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I will never run again
A story about hating exercise, then loving exercise, and what comes in between.
When I was a kid I looked down at my feet with every step. I’d nearly slam headlong into walls as my teachers hissed at me to look up; I’d zoom through rooms then come to a hard, stomping stop, watching the blinking lights at my heels. My parents had bought me dweeby light-up shoes that flashed only when the entire soles hit the ground, to discourage my incessant toe-walking. Who knows why this habit continued long past the norm for me — short Achilles tendons? Tight calves? Maybe I saw a ballerina en pointe and sought to emulate the grace I knew even then was hard-won in a body like mine, not willowy and lithe but stocky and compact.
Time ushered out toe-walking and dragged in puberty, when I shot to nearly 5’6” and my feet splayed out to size 11. There were jokes in the family (Get her some canoes for those feet!) and I surveyed all aspects of me that were big — feet, breasts, belly, attitude, appetite — and began to consider them as unbecoming of a girl as other people seemed to. The world is not for big girls, I thought.
Then, there was running the mile in high school gym class.
Four times around the sun-beaten track. Thousands of leaden steps, each like a fly-squashing book slammed on a table. Feet aching as though they might split apart. Two hundred-plus pounds of age-16 girl with fallen arches and the wrong shoes failing at a physical feat in front of an audience 80 pounds lighter and six minutes faster.
This was my introduction to what exercise was, to what being “in shape” was: the ability to run a seven-minute mile with no warming up, no explanation of how to pace or breathe or adjust gait, no counsel that running in Chuck Taylors is a one-way ticket to shin splints. This was not a physical education class. This was nothing but a spectacle of bodily indignity. Exercise is not for big girls, I thought.
Years later, that stadium of humiliation far in my rear view, I started talking with a therapist about the eating disorder I’d developed. I was a binge eater, routinely eating thousands of calories in secret, shameful rituals to anesthetize my anxiety and emotional pain. I had become completely dissociated from my body and thought a connection to my physical self might enable me to treat it better. My therapist asked if I’d ever found any exercise pleasurable, not just penance for eating.
An image of my mother in a Gold’s Gym surged into view. She’d taken me there once to show me her routine. All five-foot-two of her pressed dumbbells with assurance alongside glistening, veiny men built like industrial refrigerators. I followed her lead as best I could and had the atypical experience of leaving a physical fitness space not saturated with chagrin.
Maybe I’d like lifting weights, I admitted.
I signed up for a few sessions with a trainer. After a zealous round of squats he told me I had good endurance and asked if I’d been a college athlete. Ludicrous! No — I had been a college binge drinker and eater. My only cardio had been panic attacks.
“God, no, I can’t even run,” I said, bemoaning the foot issues, throwing in an anecdote about a 5K I’d attempted with friends, during which I’d broken down crying on the course with my heels sizzling in pain.
“You don’t have to run,” he said, squinting at me like, obviously. He explained I might be better suited to short, intense exercises utilizing fast-twitch muscle fibers, like high-intensity cycling or rowing intervals, plyometrics, or powerlifting.
“If you hate running, don’t do it,” he remarked like some primeval sage. “There are other ways to be in shape.”
As it would turn out, “in shape” is an ill-defined term that does not necessarily or exclusively mean “good at running” or “thin.” I now believe it presupposes a question: In shape for what, specifically? With this one body you have, what do you really want to do?
My body seemed to know before my brain that what I wanted to do was pick up hundreds of pounds from the ground over and over again until my mind was like a seacoast after a hurricane — wiped out, raw, still. Needing to be rebuilt.
I wanted to reach what lifters call failure, that point when I don’t have to do anymore because I can’t do anymore and this is recognized as a success. I wanted to lift a one-rep max and unleash a primal scream. I wanted to embrace all things unbecoming of a girl. So I went to gyms and I was not dainty or quiet or small or graceful or pretty. I was big and loud and sweaty and breathless and ugly and hungry. I staggered into the weight room a raw nerve of fury and mania and bodily loathing and emerged as serene as a feather riding a breeze. I was introduced to myself for the first time in my life.
When I was 31, I signed up for a powerlifting competition. I followed a plan on my phone and downloaded a playlist called “Beast Mode” and ate protein bars made of mostly peanut butter that I pulled out of my sweatpants pocket in between bench press sets at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday. I lugged my bulging purple equipment bag from my apartment to the gym in rain and sleet and started to walk like a jock. I gained 15 pounds of muscle and fat and didn’t care. I started thinking in kilograms and aggressive motivational platitudes.
The day of the competition, I met other women who shoved their body parts into breast-flattening singlets, who strapped on weightlifting belts that pushed the flesh of their stomachs up and out, who dipped their big, wide hands into bowls of chalk and slapped their thighs and screamed. I screamed with them and thought of myself as an athlete because that’s what I was called all day. Time slowed to a crawl each time I attempted a lift. I was empty-headed, in liminal space. I looked at nothing and no one as I took my huge breaths before I touched the bar and I almost laughed at my lack of nerves. I moved nearly 700 total pounds, won first place in my weight class, and then went out for pasta and dirty martinis. The woman who won first place overall was more than six feet tall and 263 pounds and everyone in the room was on their feet cheering for her. Lifting is for big girls, I thought.
Now I work out at a little gym in my city with coaches who know that when there is running in the programming I’m using the rowing machine instead, and when there are deadlifts in the programming I’m pulling double my body weight. It is a place for the boundaries I’ve created: I don’t do things to my body that don't serve it, that it’s not built for, that I simply don’t care to do because I know better now about myself. I don’t put my body through pointless pain. I entertain no shame. I do not run.
When I was little I stomped around in my glowy shoes, mesmerized by their flamboyance. Now I pull on my weightlifting shoes — which I purchased in a men’s size 9 — press the velcro strap tight against the neon-green laces, and settle my feet against the hard, lifted heels.
I still have the same thought: I have special shoes. Look what happens when I put them on.