by Mary Swanson Phillips
Some people are born to run. You can pick them out as childrenthey never go from point A to point B at less than top speed. They are the ones who are grounded on the sidelines at the pool because they simply cannot walk. Their teachers and parents are always cautioning them to slow down. They are slim and wild-eyed and always being referred to as “either full-on or completely off.” They live in their bodies, are comfortable with their physical selves, and love to move for expression. I was NOT one of these children.
Some people are not born runners. Like me, they moved slowly through childhood. They are the ones who asked a lot of questions, and they chewed on a lot of answers and possibilities. They alsolike mechewed on pencils and fingernails and cookies and anything else that passed their plates. They are softer and dreamy-eyed and are often referred to as “quiet,” “shy,” or “a thinker.” They live in their heads, are comfortable with their imaginations, and would rather move mountains with their minds than their muscles.
That isn’t to say that a quiet, soft, pencil-chewer-child can’t grow to become a fully-on, energetic, physically-expressive-adult. I know many runners today in their middle years, and manyif not mostwere also born in the slow lane. It’s just that somewhere along the course of their days they ran from point A to point B, and LIKED it. They felt the possibilities of their bodies: the strength, the agility, the speed, and the blood-pumping quickened-breath endorphin rush. They caught the running buzz and evolved into true movers who expressed their joy for life by increasing their own physical competence.
Oh, I TRIED to be a slow-lane-dreamer-turned-agile-runner. It’s just that, well, I got off on the wrong foot…My first running “kick” hit me in 9th grade. It was 1982, and running was the hottest new trend in fitness. I was 15, and and my family had just moved to a new town in North Carolina where I didn’t know a soul. I had becomequite suddenlyvery body conscious, perhaps because my new school was very “image oriented,” and I was determined to mold myself into a sleek and slim teen like my high-style peers. Running became a good way to pass the long, Southern afternoons when I still hadn’t made friends. It was an escape from my parent’s quarreling and drinking problems. And, delightfully, it was a means to thin thighs and a size 4 body.
I kept it up for about a year; running more for escape and bikini-figure-maintenance than for the joy of experiencing my body and its possibilities. I ran on the track team that spring, was quite successful, and began to make friends. Summer came and went. I looked great in my bikini. Tenth grade started; I got my drivers license, and a boyfriend. And as usually happens with activities that are not done from a place of love and sincere desire, I lost interest, waned, and then quit running completely.
By my senior year, my home life was a mess. Stressed by his work responsibilities and poor relationship with my mother, my father had started drinking excessively on a daily basis. Inhibitions removed by the alcohol, he would chastise me for being inactive, for being a dreamer, an artist, a thinker, and for being SOFT. Looking back, I now know he wanted to spare me the potential hardships of being an overweight teen in a cruel and insensitive world, but his methods were barbaric: getting me on the scale every day, having me write my weight on the calendar, and nagging me to “start jogging again like you did when you were so slim a few years ago.” I would jog all rightright to the pencils. And my fingernails. And the cookies.
New Years Day, 1986: I would be graduating in a few months. I was headed off to college in Chapel Hill, far from my parents and their problems. I would have a new life. A new start. And I would start that life as a RUNNER. I bought a 1986 Runner’s Diary in preparation for January 1. It was super snazzy. Thick and stocky with a spiral binding, my Runner’s Diary looked much like an ordinary day-keeper type calendar, except it had a space next to each day for logging mileage, a place for weekly totals, monthly totals, and a special graph page each week for charting speeds, warm ups, or whatever else it is runners like to keep up with. How unfortunate that I let such a simple thing become a tool of self judgment and self destruction. The Diary became a log for rating my days according to degree of failure: “Ate way too much today;” “Only ran 2 miles this week;” “Out of control;” “Gained 3 pounds”…
I managed to wiggle free of this obsessive, pathological log keeping, and continued to run throughout my college years. But brutal self-judgment was not behind me yet. Having transferred to a school in the heart of Charlotte, NC’s historic tree-lined Myers Park neighborhoodfull of winding and shaded sidewalksrunning couldn’t be more convenient. So I ran to fight off the late night pizza calories. I ran to fit into the clothes my parents bought me before leaving home. I ran to get rid of the fat dimples on my legs. I ran so the cute boy I met at a party would think I was athletic. I ran to look at the big, ivy covered houses that I passed, and to imagine myself married to that cute boy and living in one as a slim, successful wife. I ran so I wouldn’t have to get on the scale at Christmas. Every time I ran, it was because of a dissatisfaction with myself and my life: guilt over calories, fear of gaining weight, a desire to imagine myself something I was not.
A mid-summer's harvestMary in her vegetable garden.
There is no need to chronicle all of the times since graduation that I was a runner for all the wrong reasons, for these times have logged many more miles than those that have not. But time passes, wounds heal, and we learn to love ourselves as we grow, experience, and accept. It has been many years since I was an insecure college girl. I married the cute boy and had children. Got divorced and remarried. Moved far from North Carolina. I started a business based on my authentic selfcentered on love and true desire and imaginationand, perhaps not coincidentally, I have learned how to love the act of running again.
When I am out in the garden considering the placement of a new bed for medicinal herbs, or feeding the chickens, or caught up in the zen of pulling weeds from the roses, I will find myself full of an energetic need to run from point A to point B. And I like it. So I run: not to erase calories, or to fit a certain image standard, or to escape the present and daydream about the future. I run because it feels good; because with the joy of life filling me I feel the need to express my excitement physically, like a wild-eyed child turned “full-on.” In these moments, darting through the wildflowers, or running down the gravel drive that winds through our Texas pecan grove, I understand what it means to be a runner. And with this, my respect for those who call themselves runners deepens, my kinship to them grows, and judgment and fear fall as dust at my heels.
Mary Swanson Phillips is an artist and gardener from Fort Worth, Texas. She has a BA in Biology and two years of graduate study in plant population ecology as it pertains to food crop genetic diversity. Her mission is to use the land as a canvas and indocrinate others into her “cult of “gardens for real people.” You can see the work that she and husband Eddie Phillips create by visiting their blog Guard’n Planet .
This is the second of a new series of guest posts on Elizathon. Do you have a story to share about running? It can be a unique race recap, an anecdotal experience you had while running, an essay on any aspect of running, a single photo or photo documentary, or even a video. It can be humorous, silly, poignant, or matter-of-fact, but it should be interesting. If I like it, I will publish it on Elizathon. If I don’t like it, I will offer a full, constructive critique on why I don’t like it (hey, who would want to miss out on that?). In other words, it will be a purely subjective review process, but don’t let that scare you. Email your idea or your submission to me at elizathon [at] gmail [dot] com. Check out my other guest post by clicking the link below: