I sat on the couch for years. Decades. Rotating shitty couches from sidewalks and thrift stores and Craig’s List. Then somewhere in my mid-thirties I looked around my world and decided that if I wanted to enjoy the great life I was lucky enough to have built, I’d have to start showing up to care for the body that allowed me to experience my path. I’d have to get off the ding dang couch and move.
I started running. This is a small miracle for many reasons. I wasn’t a former runner returning to a bliss of youthful endorphins armed with some kind of positive body memory. I didn’t have more than a smattering of friends who ran, nor did I have any evidence to support the idea that I might be actually be good at this activity that, for all its popularity, actually looked monotonous and punishing to me. I had finally made a practice of hauling my carcass out of the sack before sunrise to hit the elliptical at the super gay gym when a friend called me to ask if I’d move my bod off the machines and into the streets so I could do a Pride Run with her. Bernadine is a force of nature I never felt inclined to say no to, so that’s how it all started in 2009.
Since then my running has stuck with me. And my hunch turned out to be correct: I’m actually terrible at running. And I’ve done a lot of it. I’ve run on treadmills, beaches and avenues. I’ve run in Palm Springs, Portland, New York City, San Francisco, and Chattanooga, TN. I jogged through Rome, Boston, and outside my house on the quiet country roads of Leyden, MA. I ran through a civil war memorial park in Chickamauga GA, in the heavy hot morning air of Akumal, Mexico and down the hill to Greenfield, MA. I’ve done trots in Sudbury, Albany, Guilford, Pacifica, Gulf Shores, New Orleans, in the magical desert of Joshua Tree. And after six years, I can tell you I still really suck at it. I never get faster. My stride doesn’t really improve. I have not become graceful or efficient. Truth be told, it’s an inexplicable magical thing where somehow, I have not become competitive or decided to give a fuck. Doing something I’m shitty at has been one of the best things I’ve ever done at all.
Abdicating a sense of “improvement” has let me arrive for all the things I get from this practice that have nothing to do with the yardstick of accomplishment. I do not run to get better at it. I mean, I know I could get better at it. I could get faster for sure. But I don’t want to. I just don’t give a shit. I like the pace the world goes by at an 11- 12 minute mile. I like to look around me, listen to birdsong and watch the clouds skate out toward a horizon line. I often count my footfalls in meditation or watch my thoughts dip and roll along the pavement. I nod to fellow runners, smile, wave, and soak in the camaraderie of people I will never see again, linked by a common undertaking and citizenship of our bodies, of an endeavor. I like to wring out my bandana after a run, the salt and elemental water of effort enough of a medal for me.
My city running happens with no phone. The music of the town and my solitude among the humanity is the medicine. Plus, in a life of being constantly hooked up and plugged in, no one can actually find me without the phone. There is no email, no texts arrive, there’s no step counting machine to tell me I accomplished something, either enough or not enough, and no pace setter to inform me of my speed. It is just me, in this body, with a task at hand. I sometimes repeat Confucius on hills over and over,
It does not matter how slowly you go,
Only that you do not stop.
Knowing that it is the texture of the experience itself that is the mettle of this thing for me, this rejection of aspiring to do anything at all beyond the miles or the time.
This utter lack of end game is also the exact mechanism I need to notice the other gifts of my toil. I sleep better. My skin looks a billion times better. It makes me remember to drink more water. My moods are more stable and my self-esteem is higher. EVEN WHILE BEING A CRAPPY RUNNER! Goddess knows I love the irony that being a disaster in this venue raises my self-esteem. It changes the way I see my surroundings, infusing the world with more color, sound, symphony.
And running has given me the gift to appreciate the nature of ambition I have in other venues. It has helped me to make meaning for my world in a study of contrast. If I do this thing so often that I don’t need to get better at, what is that feeling of striving that rises up in me about writing or about love or about the presence of coaching? These things I do want to get better at forever? How is my undertaking of being a new watercolor painter so different, so much richer, than how I feel about the casual hobby of making ceramics? I notice the reaction in my body about all kinds of feelings because running has given me so much time to notice my body at all.
And isn’t that the biggest buried treasure of all? This pirated victory of having a new relationship to a body I have been at odds with for my entire cognizant life. At first I’d be running and the feeling of my sides jiggling and my thighs rubbing and my curves squished into the sausage outfit of the jog would bring me home in despair. Not just because of the judgment I placed on myself and how I had all this dumb patriarchal and misogynist psychic violence underpinning the most private and demanding relationship of all, but because of what that meant. How I would never be able to get out from under the pressure of a system that was so much bigger than us, me and my roly-poly vessel.
But I did and I do. It isn’t always and it requires consistency, but the more I move, the more it all falls away. The gratitude I have for this place comes right out of my pores some days with the sweat. Or just drinking strong black tea on a hammock on a Tuesday. Or watching my breath freeze at the gas pump because here I am, standing, driving a car, wearing a fabulous scarf and creating ice vapor clouds from my lungs, long since relieved of nicotine duties. Running makes me like it here more and more all the time.
And being a shitty runner relieves me of so many fears about failure. Or not really relieves me of them exactly, but I see that my ideas about failure are deeply flawed. Failure is so commonplace, such a guaranteed outcome in the course of life, that agreeing to be bad at something and finding it has so many fundamental positives associated with it allows me to open up my curiosity about living in bolder and more expansive ways. It allows me to be a beginner again as an adult, overturning the common delusion that I know what is going to happen. It returns me to a peak experience of just wondering about things, of being an explorer and get dirty on the mudpit of daily life. In turn, this particular perk has built up my resistance to shame exponentially. I EXPERIENCE LESS SHAME. I never would have imagined this possible.
So give me a crappy run any day. Give me the awkwardness and the struggle. Give me the pain and the mental doubt and the terrible outfits. And with it I’ll take the keeping myself company. I’ll take the companionship of asphalt and rain. I’ll take the solitude and the curiosity and I’ll take the sunrise.
I will happily give anyone else the ribbon at the finish line to just finish at all.
***This post originally appeared on Amber Karnes’s wonderful site, Body Positive Yoga