The environments that neglect us
On choosing myself over competition
In retrospect, the mental preparations I had done where not quite enough.
Three miles and a sleep before I fully processed that conclusion, though, I found myself quickly growing farther and farther behind a group of glowing figures, despite running faster than I usually do.
The first sign of trouble had been the gender presentation of the group. All men, from what I could see as I walked from my car down the dark street to the meeting point. I’m no Title IX trailblazer; I’m just your average human looking for some respite from the tyranny of an anxious brain. A lifetime of encountering male-dominated spaces gave me the intuition that this may not be the most hospitable setting for my first group run.
But I had decided to do it and I had arranged the childcare and I had driven here, so dammit, I was going to do it. I walked up smiling, and accidentally tricked the group into very nearly greeting me, before they quickly shifted into ignoring me.
A few minutes later, as the group started running, one of the regulars hung back with the only other first timer and me. He introduced himself by name and as “the mean one,” or something like that. I told him that he was the only person to introduce himself to us so far, so he couldn’t be too mean.
He shrugged off my comment and confirmed that we were new and that we were doing the short route (3 miles instead of 9), and that we knew where it went. He even summarized the route to make sure it was clear. And then he said, “Ok, I’m not gonna worry about you,” and took off with the rest of the group.
The other beginner enthusiastically tried to keep up with what I would learn was the group’s nine minute mile pace, while I halfheartedly did, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. I could tell that we were going much faster than would be sustainable for me, but I was also pretty sure that my fellow beginner wouldn't keep up either. Eventually, when I accidentally kicked off my reflective anklet, I took it as an excuse to break from the group, and started up again at an ambitious but more comfortable pace for myself. I focused on my form, and told myself that I was enough, and hoped to stay in sight of the group for just a bit longer.
Only half a block later, my fellow beginner turned around to spot me, and allowed the group to disappear ahead of us as I ran up.
We did the rest of our three mile route companionably after that, and I ran faster and longer than I had for all but one of my runs since I birthed my 20 month old child.
But the next morning, I felt heartbroken by the world. I woke up to a map by NPR showing that of all the US states and territories, 30 were considered to have COVID in "unchecked community spread." The researchers who came up with the divisions of the map say that these states should issue stay at home orders, and I certainly hadn’t heard of any. When a running group can't even welcome new members, how are we supposed to heal this world?
As I laid my phone on my chest and gazed up at the bedroom’s ceiling fan in despair, I recalled an image from a dream I'd had the night before.
In the dream, I had lost control of our car while driving on the highway. I knew it wasn’t the first time I'd lost control of it, and that I’d only barely recovered on the previous drives. As I careened across the pavement, an alert glowed on the hatchback’s console, and a soothing woman’s voice warned me that if I didn’t get regain control immediately… and then I could no longer understand the words she said, but only knew that I should have been able to. I viscerally felt that no one was going to help me, and that I would soon be pitched from the car.
When it finally happened, I tried to relax into the unavoidable impact with the ground. Like a hero in an anime show, my head tilted back, the wind rustled my hair, and my limbs relaxed alongside my body. I hoped that my posture would soften the landing enough for me to survive.
Before I went to bed and dreamed that dream, I read a tweet from a social media influencer-influencer (a person who teaches people to grow their social media accounts). He had posted a screenshot of his tweet on Instagram, and therefore deployed one of the clever reuse-your-content hacks that he recommends. It read:
It’s not the algorithm
It’s not your boss
It’s not your ‘crazy work life schedule’ that’s holding you back.
It’s you. Always has been.
And of course, he’s right. But he’s also terribly, incredibly wrong.
Yes, perhaps I can train more before I rejoin that running group, working my pace up to theirs so I can enjoy the camaraderie of speed. But they also have the choice to welcome beginners like me into the sport, to perhaps rotate out who will hang back with the new folks to encourage them to continue.
And yet, I also know that that wasn't the goal of their group run. I sought camaraderie; they prioritized speed.
Thankfully, although it took time for me to remember and believe it, my running isn't about them. It's about me. It's about me running the way I want to run. I don't need to relax into the impact of those runners' indifference. Healing the world includes saying no to environments that neglect us.
I want to run with people who treasure my presence and my rhythm. I haven't found them yet, and perhaps someday I will. For now, though, I'll appreciate the camaraderie I have elsewhere in my life, and I'll keep fitting in the runs I can when I do. I'll be happy with my own body, joyfully moving through the world that definitely has the choice to welcome me into it.
Mentioned in this issue: Last week’s map of U.S. states and territories with their COVID spread rated, by NPR (here’s this week’s and the full article, which gets updated regularly); and the screenshot of the tweet on Instagram by the influencer-influencer.