When I run, I can’t think.
Who in the world said running was meditative? And what the hell is a “second wind?” How do people ponder their life trajectories and creative aspirations while logging miles, when the only coherent thought I can manage is: Are we there yet is it over yet can I stop yet?
From the first stride I take, every cell in my body screams to slow down. No, really — full tantrums, rioting to the beat of the 2000s pop blasting my high frequency hearing away. Pain burns up my legs and lungs. It’s threatening, and for the rest of the jog, it wages a war of attrition against my dwindling willpower and forward momentum.
I try to force myself to think by concentrating on sights and scents: a copper-rusted watering can, the faded lines of hopscotch sidewalk chalk. Fragrant, flowering trees shading a disheveled lawn. The foul pungency of ammonia permeating the entire block.
Sometimes I play games, too: If you can just make it to the blue Prius, then you can see if it’s really parked up the curb. No, you can’t stop until you pass that fire hydrant up the hill. Too steep? Okay, just keep going until the end of this song then.
But these attempts are fleeting, and the urge to stop is so compelling. And when I inevitably give in, I can hear every pity cheer I got in middle school cross-country, echoes of earnest shouts from teammates who’d long crossed the finish line. It hurts to swallow like the gasping, heaving breaths of my first, humiliating mile run, and burns like the shame of being slow and not even steady. Hands on my knees, head down, I can’t tell if I’m breathless from defeat or disappointment or just the crippling cramp under my rib cage.
This is not a story of body hatred to self-love. My relationship with the limbs I call home is not tumultuous. I am so lucky to live in my body: She is healthy, intact, and average in a way that protects me from most hate crimes and ridicule. She leaps across puddles and savors steamed rice and sneezes like an irritable cat whose tail has been trodden on.
It’s just that between the ages of five and 12, my parents, with the very best of intentions, put me through every sports team in existence. I missed swings at softball practice and kicked shins in soccer. Tennis ended with more balls in the net than over it; swimming, after a summer spent clutching lane lines and crying in the municipal pool. The pain of pushing myself terrified me. “Mind over matter,” that age-old mantra that mental strength could triumph over any physical struggle, could not seem to motivate me no matter how many coaches cheered or screamed it.
With each failure I was reassured, “Don’t worry. You’re just not athletic.”
At 12, I discovered the first sport I loved: squash, a racquet game similar to tennis but played in a room (not to be confused with the winter gourd). But even after six years of traveling to tournaments and rising in rankings, at my last national championship, my father’s pre-match hype speech remained, “Don’t worry. You weren’t made for this.”
My parents’ methods of reassurance may seem cruel, but they were usually successful, and I loved the sport all the more because I felt no pressure to achieve. But their success rested on the consolation prize that followed. “They might run faster or be stronger than you,” my parents would remind me. “But you can study for hours. Not everyone can do that.”
Mind over matter: not a rallying cry that mental strength could always prevail over physical pain, but a statement of relative importance, of delineating priorities. Not a message to pursue goals against all odds, but a lesson in sticking to your strengths.
When put that way, why bother? Sure, sports can be fun. Squash has introduced more joy and confidence to my life than I ever expected. But I’m climbing uphill in this arena, and I hold the higher ground in the classroom.
My relationship with my body is not tumultuous, but constant. She and I, we keep clearly defined boundaries. I am not athletic, and she was made for hunching over a textbook to study. She is a body to transcend while I enlighten myself reading theories and writing theses. A body to house a brain.
Nothing exists in quarantine — not time, or space, or even the freedom to stroll into CVS maskless and impulse buy sour gummy worms. Days pass in waves, awash in blue light, and I do not leave my house. My days of competitive squash and middle school cross-country feel worlds away.
Our Zoom meeting opens with the perfunctory ten minutes of catchup. We share goals for quarantine, and I tell people I’m trying to run more — now that all squash courts are closed, I’ve officially gone the longest I ever have without playing. “But it’s not really running,” I admit sheepishly. “It’s more like jogging, with lots of walking in between.”
One of the leaders laughs, a light, merciful sound to fill the virtual vacuum of muted microphones. “Me too! I feel like very few people can just run straight through without stopping. Why do we qualify our runs?”
Because I can’t think while running the way other people do, I want to say. I don’t know what a second wind feels like because I can’t just keep going when it hurts. Because my brain is strong, but not nearly strong enough to triumph over simple, physical discomfort.
This story doesn’t end with me running a marathon, trembling arms raised in victory and frigid medal between my teeth. I may never enjoy running, or even feel truly comfortable jogging with a friend.
But it only took a kind joke over a Zoom catchup to consider that I do not have to be naturally athletic to be an athlete. Why qualify my runs? Why qualify my body?
She is more than a vehicle for my brain; she leaps over dandelions and pushes uphill and sweats out struggling breaths. She deserves to do so without the pressure of expectations — not only the expectation that I should always keep up with everyone, but also the expectation that I will always be weak or slow in comparison.
So every two or three days, on sunny days when I crave endorphins, I go for a run.
I breathe pure sunlight and pollen and savor each breeze against my bare legs. When the pressure builds in my chest, I keep going if I can and stop when I can’t. There, no pressure. I do not punish myself for being weak. I tell myself walking is just as important.
When I start again, I listen to my panting breath, my pounding footfalls, my playlist of 2000s pop. I try to lose myself in the sidewalk chalk and suburbia drifting by. I do not try to think.
— Staff writer Rachel Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is one of five essays published as part of FM’s 2020 “Homecoming” feature.