When I was a kid, I wasn’t much of an athlete. I never participated in any team sports, nor did I have any kind of athletic goals. I think the reason was the not-so-unique combination of shyness, insecurity, and a fear of taking risks. Yet these qualities only reared their ugly heads when I was around people I didn't know. As I was often under close observation in public as a child, seen by many but not heard by most, my shyness was in direct correlation with the pressure I felt to be perfect and the feeling of being sized up and judged by others.
Alternatively, my daily existence at home was one of privacy and security, without the intrusion of close neighbors and with tons of room and freedom to play. Running around our green fields and orange groves, and lying on the lawn daydreaming while gazing up at the blue sky and tops of olive trees, my home life as a child rendered me a bit anti-social when out and about in the world. No perfection, structured rules, competitiveness, or team cooperation was required to climb the huge fig tree on our property. Existence and free play at home was non-confrontational, non-judgmental, and void of any pretense or façade. There, I was free to be me; and there is where I most wanted to be.
I did take ballet at five years old, but my mom said I had to stop at six because she didn't think I took it seriously enough. I was SIX. Not sure what she expected, but I obviously wasn't fulfilling her expectations. My older sister and I also took ice skating lessons for a while; but the appeal of being like Dorothy Hamill wore off pretty quick when the discomfort of frozen toes and wet tights got the best of us.
In junior high, my report card of A's was blemished by the B's I received in Physical Education (and ironically, Typing). I wasn't awkward or uncoordinated in any way, I just didn't like to participate in P.E. My skinny and not so tough girl persona defined me as the antithesis of the athletic-type; or at least I allowed it to define me that way. I dreaded running laps around the school track, especially on those really hot days in the valley where you felt like you were going to melt into the pavement. I took a rare risk and tried out for cheerleading in the eighth grade (with the hope of breaking out of my shell at school), but, not surprisingly, I didn't have the pep required to make the squad.
Instead, I took piano lessons, loved art projects, and collected rainbows and puffy stickers. I also escaped into stories, sometimes in books, but most often by watching sitcoms on TV and movies on VHS tape. I can recall many days after school sitting down on the couch watching hours of Three's Company, Diff'rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life with a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies in hand, and with no desire to be anywhere else.
I recognize now that I definitely used television and film to escape the realities of my life during those early teenage years... medicating the disillusionment and stress of dealing with my parent's divorce and the sadness and upheaval of losing my childhood home (the aforementioned ranch with the green fields, orange groves and fig tree).
Television and film really did their job for me, suspending my disbelief and beguiling me into a intense love affair with fictional narratives and old cinema in those impressionable and formative years. And as a skin-'n'-bones teenager, my indulgence in those Thin Mint cookies didn't prompt me to see physical exercise as a necessity. Couch potato-ing suited me just fine.
In college, I gained some significant weight after a whole year of eating dormitory food consisting of bagels & cream cheese, pizza, sugary cereals and soft serve ice cream. Since I grew up in a house of wheat bread, Quaker Granola and fruit roll-ups (sure signs of "health nut" parents in the 70's and 80's, but laughable by today's standards of health and wellness), as opposed to my friends' regular diets of Wonder Bread, Fruit Loops and Ding Dongs, I had thought I had a good sense and palate for healthy eating.
Yet that first year of freedom to indulge in whatever, whenever, showed in my fuller, rounder face and body, and the "freshman fifteen" I gained was actually more like twenty. It didn't help that I spent most of that first year at UC Irvine sitting in class, studying, writing essays and term papers, and watching movies.
My sedentary existence was curbed by sophomore year when I shared a dorm room with Giselle, a female student athlete on a track-and-field scholarship for long-distance running. Of course, she ran cross-country in high school, was in great physical shape, and had the most muscular legs I had ever seen on a girl... the stark opposite of my physique, one a bit plump for my thin frame with no muscle tone of which to speak. My new roommate was a physically healthy and mentally positive person, and she became my first close friend that was into fitness or competitive sports.
Her introduction into my life was also my introduction to running. For the first time, I wondered if it would be something I would like to do. I remembered my aversion to the track in junior high, but the idea of running now intrigued me. She agreed to teach me about training for endurance running, showing me how to run using the proper form and technique, how to pace myself, how to breathe, and where to focus my attention.
I began to run regularly that year and loved it. It worked for me. Finally, I had an alternative to sitting and escaping into the latest romantic comedy romp. Going outside for a run gave me a place to be by myself with my thoughts... to feel empowered to be the me that I was, as I was.
My world changed. My body transformed. I saw it morph back to the skinny version I had in high school, but this time it came with some muscles and curves I had not enjoyed in adolescence. I ran consistently all through my junior and senior years of college, and it kept me fit and relatively sane as a Film Studies undergrad, when my daily existence involved watching endless hours of films, editing endless hours of footage I shot, and sitting for endless hours at the computer writing my Film Theory term papers.
I continued running after graduation and throughout my 20's while working in the film industry. It remained my source of strength and empowerment those years of working on film sets and studio lots where, often frustratingly so, my youthful and attractive female frame and countenance got me more attention than my skill and passion for the art and entertainment I wanted to create. I looked to running for peace, quiet, acceptance, introspection, and blissful solitude in a life and career that didn't afford me these virtues often, if at all.
In the year 2000, a fictional Nike ad campaign for women's running was the focal point of the film What Women Want. In the ad, the image of a woman running alone on a road is seen while the following is heard: "You don't stand in front of a mirror before a run and wonder what the road will think of your outfit. You don't have to listen to its jokes and pretend they are funny in order to run on it. It would not be easier to run if you dressed sexier. The road doesn't notice if you're not wearing lipstick, does not care how old you are. You do not feel uncomfortable because you make more money than the road... And you can call on the road, whenever you feel like it, whether it has been a day, or even a couple hours since your last date. The only thing the road cares about is that you pay it a visit once in a while. Nike. No games. Just sports."
As a single, professional woman, who was also a runner, I LOVED this. It spoke to the twenty-seven year old version of me who ran a fast three miles a day at least five times a week. I connected with the sentiment behind it and the comfort of not feeling measured by or valued for my looks, my job, my youth - at least not when running. The freedom from the judgment of society in general, and Los Angeles in particular, was palpable when I ran. Alone, just me and the road, that freedom and feeling of pure acceptance was very powerful.
Today, these many years later, I am still running. I get the same feeling now as I did when I began. While running, there really are no games - no one to impress, no one to try to look good for, no one to try to amuse or pretend to be amused by - it's just you, moving your body, feeling the wind, relishing the solitude, and basking in the peace that comes with time to yourself, to your own thoughts, to living life at your own pace.
I sometimes wish I could put life on pause - slow it down, take a breath. Do some things before other things inevitably have to occur. Pause a moment in time and FEEL it - experience it for what it is, independent of everything else - before everything else has its chance to weigh in. I feel like I'm racing the clock so often that there just isn't enough time to fit in the things I want to say, do, feel, write, accomplish, BE.
So instead, I take a mini-vacation every time I run. Running, to me, is my life on pause. My mind is free to think what it wants, my body is free to move how it wants, and I feel free of any limitations and restrictions that may currently weigh on me. Using my physical strength to move my body forward down the road is such an amazing feeling and gives me an inner strength and determination not found elsewhere.
That sedentary, skinny, screen-obsessed kid eating piles of cookies and binging on sitcoms and rom-coms would never have thought she'd feel this way when she grew up. But it seems the journey of life is like a road you run on, leading you to you - the you you are going to be as you grow, mature, love, and learn. The you you are going to live with all of your days.
I've slowly come to recognize that this "you" is ever changing. That you aren't strictly defined by where you've been. That where you are and where you are going are yours for the making, and that the road of your life will continue to define you throughout this life's journey.
There is no getting away from it. It just happens. Without your consent or even sometimes without your knowledge, the curves, detours and dips in the road of your life will change and define you in ways you may never have expected or could have ever anticipated. I never would have thought I would be a runner. Not judging from where I began. But I am. And I am so grateful for that.
If you can't or don't like to run, I guarantee that you can get a similar experience, with equally beneficial feelings and results, from a number of other physical activities that may be a better fit for you and your personal journey. Just find what works for you and DO IT. Take those moments to feel like your authentic self within, independent of all the judgments and labels of others. Enjoy the freedom from all of the comparing and competing that plagues our society and honor the you that you are - perfectly imperfect - exactly as you are inside and out, right now.
I find it on the road. The road leads me to myself, and I love where it takes me.