In school we’re taught that you’re an athlete if you can do one of two things: run fast or throw and catch a ball. Growing up I was never very good at either, and from a young age I can remember believing this must have meant that I wasn’t good at sports.
In middle school, we used to run around the park across the street from campus as a warm up before sports practice. I couldn’t run the entire perimeter of the park (which was maybe a half a mile), and would often finish last, alternating between a walk and a half-hearted jog. I wasn’t a sprinter, thrower, or a catcher. I internalized these facts as a personal truth: I wasn’t athletic.
This belief permeated throughout high school, where a special sort of value was bestowed upon the jocks. Athletes were seen by teachers and the student body alike as ‘better.’ If you were both athletic and smart, you were a ‘demi-god.’ Team sports never resonated with me. Even swimming, an activity I had once enjoyed, had been ruined once I joined the swim team, upon discovering during a “time trial” that I was the second slowest swimmer on the entire team. For the rest of the season, I lobbied the coach to exempt me from this humiliation exercise, to no avail. I had also tried and hated soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. Especially lacrosse; I loathed that pretty sport to its core. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t very competitive; and because the objective of these sports is to score the most points and win or finish the fastest and win, I saw such endeavors as futile. It was a chicken and the egg problem: I wasn’t competitive because I was bad at sports and I was bad at sports because I didn’t care about winning.
There was one sport in high school I like though – field hockey. I could have tried out for the varsity team my senior year (graciously, no seniors got cut, so I could have warmed a bench all season), but I couldn’t bring myself to: the fear of running a timed mile, required during tryouts, was too terrifying. I had no reason to believe I could run a mile, and had no interest in trying. I took this deep feeling of shame and attempted to translate it into something else: humor. I played up how bad I was at sports. In the senior yearbook, I won the superlative “least athletic.” I wore it like a badge of honor, but the truth was, I was mortified.
In college, being athletic mattered less than being thin. Thus, it no longer was as important that I could neither sprint nor throw a ball as it was important that I could regularly binge drink without gaining weight. No athletic skill is required to remain on an elliptical for two hours, only sheer dedication. I could be dedicated! Wanting to fit in, I obsessed over exercise in a way I never did in high school. Running was something I did on a treadmill, never for more than 30 minutes, and never because it was enjoyable but because it was the quickest means of burning calories. I never ran outside once during my entire four years in college.
I therefore graduated believing two things: 1) I wasn’t athletic; but 2) this was okay because I could get by as an adult if I was thin. I worshipped at the cult of toxic body image for most of my early 20s, and I didn’t start to question these beliefs until well after I discovered trail running.
Initially, my expectations with trail running were low. The year after graduating from college, a friend and I had run a half marathon on the road, an altogether terrible experience from training to the race itself. I got injured, loathed training, and purchased a pair of shorts for the actual race because they looked cute, never having run in them, only to discover shortly after the race began that they chafed.
Another four years would pass before I started trail running. I imagined I would run one trail half marathon, fully expecting not to enjoy it, but with the caveat that in trail running, I could get away with walking much more of the race. The opposite happened: I finished feeling so energized that I drove home and proceeded to mow the lawn. A few months later, I threw caution to the wind and registered for a full marathon, rationalizing I was already halfway there. And when I finished that race feeling strong too, I chalked it up as a flaw, rather than believing the possibility that I actually could be athletic. I told myself I just got lucky my first two races. I registered for a second marathon to determine if my first two achievements were one-offs. I ran the second marathon feeling even stronger than the first one.
Huh? Un-athletic people like myself weren’t supposed to be able to run marathons. After all, I was a “bad runner,” a fact that had been confirmed nearly a decade earlier because I finished last while running around a park as a kid.
Many ultras later, I ask myself: am I athletic yet? When people comment on my trail running accomplishments, I am reticent to see what I have done as indicative of my athletic prowess. Sometimes I wonder if part of my draw to ultra running stems from a need I have to prove myself. I want to stick it to that stupid middle school soccer team, that dumb timed mile, all my classmates who voted for me for least athletic.
I often think about the way our school system puts children into boxes: bad at math; not creative; un-athletic, etc. I’m sure that you too grew up believing that you were “bad” at something because of comments from teachers, peers, coaches, etc. What if we taught kids to value the experience, rather than the outcome? What if we taught kids that there is more to athletics than winning? What if we valued endurance, individual goals, or just she who has the most fun? How many would-be athletes do we lose because we tell people from a young age that they just aren’t good at sports?
I am still a solid middle-of-the-pack runner, and that’s fine. I will never be the fastest or run the farthest, but I finally understand that isn’t the point. It’s no longer about speed, records, or medals: my sense of self-worth is not derived from numbers. I can love trail running while still being comfortably mediocre. I no longer show up at races wondering if I belong there. I am still adjusting to seeing myself as an athlete, rather than the un-athletic person I led myself to believe was “me” for the better part of two decades. I have fun, and that is what makes me a good runner.
I want to hear from you! what did you grow up believing you were “bad” at, and how have you changed that narrative? Drop me a reply below.