(Half) Marathon woman

I’ve never been an athlete. The only marathons I’ve ever been interested in are the kinds about special victim units, crime scene investigations, or drag queen reality shows. In elementary school, I hid behind the giant shady tree to avoid my turn at bat on the baseball diamond. In soccer, I’d run around and try to escape the ball and the action. In high school P.E., the volleyball girls would yell at me and sigh their hissy sighs because I’d cost us all the points. If I had to do any kind of racing, I just picked the shortest distance possible so I could get coming in last over with as quickly as possible.

My mom’s side of the family is full of athletes; they keep themselves busy with sports of all kinds, but of all the meets, games, and matches of theirs I’d observe, running seemed to be the most attractive to me. Maybe it’s because there’s no team or rules or sets of special skills I could mess up. Maybe it’s because it offered a way of being athletic sans the threat of being hit by any kind of ball, but running seemed like something I could maybe, possibly figure out how to do.

During middle school and high school summers off, I’d watch my aunt with her giant muscled calves, circling the track, ponytail bobbing. I’d go with her to her workouts, walk the same circle and another nearby dirt path ad nauseum. Sometimes my cousin would join us. We’d all arrive in the same car, stretch at the same time, but they’d go one direction and I’d go another. I’d wonder what they talked about, double ponytails bobbing, and I’d feel really lonely, soft, round, and slow. And all the endless walking never seemed enough, never shaped my calves into angled mounds, never made me the kind of girl who had the kind of juicy problems worthy of puzzling through on a long run with an adult. Walking could be calming, could provide a pleasant admixture of thought and movement that would cushion introspection or spin out the wordy tendrils of a poem or story, and it was freeing, but in comparison to the running, the runners, it felt pathetic.

Yet, a few weeks ago, I ran a half marathon. I’m still not sure how that happened. I know I joined a running team, found a Saturday running partner. I know I put in the time and the grumbling and the pain and the doubt. Did I cry and/or beat myself up when I had a bad run? Yup. Often, it felt like such a ridiculous trick I was playing on myself — who was I fooling trying to outrun myself? My identity as fat smart kid seems so. . . inescapable. Anything else is beyond my comprehension. I don’t get how people feel strong and capable, how they throw their arms up in victory, feel like powerful monsters that pad around in sneakers and tear up the road. After my race I knew I wanted to feel confident and proud; it was amazing to hear praise about what I’d accomplished. But my feelings haven’t caught up with my mind. I understand that I did an amazing thing, that my body pushed through the shit of my past, proved stronger than I ever imagined it could be, but the mantle of the runner still fits awkward on my frame.

Early in the race a train halted any progress forward. Everyone around me was pissed (or pissing), I was enjoying an impromptu parade in my brain — a rousing rendition of some Souza tune for this free break in the drudgery. But, then looking around me, there was that familiar lonesome hollow in my gut. These people were competitors, and thus somehow more “real” than I was. Though I wished that I had hopped the train like a hobo of olden days, I kept going, pounded bruises into my toenails, popped bloody blisters while climbing hills. My partner and I spotted dogs, discussed their fluff, or butts, or faces. No ponytails, but our thick calves did flex in rhythm.

At the end of the race I broke down. Had to stop, had to breathe and uncoil a knot in my belly. I let my partner go on and I freaked out for a good minute. Ghosts rushed through me, all the thoughts that hurt. “Here you go, getting so close and collapsing. You can’t finish anything. See? You don’t belong here. See? You’re all alone.” And I kept going, feeling like I’d already lost but needing to save face. That last bit felt stupid and awful and dumb and stupid again and just when I was about to walk a bit more, some man I don’t even know told me NO. “You will not stop,” he said, “you can run with me and we’ll do this together.” Except I couldn’t hear a damn thing he was saying but somehow that was communicated. There was wind in my ears, but he was guiding me through the whole ending, what was left and how to do it. It didn’t matter that the words never landed, it was just so good, so incredibly good, to not be alone, to lift out of that sports + me = alienation equation for long enough to cross the finish line.

Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.

2 Responses to “(Half) Marathon woman”
  1. Robinson says:

    You described my view on sports in school to a “T”.

    The “Alone” part gets me before a race when I am just standing around without knowing anyone, and after as well (unless my wife/kids have come to cheer me on.) But during the race, I always feel like I belong – surrounded by other people that are also running their own race. When I ran in NY, you could say something to the fellow runners nearby, and get some sort of response. IT made me feel like I was part of something.

    GREAT finish! And gaining a memory to hang on to – that shows you ARENT alone out there running!

  2. Michele Dyer says:

    What a great piece! You are so honest and real. AND an athlete! Congratulations!

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