I am not an athlete.
That’s what I say to myself nearly every time I double knot my running shoes and step out the door for a run. Because in my heart of hearts, even though I’ve run hundreds and hundreds of miles over the past three years, I still do not think of myself as a runner. In my brain, I’m still an awkward teenager with no grace, no coordination and no athletic ability. I am, without a doubt, my own biggest competitor.
If they are lucky, some people run for love of the sport. A lot of people, I find, run for fitness. Many runners that I’ve met love the competition. Me, I run for the self-challenge. When I’m out there pounding the pavement, it’s all about beating that inner teenager geek: the unpopular bookworm who didn’t ever really fit in.
In high school, I was a really smart kid – graduated second in my class. I was in all the “honors” classes (or whatever we called them). A lot of the folks in my classes were the wealthier, popular kids that shopped at The Gap (to this day, I have an aversion to The Gap that is totally illogical, but it makes me feel inferior still!). The rich kids were all in the ski club. If you weren’t popular because you had money, you were popular because you played a sport. And man, we had some crazy good athletes at my school. Our cross-country and track teams were amazing.
Now me? I may have been in the smart kid classes, but I was not wealthy, popular or athletically inclined. I was on the newspaper staff, the yearbook staff, and in the creative writing club. I was a total geek. I never felt like I fit in with the kids in my classes. My clothes were not “cool,” I didn’t have the money to join the ski club, and I was always the last one picked for teams in gym class because anything the required coordination was totally beyond my ability.
I secretly wished every day that I was in the cool crowd. I thought that if I tried something and failed at it, that people would make fun of me, that they would like me less. I loved words and writing and being smart – those were the things I was good at doing, at which I knew I wouldn’t fail. And that was the world to which I relegated myself. I was scared of making a fool of myself for trying anything outside of my world.
Of course, I went to college and rapidly figured out that the balance of cool vs. geek existed everywhere and transcended money, athletic and intellectual ability – and that it was okay to be myself and that people liked me for being myself. But there are some emotional scars that never leave, and high school will always be there for me: this big, looming reminder that once upon a time, I wasn’t okay with myself.
Even now, as an adult, there are days when I face those high school fears – that failing at something new will make people like me less. I’ve learned to tackle the fears, of course, and realize that the only way you get good at something is to fail at it and get better at failing, then succeed clumsily, and then succeed well. But the fear of failure, of wanting people to “approve” of me, is always there, in the back of my mind.
And that idea, that version of me, is who I run against. Every time I go just a little bit farther, just a little bit faster, I’m keeping that scared, unsure of herself, uncoordinated little girl at bay. Because if I can do these runs, I can do anything that I never thought myself capable of doing.