Losing Track

Body image: it follows you through college too.
Body image: it follows you through college too. // Karen Tian

It turns out that the mnemonically pachydermic Interweb still has its trunk wrapped tightly around records of a self I have long since discarded. I know this to be so because I Googled myself — the celebration and singing of oneself retooled for the modern age, no? In all likelihood you are now going to want to Google me too, so I’ll save you the trouble and simply confess: I was a runner. A trackie, the captain of my high school team, too XC for my shirt, seven miles in the snow. The girls who sweated together, stretched together; who barfed together, belched together. This was literally no walk in the park and anyway, suffering builds character. My senior year, I wrote my experience into a Real College Essay That Worked.

Track was a big deal. As a runner, whether for better or for worse, I was not a big deal. There were three captaining positions my senior year, and a bizarre slew of defections in 2009 had left just three rising seniors, so in a way my appointment was by default. I like to think that I deserved it for all my painful diligence, but on the talent front I was only ever reliably mediocre. I still maintain that it was the most physically harrowing thing I have ever done or ever will do. And occasionally I didn’t even do it at all, incapacitated by both no sleep and my coach’s stern, paternal insistence that I please go home so my parents wouldn’t sue. In retrospect, it was a sound strategy: work so hard that people feel uncomfortable pointing out how little you’ve actually achieved. And if I never made my times, I at least reaped the physical benefits in full: toned gams, a preternatural ability to hold my breath for ages, the flexibility, finally, to touch my toes. I thought I was in love.

If I really had been in love, I had a funny way of showing it. Post-graduation, suddenly the thought of running made me want to hurl almost as much as actual running. The day I entered the purgatory between twelfth grade and college, I severed all ties to the sport and spent the summer on the couch. I had the misfortune of living near the park where my former teammates worked out, so I hid from them in the velveteen folds of our upholstery. I dreaded Olympics broadcasts. I spent many a guilty day carb-loading at the future home of the cronut. It was summertime, and the livin’ was finally easy. Through my sugarcoated haze, I realized in shame that the pain to which I had willfully, obsequiously subjected myself for the past three years was no longer something I wanted to feel. It occurred to me that running, perhaps, was something I actually hated.

That summer I didn’t quit running, because running quit me instead. When you stop or stall in your pursuit of an athletic goal, your sense of self inevitably changes after a while because you are physically not the same person capable of doing the same things. Worst of all is that you feel and look different, but the only person who can see what’s changed is you. One day you wake up and find your abs, though never prominent, are officially a thing of the past. What once was firm, now is fat — not that you were ever fat, but you were definitely once fit. The squishiness you disdained in your peers has introduced itself to your thighs with great aplomb. How is it that now you do one hundred crunches, but take breaks in between? No sense in talking about it, since you alone understand what it’s like to watch your times climb into what are the rafters for you, what is the ground floor for the untrained. You forget how you used to be good. You are trying to be done with your sport, but your body refuses to let you forget that you were once an athlete. You are softening. When Lucille Roberts commercials come on, the grating announcer is now talking to you when they mention $ummer $aving$! The media starts throwing you a housewarming party for your move-in to the American body, and all you want to do is sit and eat the consolation cake they have baked in your dubious honor.

During the fall break of my first college semester, I visited my borough championship cross-country meet, where the sight of my uniformed team made me irrepressibly sad. Track had become more meaningful to them than it had ever been to me; they actually did love running, whereas I was just an ambitious masochist. Watching them tear across the finish line, though, I recalled some droplet of what it had been like to be drenched in the glory of personal victory, whether first place or last.

But I did not want to run, nor did I think I had to any longer. I had run to be impressive, and finally I had impressed. Now, being neither coached nor captained, nor captain of anyone but myself, meant I was free. I could do what I wanted, and what I really wanted was to get my high school body back.

I tried Pilates. A woman by the name of Cassey Ho runs a YouTube series called Blogilates, and what she lacks in intelligible conversation she makes up for in workout difficulty. I watched her bend her legs over her head, extend her hands in airplane position like a conductor cueing an orchestra. I fumed at the loss of my ability to touch my toes. Soon enough it became clear that Pilates was not a safe alternative to running, but an aching reminder of how unfit I’d become. Through it all, she never ceased to exclaim that I really could do whatever move she was doing, even as I lay there exhausted, incapable and shamefully still, or that there were only fifteen more repetitions to go — or did she say fifty? — or that all my hard work would pay off if I just followed her workout calendar to the last, sweaty T. On especially lonesome days I positioned my laptop on a chair beside my bed, curled up under my covers, and just watched her contort in self-loathing awe.

Yoga was next. Unaware that yoga is something you work at, not a skill with which you are born, I became immediately frustrated when I realized I lacked the patience and skill to put my feet behind my ears.

These experiments, alas, were short-lived, all too reminiscent of the mindless pain I had experienced in my former sport. Whatever had once motivated me had completely dissipated, and I was beginning to feel unconscionably lazy. To boot, it seemed like all my classes were confirming that I had also become a blockhead overnight. In public I felt I had vanished before I had even materialized, but in my dorm room mirror I saw every stretch of my skin in ugly, unflattering clarity.

Humans are really nothing like butterflies, no matter what the Hallmark poets say, because chrysalises shed their skin and humans have to live with what they’ve got. I didn’t want to be an athlete anymore. But with an athlete’s body, maybe I’d fool myself, which is what I craved — proof that I hadn’t changed (for the worse, I was sure) as much as I’d thought. Becoming a person you like is difficult enough the first time around, and now I was confronting the possibility of having to do it all over again.

It’s been a process, but explainable thusly: I am trying to figure what I like. Speaking of which, late this August, on a friend’s bequest, I missed the finale of Chopped All-Stars for a run, but a slow one, more of a jog. For once I hadn’t wanted to keel over when I finished. My body had done just what I’d asked of it, and for the meantime that was enough.

Running and I, we’re going to take a break. I need my soul for other things, and this lapse in my athletic career has as of late been nothing short of thrilling.

Last weekend I was crossing the street in the drizzle when I came across some people warming up for a road race. I beamed at them, genuinely happy to see their devotion to running persist despite the inclement weather. And then I walked on, rejoicing that I was not, and genuinely had no desire to be, among them.

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