride, my happy tears, my emotions cascading over the surface. I raise my hands to the sky, unable to stop myself from gesturing at the beautiful day, asking you to look, look, at the wonderful world that was given to us. Anything can happen on a run. I once ran past a man walking a goat.
I’ll let you in on a secret: running’s even more fun when you’re not watching the clock. Personally, I think most people who hate running have never tried building a relationship with it that isn’t dependent on numbers, and consequently, how those numbers should affect self-worth. Instead of focusing on measurements, try prioritizing how you feel.
Amble down the sidewalk just slightly faster than you normally do. Jog to the corner store and buy yourself an ice cream. Meander to the nearest park and lay out flat on the grass, stretch out your limbs as far as they will go. Find a neighborhood kid and challenge them to a footrace. Either you’ll smoke them and feel really good about yourself afterward, or graciously let them win and get a self-esteem boost from doing a kind thing. There’s no need for an Apple Watch or a Fitbit or a tracking app. The best running shoes for beginners are the ones that are already in your closet. You don’t need to go fast or far. You only need to enjoy the world’s oldest form of transportation pumping serotonin into your bloodstream.
Movement is one of the last remaining strongholds of exuberance that capitalism hasn’t put a price tag on. That means that it’s yours for the taking at any moment, and for the unbelievable price of absolutely free.
I value the taste of a delicious slice of cheesecake at 500 yen. I know that a week-long tropical beach getaway would eat up half of my monthly salary. But I have no number for the pleasure of leaping up to smack an overhead street sign with my fingertips. I am lucky to have escaped the learned compulsion to quantify movement in dollar signs, or in calories burned, or in any other human-designed unit. I just experience it, whole and pure and unfettered, and all the delight that comes with it. Perhaps this is what it means to be an uncomplicated animal - to have a physical form that jumps when I say jump, with milliseconds between “how high?” and my feet in the air.
It’s an odd thing, to only recently become acquainted with the sensation of my thigh bones interacting with my pelvis and how tension pools in the left calf. I am in endless discovery with my anatomy even after 22 years of being inside of it.
Which is not to say that my body always likes what I’m asking it to do. I often let out an involuntary “ow” when walking down a flight of stairs or bending my knee past a right angle. But to a reasonable degree, I appreciate the small aches in the same way one appreciates a lingering sunburn: the body’s way of memorializing the previous day’s effort.
I believe in a healthy practice of mild suffering. Less dramatically, I think it’s important to challenge yourself. Self-care isn’t just about taking it easy; self-care is doing the things that you don’t want to do, but that are important and helpful for your future self.
As much as I smile on runs, I often grimace as well. My face flushes, my bangs get plastered to my forehead, and my personal “bad form” quirk appears - I go limp in my left wrist as if the energy of keeping my hand in line with the rest of my arm is just too much. That’s when the mental exercise begins. Many people stop in the middle of a run because they think they’re incapable of going on any longer. But unless you are flirting with a vomit session, muscle failure, or actual medical emergency, the truth is that you very much are capable of continuing on. Whether or not that’s advantageous to your overall training plan is up to you; walking is a legitimate strategy to finishing a long run. I trust you to make decisions based on wisdom and not the desire for a momentary reprieve.
I like to use the mantra, “run because you can.” When I start to fatigue and my limbs protest against continued movement, I do a systems check. Can I still move? Yes. Will I hurt myself if I continue? No. Okay, then run because you can.
If you set realistic goals and repeatedly accomplish them, you start to trust your ability to follow through. That leads to sureness of outcome, even if you’re unsure of what it will be like along the way. When you take ownership of the end result, you take ownership of your ability - and you get a better sense of how that ability can be stretched and pulled. Eventually, that evolves into a feeling of peace, a self-assuredness that stems from knowing yourself.
I am not worried at the start of runs, despite the many miles to come, because I have faith that I will do what’s right for me the whole way through. Instead, I find a slow, comfortable pace and relax into the stretch of time where I have permission to ignore everything but the singular task of putting one foot in front of the other.
Every once in a while, I catch my reflection on the side of a building and it takes a second to realize that the person looking back at me - the one pumping their legs with such nonchalance - is actually me. When I greet another runner, I get a minor thrill. Like, yes, our planet is being stripped to perpetuate systems of suffering and I forgot to defrost the tilapia and my right hand has been plagued by cold-induced wounds for the past two months, but hey, here we are anyway, moving our feet on this fine Sunday morning, sneakers ricocheting off the concrete, our nylon windbreakers swish-swishing in sync. A middle-aged man passes me and says “ohayou gozaimasu.” I echo it back, add on some strange half-bow that momentarily throws off my rhythm, bend my face downwards as if in prayer. This is a version of church. I come here to strive towards a reformed version of self, even when it’s slow-going, even when it requires sacrifice, even when I can’t tell you exactly why I’m doing it.
When I was in university, I took a course called Embodiment. It was taught by a Montessori-educated artist who thought the best thing to do with a class of 45 strait-laced honors students was perform experimental skits. We started every lesson by taking seven deep breaths, which I would love in the right setting and only tolerated in the fluorescent lighting of a cold, vinyl-floor classroom. As a class, we understood that we were not in a safe space for embarrassing ourselves and thus, spent a good portion of the time eyeing each other knowingly to reinforce that we were simply going along with it, and not like, you know, actually into this sort of thing.
It required a small collective kindness to engage with the material genuinely, but in the end, our level of commitment was higher than I expected. We chanted poems and made structures out of stacking chairs and sang about freedom and AI and environmental restoration. It was entertaining, almost meaningful (but not quite), and a perfectly fine way to earn 3 credits.
As I spend more time thinking about and caring for my body, I find myself revisiting the central question that guided our course, this time with a true and natural desire to land upon an answer: “What can a body do?”
A body can jump. A body can build. A body can rest. A body can create.
These are all responses I’ve generated before, but I am learning to appreciate the miraculousness that each of those four-word sentences contains. I have a newfound reverence for the flesh and bones that carry me, whoever and whatever me is. I’m empathizing with the popular sayings in all new ways; the body is a temple, the body is a biological machine, the body is the womb, the body is worthy of love. In the way that I cherish my mother, Mother Earth, and the glorious sun above, how can I not cherish what gives me life, and then more life?
“A body can” is a complete sentence. I added an extra word: A body can run. Then, I changed one more: My body can run. Soon: My body can run a marathon.