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For the past few days lots of people have been sending me the Oatmeal comic "The Terrible & Wonderful Reasons Why I run Long Distances" and there's so little of why I run in there that I figured I should post about it.
First, and most importantly: Everybody is Fighting Their Own War. The reasons we do things are all different and there's not a right one, or a wrong one.
I Started Out as a Child
I got picked on a lot as a child. I was bookish and weird and I wore glasses and wasn't strong or fast. Leaving school was a gauntlet of fear; I was like a rabbit crossing an open field nervously waiting for a hawk to swoop down and chase me home or rip me apart. When I was in 4th grade a bully named Eddie Hawn chased me into the public library and waited outside, for hours, for it to close, for me to have to leave so he could beat me up. I sat inside and watched the clock tick; closer to the time when my sanctuary would evaporate. I never understood what gave him the ability to just wait there, like a spider. And there was no reason for him to want to beat me up other than that I was smaller and couldn't get away. We had no classes together, we didn't live on the same block, he was a lot older than me, I didn't owe him money, I never spit on his bicycle seat. He just picked me out on the playground and decided to make my life difficult, like Michael Henchard picks Donald Farfrae out of the blue to be his nemesis in The Mayor of Casterbridge. In retrospect, I've never been more afraid in my life than those days in school and trying to get home from school. In ninth grade some kids had an older cousin visiting from out of town and they had him chase me down and pummel me for no reason other than they thought it was funny. Two college students stopped it and one of them gave me a ride home and gave me a shirt to stop my nose bleeding. I sincerely thought it was the kindest thing a person had ever done for me.
If I could go back and give my 12 year old self any advice I'd say two things. First: Go to Europe in your early 20's, because everything changes after that and it's good to have that perspective in early, all this crap of people being terrible to you for no reason goes away once you get into college and after you've gone someplace else that's very different and seen the world from a new perspective you get older much more easily after that. And secondly, find a sport that you like, that you can compete in, and stick with it. I turned into a very good tennis player once I hit my teen years -- I had lessons and summer programs -- all this partly, or mostly, I think because I was tall and I could get the ball over the net more consistently than other people my age -- it's the only thing I've ever won a trophy for -- and I was looking forward to getting to high school where I could play regularly on a team. When I got to high school and signed up for Junior Varsity I discovered that along with sports came jocks. I got hazed, team members who were supposed to hold me up dropped me and laughed, I got excluded, people took things from me and it turned into games of monkey-in-the-middle to get them back. It was a hazing culture that went with the territory and it was territory I was unable to cross. I couldn't make it to the other side where I'd be the one throwing people's underwear on the roof of the school so I bailed and never played tennis again. In my life. And I never played another organized sport again. Ever. Not even a weekend softball game. I'd had it with jocks. That experience both robbed me of an ability to enjoy a particular type of life as an adult and it also gave me time to do other things. I didn't climb mountains or go scuba diving, but I wrote books and I made music and I moved along, and I moved along happily.
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And Then You Get Older
But somewhere in there your metabolism catches up with you and sitting around writing books and not climbing mountains took its toll and one day I discovered that I'd gotten fat and it was difficult for me to perform normal tasks -- like walk up stairs, or stand in line in airports carrying lots of camera equipment, or sleep, or sit comfortably. I saw a photo someone took of me in August 2012 and I knew that something needed to change. I had to draw a line in the sand because I wanted more from life.
You can lose weight by doing many, many, many different things. You can ride a stationary bike, you can skip rope, you can use an elliptical, you can swim, but for me, the thing that I didn't have was the thing that the jocks kept me from getting in high school -- the ability to think of myself as an athlete. I wanted to do something that I could accomplish on my own, I wanted something that would make my body better, make me stronger, make me thinner, and something that I could get a trophy for to put in the box with that path that dead-ended in high school. And ... very secretly, I wanted into that club of athletes that closed the door on me. Not the towel snapping, not stuffing people in lockers, not the hazing, but the respect. I wanted people with trophies to say "Well, Kyle can get up at five a.m. and run ten miles in twelve degree weather, why don't you ask him?" (This is one reason that I admire Rollergirls so much. It's a sport that's rejected the towel-snapping jockocracy and said "we don't pick athletes out of a lineup, we make athletes out of people, and we help one another along the way.")
Running was hard, but it burned a lot of calories and it was the sort of thing that other people did; athletes. It was a high goal and rewarding in the way that nobody ever got a medal for using an elliptical or riding a stationary bike. It wasn't the aimless burning of calories, it was a way I could chart my improvement and something I could wrap a lifestyle around. Running totally sucked in the beginning. I'd set the treadmill for three miles and every footstep after mile 1.5 I'd repeat the mantra "more than anything else on earth right now I want to quit" -- but for some reason I didn't. And Peter Sagal tweeted me "It gets better, I promise." And it did. In a few weeks three miles is something I could do while clipping my nails. Then five miles got easy. Then six. And while I was running the world went away and my brain started to focus on things, it ordered my life while my body was taking care of putting one foot in front of the other. Running still hurt at the edges, the first mile isn't your favorite, and every time you're pushing new distance it kind of sucks, but in the middle ... in the middle it's like a drug. And the places it takes you.... I've lived in Philadelphia for years and years but there's so much of it I've never seen. I joined a running club that just heads in directions -- we run west, we run north, we run south. I've seen all the streets within 20 blocks of my house, and I've found nature. I've found the woods and the streams that I didn't think we had. And, when you're running, it can be like you're flying -- like in those dreams where you can just point in a direction and go, and you're there, at great speed, seemingly without effort.
And Then You Get Better
So, did I start running because I hated my body? I started running because I was unsatisfied with my body and I knew it could be better. Is that a bad thing? I don't know, but I don't have trouble walking up stairs anymore. Was it a lot of work along the way? Yes, but it wasn't insurmountable, the battles are small, and the victories build up. Everybody's fighting their own war, remember. This one is mine; your mileage may vary. Do I keep running because I like what my body's turning into? Yes. Do I keep running because athletes respect my accomplishments? It doesn't hurt.
So ... there are lots of reasons and they're complicated; And one of them is that if I ever meet up with Eddie Hawn again, he'll have to be able to run 14 miles before he gets to fight me.
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