The goal seemed completely ridiculous. Though an avid and dedicated Girl Scout in my youth, able to light fires and pilot my own canoe, I had been queried in my twenties concerning an upcoming camping trip, “What are you going to wear, a cocktail dress?” I was not an athlete, to put it mildly—more comfortable at poetry readings and pubs than any event that required sneakers. But now, two decades later, I was going to teach myself to run, and had signed up for a 5K. Could this unlikely runner flourish?
I’d spent my childhood in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s and had been pigeonholed along with the rest of us—if you’re smart, you aren’t cool; if you’re a girl, you can’t play sports. Of course there were exceptions, but they were rare, and it took me years until I could buck the stereotypes that saddled me.
Girls in my town were not encouraged and not given equal opportunities to be athletic. In my grade school, girls were not (as they are now) required to wear proper clothing for gym class. This may seem like a small thing, but on gym days I found myself, awkward and unsure, in a dress and patent leather shoes, picked last for kickball and dodgeball—games that seemed designed to humiliate and tease, instead of foster teamwork. I can still remember, however, a grand shot in kickball I made in third grade against Tony, king of the school, at recess—a home run, an unlikely victory. I wasn’t really cheered by the team, as I had humiliated Tony, but I had shown myself potential.
I kept at it. Along with my confidence, my time improved. I started to enjoy the fact that, unlike most of my youth in organized sports, my biggest competition in running is myself.
I can remember that first run clearly. Jog for one minute, walk for 90 seconds. Repeat. That first minute seemed eternal. My breath heaved and burned, my calf muscles ached. But I went back two days later. And three days after that. Three times a week, 30 minutes. One of the great benefits of running: it really doesn’t take that much time out of my day as a busy mother, person, parent, teacher. I could do it. I was encouraged by each step up in the program, each leap in speed. I bought better sneakers and a special jacket designed for running in 30 degrees or less.
I kept at it. Along with my confidence, my time improved. I started to enjoy the fact that, unlike most of my youth in organized sports, my biggest competition in running is myself. I don’t like the idea of beating or crushing other people, especially women. Without meaning to, I’d found a way to exercise that reflected my personal values. I came to love the solitude of running, the time dedicated just to me.
My second 5K was a 9/11 memorial fundraiser. My teenage son and I stood side by side with hundreds of other runners on a gorgeous late September morning in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood we love. I ran at a pace with my son, as we high-fived firefighters in full uniform and climbed together out of the mouth of the Battery Tunnel. And when we could see the finish line, he turned to me and said, “Mom, I want to run through it,” and I said, “Go.” I wasn’t far behind.