Running to Other Voices
I signed up for my first 10K run. It will be about 6.2 miles in a critical environment of other people judging how I run, passing me while thinking I’m old, clumsy, and slow.
Or it’ll be about 6.2 miles in a supportive environment of other people sharing the struggle with me, all of us going the speed our bodies our capable of in the moment as we encourage one another on through the challenge.
If previous experiences of participating in new-to-me athletic events are any indication, the voice in my head will continually alternate between these ways of visualizing the social context of the run. The supportive environment will likely be the most accurate assessment of the situation. But people do judge and critique others to make themselves feel better so the critical environment won’t be entirely inaccurate. I do have a choice, though, of which voices to listen to, which social context I decide to inhabit.
Running has always been a struggle for me. People assume I’m a serious runner all the time, but they’re incorrect. I’m lean and fit-looking and many assume the only way to achieve this is by running. Running has been held up as the gold standard for fitness and weight loss for several decades, even as it’s been proven to be only one of many effective strategies for both. It’s good for cardiovascular endurance but it isn’t particularly effective at many of the other dimensions of fitness such as strength, mobility, power, or muscular endurance. And there are more efficient ways to exercise to achieve the caloric deficit needed to lose weight.
For some people running is the kind of exercise they enjoy the most and for their bodies it comes naturally. For them running is awesome. I am not one of those people. Brief, precise movements that I can refine over time come much more naturally to me. Oddly enough this includes both weightlifting and yoga.
I’m not trying to run because I expect to be great at it. At times I really enjoy it. Being outdoors in the sun working up a good sweat can make me feel alive and present in my body. When it’s dark and cold I have to look elsewhere for motivation.
I run partially because I want to enjoy those moments of being outdoors living well in my body. I also want to enjoy the shared challenge of running with others. And mostly I want to shut off the damn voices in my head that tell me I’m deficient, even ridiculous when I run. When I’m running I’m wrestling demons.
In elementary school we played soccer. We played it in the front yard, we played it during school recess, and we played it on club teams. I was not very good. Winning a game didn’t motivate me, I wasn’t naturally fast or coordinated, and the whole thing was stressful for me. I was picked last at recess and played in the second-tier league for club teams. But still I dutifully played. It was what boys did.
In the midst of this, at a Saturday morning game, the father of another kid on my team flippantly said within earshot of my teammates, “Foster runs like a goose.” A nickname was born, and along with it a great deal of shame.
For a few years in elementary school I was frequently called “Goose.” This was before Top Gun so there was nothing cool about it. I tried to mask how much it hurt with humor. I created for myself a kind of logo: the word “goose” with the two o’s as the eyes of a goose and a beak below it. I read up on Canada geese, which are amazing birds with fascinating social habits, and modeled my logo on their markings and face shape. I signed yearbooks with this logo rather than my name. I might have sucked at soccer but I was already pretty good at design. And at self-protective coping skills.
My strategy was effective in diffusing the meanness of the nickname. I got to be in on the joke rather than just the butt of it. People gradually forgot the source of the nickname. I didn’t. It still hurt every time. And I stopped running.
I didn’t start running again until I was in my mid-30s. Austin has beautiful and well-loved running trails along with a vibrant culture of running. On moving here I decided to give it another try.
It didn’t go well. I could get maybe a quarter of a mile before I had to stop and catch my breath. Gradually I worked myself up to a full mile without stopping.
I developed ankle pain, which my experience with weightlifting told me was soreness that meant I was getting stronger. It was not. I ended up on crutches with a badly swollen ankle. It turns out I was pronating badly. This was probably why my running looked strange when I was a kid. Adults could have worked with me on this rather than ridiculing me, but they chose otherwise.
Over the next several years I corrected the way my feet hit the ground and gradually got to where I could run a few miles at a time. But I remained slow and had calf pain for several days after each run. (I recently discovered that I was overstriding and have been working to correct it.)
A few years ago I made the mistake of going on a hard run in the evening during the first week of school. There’s nothing quite like the foot pain and the throat pain I develop as a teacher when the school year starts. After a quiet summer I abruptly start circling the classroom a million times and talking at full volume for eight hours straight, which takes its toll. I thought I could run anyway at the end of the school day to work out the stress. I ended up with plantar fasciitis and was in pain for the whole school year. And I stopped running again.
Last fall I joined a run group. My gym offers many options for group workouts, including strength training, cross-training, yoga, and running. (I’ve written about it here.) I had availed myself of all of these workouts except running. In August I was out of town for two weeks, away from my normal workout routine, and decided to use the opportunity to try running again. I wanted to join the run group at my gym but I didn’t want to start cold so I ran frequently over those two weeks to get ready. It was like cleaning the house before the maid comes. I didn’t want to feel the shame of being slow and having no endurance as I started running with the group — even though being a beginner at the beginning of something is completely reasonable and acceptable.
I’ve been running with this group for six months now. There has been much to love about it. First and foremost it’s a good group of people. Getting out the door to start running before 6:00 in the morning remains hard but knowing that I’ll see people that will be happy to see me and that are fun to spend time with makes it much easier. Plus the coach finds a great variety of places to run and ways to break up the run into smaller, more manageable pieces than just running constantly for an hour. I’m always surprised by how far I’ve run when we get to the end of a workout. It never feels that far.
One thing we do I would never have willing done on my own: our coach finds roads with particularly steep inclines and then she tells us to run up them fast. I would think she’s having us do it out of sheer cruelty except that she runs it with us.
The most important part of run group for me, though, has been the most ordinary part of it. When I show up we all chat briefly and then we just start running together. I have never gotten any sense that my presence among the group is strange or embarrassing or somehow wrong. I’m just included. Accepted.
In motivational and self-help talk it’s common to hear that we should ignore the voices of those people out there and listen to our voice within in order to find our courage or self-esteem or whatever. This fails to capture my experience each I’ve taken a brave-for-me step into something new. The voices in my head are always distant echoes of the voices of others, and often the most negative ones are the loudest. For me it has always been a matter of choosing whose voices to allow to reverberate in my head.
We so frequently underestimate how deeply embedded we are in our social contexts. All of the language we use to understand the world around us comes from the world we were thrown into. We can in a limited way rebuild our world in new ways but we’re always working with the tools we were given. If we have accepted the myth that we are self-made individuals this can seem hopeless. I haven’t found it to be so. But it does change where I look for hope.
As I seek to grow, to be a better version of myself and to inhabit the world in a way that makes it a better place, I can choose which voices to hear and I can act on them. Acting on the better voices often comes first, doing the thing I fear in spite of the voices still telling me I shouldn’t do it. Overcoming critical voices can also mean putting myself into different contexts, hoping but not knowing for sure if the voices there will be different.
Even more I can be that voice for others. I can overtly let those around me know that they matter, that they have value, and that they belong. They may already know this or they may not. My running group didn’t know my history with running before they began accepting and encouraging me. It was simply the environment that they had already created and I got to step into it.
The voices we offer to others are not always audible. Our presence, our posture, and our movements can say a lot. Our everyday interactions, whether they are verbal or not, matter a great deal to the lives of others. This gives me pause, fearing that I always carry with me the ability to hurt those around me. But it also gives me hope, knowing that even simple everyday interactions done well can be a source of healing for others.
My expectations for the upcoming 10k run are low. I certainly don’t expect to win anything. I may be able to complete it without stopping to walk, but I’ll be fine if I can’t. I’m looking forward to a morning outdoors living well in my body. Friends from my run group will be there so we’ll be able to cheer each other on.
My highest hope for the run is that I can show up. I want to be present in the moment, listening to the voices that matter, and just run.share: by