Mending Fences

In my mind, ten years ago when running was to become a regular part of my life, running was what really fit people did for fun (HA!) and because they could, and we lesser people (this included me) had to sit on the sidelines and watch. Not the greatest description of running but it was where my brain lived for a bit. I’m not entirely sure why these thoughts are tumbling through my head today and making it terribly difficult to think of anything else, but hey, I’m going with it. And while I’m at this, I seem to be thinking about a time when running wasn’t really the healthiest part of my life. How I started running and why I started running doesn’t seem to be a new topic to share. But. Here I am. Thinking about the runner who framed much of the first few years of my run training. Who was that person? A multiple Boston finisher and a damned fine runner. He was a coworker at a small town college here in Newfoundland. I worked with this guy for a year and gleaned many a running tip from him, some of which I still profess to my running groups. What a year that was. A fateful year, as it were, because that was the year I was both at my most insecure and at the cusp of falling in love with running.

See, I was getting married in a few months and I wanted to look good in my dress. Ah, the dress. Doesn’t that dress make use do some silly things? Well, I was more worried about the pictures of me in my dress, but that’s besides the point. Somehow I got it in my mind that running was the best way to lose weight. I wanted that sleek body runners in magazines had. I had started ‘running’ off and on throughout the previous year. I had some small successes (aka. I actually ran). But, it was the Boston finisher (who was all compact and sinewy) who had a rigorous training schedule that helped me see running as something different. You could train on a schedule to get predictable results. Whoa. Hold on. I could predict what the outcome would be if I did xyz?! He had a lean body, strong legs and bright eyes. I wanted that. That would look good in wedding photos, well, the female version. And, even though I am a curvy lady, I was happy to believe that running would lengthen my body in ways nature never intended. I started a training schedule and I set my sights on sleek and tight and looking good in my dress. Off I went with a training schedule that looked like it fit what I was looking for. (Side note, I had no good reason for picking the training plan I picked and am super lucky I didn’t really hurt myself; consult experienced people before picking up running, folks!). I followed the training plan like it was gospel and I adopted a strength training schedule too. Know what? I lost weight. I was proud of myself. I looked great in my dress and I thought, dangerously, I can do better. Why dangerous, you ask? What I didn’t realize was that I would spend the next few years caught in a guilt-love relationship with exercise where I replaced binge eating with binge exercising. I read recently that extremes are easy, balance is hard. I’d like to punch that person in the face. Extremes are not easy. Extremes are scary.

But, here I am. 10 years later and still a runner. I have different reasons for running now. Close friends still worry that I will slip into old habits (I love you girlie, but I think I’m ok xx). I know things about running that I didn’t know before. Running is hard. I know I’m not supposed to say that. I’m supposed to say that it is joyous and freeing and empowering and some other hipster fitness (fitspo) speak. But, know what? It is hard. I’ve been running for 10 years and it is just plain hard work. Waking up at 6:30 on a Sunday to run with a group of people is hard. Getting in the kms on a Tuesday evening and then being silly tired at your favourite blues night downtown–hard. Dealing with sneaky injuries and setbacks, you guessed it, hard. The hardest of all might be the point where you realize running will not change the structure of your body and give you what you think you want. At least that realization came for me. I am still curvy: muscular legs, some junk in the trunk, and a smaller waist. ‘Sleek’ is not a word to describe me. Letting go of that idea was maybe the hardest of all because I had to accept and love the body that I am in rather than wish to live in someone else’s body. And, yes. I thought that for a long time. I would piece together the bodies of other women, choosing a set of legs from that women, flat tummy from another, and on and on until I made a frankenstein body to plop my head on top of (of course, that body was a happy, confident body). For those of us that know the pain of disordered eating and body image, I think struggling with insecurity and body shaming is always present…just tucked away in a corner of your mind. For most of the time, they stay dormant. Stress, fear, feeling out of control, these emotions bring back the need to take control in any way possible. I know my warning signs.

What may have prompted this particular ramble is that I have heard people in my running groups who have similar notions in their mind on what running can give them. Yes. Running will take care of extra pounds. Run enough and you will lose weight; it’s fairly simple. But no amount of running will change a body into something it isn’t. Even more concerning is when I see and hear behaviour in my running groups that is along the vein of what I went through in my early days of healing my eating disorder (side note: I have coached about 10 groups over the past 3 years and I am not necessarily speaking about a current group). I want to reach out. I want to say that I know what it feels like. I feel a certain sadness for the me that wanted to be anyone else and seeing that in someone else’s eyes is horrible. I want to tell them that it gets better. That somehow, even though running started out as another manifestation of control issues born of an eating disorder for me, it became a method of healing. I want to tell them that there’s an honesty in running; a forced acceptance of what your body can and cannot do. That if you stick with it, the run will become a place of solace instead of a place to feed anxiety. I want to say that the physical results may never come but that you what you will gain for your spirit is worth more. I want to say that each step might have started out with desperation to become someone else, yet my mind and body began to really jive and for the first time in my life, I *lived* in my body and maybe someday you will live in yours too.

Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’ has a line in it that has always stuck in my mind “good fences make good neighbours”. I’ve struggled to make my body and my mind good neighbours most of my life, and over the years and certainly since returning to regularly scheduled training I’ve spent some time mending fences. I have put my body image and control issues in a place where they belong. I’m no longer running to chase the sleek body in the magazines, rather, I run to reduce stress, to feel the power in my legs push me forward, to share a casual conversation with a running buddy. I have built a fence around my insecurities, not to forget them or lock them away, but to acknowledge that they have a place in my life as part of a bigger narrative. My story does not end that way. I can see them over the fence and only by choice, I can slowly walk through the experiences that caused them when I feel secure and strong and able to deal with the crap, but they do not spill out into every aspect of my life anymore. I’ve got a good fence, you see.

So, while I run with my group, I share my experiences openly. I talk body issues without shame and without judgement and with an attempt at humour that may border on self-deprecating but is at the heart of it good natured. I tell stories about my first training plans and how I was inspired by a Boston finisher. I share pieces of my narrative with those people I think might need to know they are not in it alone. I make my shared running time a space to be honest about what we run for and why we push ourselves. I listen. I encourage. And, ultimately, I help myself and others continue to mend fences to make good neighbours of mind and body.

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