On finding labels, and maybe myself
In a past life, I ran. For all four years of high school, I was a member of the junior varsity cross country team, having joined on a mandate from my mom: I had to do a sport in high school to keep busy, be healthy and stay “socially stimulated.” Ball sports were an automatic no for someone like me, who’d been hit in the face with a basketball during gym class one too many times, and you didn’t have to try out for cross country. Plus my older cousin Jackie was already on the team, so I figured that might give me a leg up in the social scene. Cross country it was, then.
This fall, three years after my last cross country race, I found myself struggling to propel my body down Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor after I’d vowed to start running again. My destination was Washtenaw Avenue, and as I inched down the sidewalk, I finally began to see a stoplight in the distance. I picked up the pace a little because I knew the faster I got to the light, the faster I could be done. But when I neared the light, I saw that it wasn’t Washtenaw at all. I realized I hadn’t even passed the Trader Joe’s yet. I still had so much left to run before I could rest. Holy shit, I thought, trying to surreptitiously wipe my runny nose, what have I gotten myself into?
I’ve never thought of myself as an athlete. In elementary school, I danced for a few years. I did gymnastics, played rec softball and soccer. None of it stuck, though, and as the talent of my peers increased and mine plateaued, I’d drop each sport without much remorse — I preferred to explore other interests, like reading novels and writing articles for a weekly newspaper I distributed at my extended family’s Friday night dinners. I still did “athletic” things: I rode my bike around the neighborhood all the time, my dad taught me how to ride a unicycle and I learned to love hiking and canoeing during my summers at sleep-away camp. Still, I had this perception of athletes as talented, competitive people with an intense love for physical activity — and none of those childhood activities ever made me feel like an athlete in that sense.
It’s hard to believe now that I stuck with cross country for all four years of high school. Most of the memories that linger involve serious pain and total mental anguish. I couldn’t walk for two months sophomore year because I’d given myself horrible shin splints on both legs. I can also remember the refrain that would run through my head every time I ran a race: “If you finish this race, you never have to run again, ever.” Of course, I would always go back to practice the next day.
I recently came across two of my high school journals while rooting through the drawer of my bedside table. Sure enough, the first entry I saw when I opened the purple notebook from my senior year confirmed my memories.
“I dread going back to school 90% because of XC,” I wrote on Aug. 30, 2015, a few days before I began my senior year. “I don’t mind the other parts of it so much, but UGH I just hate cross country and I want to love it ... but oy, I can’t.”
When I read that, I remembered the dread I felt just driving by the high school that August. I remembered the desire to either become a “real” runner or stop having to pretend I felt like one. I shuddered under the weight of the memories as I closed the diary.
Then I opened the second journal, this one an earlier volume that I filled throughout my freshman year. On Sep. 18, 2012, I wrote: “I have cross-country every single day after school. OH MY GOD, it’s so hard! It’s the best kind of hard, though, because I feel so accomplished after I run.” And on Nov. 2: “I can’t believe the season’s over!! I’m SO glad I did it; I made so many amazing friends. I loved XC.”
I was so taken aback after reading those entries that I had to lie down on my bedroom floor. I couldn’t help but laugh. How in the world had I gone from that level of enthusiasm freshman year to the pessimism of senior year? And why were those final memories the only ones I remembered?
If nothing else, running gives you a lot of time to think, and as I trudged down the street five days after beginning to run again, the journal entries kept popping into my mind. I thought about how I’d felt both grown up and protected when the older girls on the cross country team took me on a tour of the high school even before freshman orientation. I thought about the team sleepover we’d had and how cool I’d felt just hearing two of the seniors on the team talk nonchalantly about having “naked pool parties” with their boyfriends. I thought about the sense of accomplishment I felt from making it up the notoriously awful hill at Kensington Metropark. I didn’t run fast that first season, but it didn’t matter. I was pushing myself. I was growing. I was having fun.
Thinking about cross country made me think about the concept of strength. The summer before my sophomore year, I missed most of the team’s summer practices because I was away at camp, and when I came back to practice in the early fall, I was incredibly out of shape. The brand new freshmen were outrunning me and I couldn’t complete the 3-mile run without stopping. I remember sobbing to my mom about how embarrassing it felt to still be running at the back after a full year on the team. I remember the pain that rattled through my shins during those first few practices of the year, and the shame that came from learning it wasn’t even a stress fracture, just stupid shin splints, which everyone gets. I remember sprints practice on the soccer field, watching my teammate Ioana limp through her own injury as I sat out entirely. Of course, now I understand how serious shin splints are and that running would have been unsafe for me that season. But all I knew then was that Ioana was strong enough to push through her injury, and I wasn’t. I remember thinking: I must not be a runner. I must not be an athlete.
Labeling myself in any way made me feel vulnerable as a kid. To call myself an athlete was to tell the world I thought of myself as a person with certain talents and passions. What if I called myself a runner but people saw me running in the back of the pack? What if I called myself a writer but people didn’t like my stories? I worried so much about what other people would think of my labels that I never thought to define the terms for myself. I wonder now if it would have mattered that I didn’t consider myself a runner if others had. Which is more important: what others think of me, or how I think of myself? Can I even separate those perceptions from one another?
When I applied to colleges my senior year of high school, I thought for a long time about what I should write in my application essays. Although I didn’t decide I wanted to be a writer until my sophomore year of college, there must have been some deep-seated desire in me to go down that path, because I remember hesitating to write about my love for writing in my essays. What would happen, I’d fret, if I wrote that I wanted to be a writer, but the admissions counselor didn’t think I had any writing talent? I’d be bearing my whole soul right there on the page, and the reader would have the authority to decide my fate. It was too risky. I wrote about other topics instead.
I’m no longer afraid to call myself a writer, but the confidence in that label didn’t take hold until I became the Editor in Chief of my college newspaper. Even as a staff reporter, I still felt like I only dabbled in writing, and that anyone who was a “real” writer would laugh if they knew I was calling myself one, too.
Perhaps this preoccupation with how others perceive our labels impacted my view of my cross country experience. It was acceptable, expected even, to be a less talented runner freshman year. It wasn’t as common to still be running in JV races as a senior. Everyone got injured at one point or another, but not everyone decided to sit out for three-quarters of the season because of shin splints. Maybe the contempt I expressed in my senior year diary and the unhappy memories that remain of the experience stemmed from a subconscious effort to create cognitive dissonance between myself and the sport. Maybe I was trying to signal to the outside world that I didn’t care if I was a slow runner, because I didn’t enjoy running at all. I didn’t feel like I deserved the running label, so I shunned the sport altogether. Would I have gone on to love running if I hadn’t been so afraid of labels?
I think about what would have happened if I’d shied away from writing, too. I never would have joined The Michigan Daily. I never would have become Editor in Chief. My whole identity would be different.
Though I’ve started running again, I’m still not sure if I’ll ever be able to call myself a runner — at least not with the same confidence I have in calling myself a writer. I’d like to say I’ve matured beyond the point of caring about how others viewed me, but part of me still thinks I’d feel like an imposter if I claimed the label. I have to wonder, though — does it even matter? I’m running again and feeling good about it. This time I’m not going to let a label — or lack thereof — dictate how I feel about the sport as a whole. For now, you can catch me trudging down Stadium Boulevard. I’ll have a better sense of where my landmarks are this time.
Maya Goldman is the former Editor in Chief of The Michigan Daily and can be reached at email@example.com.