What Running A Half-Marathon Taught Me About Body Image


Is it just me, or is everybody you know running? Whenever I scroll through Instagram, it seems like yet another person is posting a map of their latest completed route courtesy of MapMyRun or Nike+, or a photo of themselves standing at the finish line of a race, grinning broadly, holding up a medal, creepily happy for someone who just exerted a couple brunch’s worth of energy pounding the pavement. Some of these friends have always been athletic, and I get it. They were the ones who played on every sports team and who always got picked first in gym class. Of course they’re still hitting up the race circuit in their twenties. But others have only recently gotten into the gig, transforming themselves from binge-watching couch potatoes to competitive athletes in a matter of months. And if they could become runners, I thought, so could I.

I have always been more of a scholar than an athlete. Growing up, my one goal each year for the President’s Challenge Physical Fitness Test’s mile run in gym class was to not finish last. Not finish in under 10 minutes. Not finish somewhere in the ambiguous middle of the pack. Just don’t be last. I didn’t always succeed. Running for me was physical torture. I lumbered around the track with sweat leaking out of every orifice. My clothes stuck to my body in the most unflattering places. Often, I had to stop running to catch my breath, and the trimmer kids would lap me and laugh. That kind of thing is emotionally damaging to an eight-year-old, and it’s not something you easily forget, even as you’re about to turn 26.

But you know what? Quarter life crises can inspire you to do more than freak out about the uncertain state of your life. And in an age when people take selfies with bison, social media can also inspire you to do even crazier, stupider, more outlandish things—like sign up and train for a half-marathon.

Earlier this year, I started running with real, solid goals. Instead of following my whims (you know, jogging a short distance in slow-mo and generally not pushing myself too hard), I began following an actual training plan. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I did a medium-long run at my desired race pace. On Wednesdays, I’d cross train on an elliptical and lift weights. On Saturdays, I’d go for a long, leisurely run and tack on another mile every week. And on Sunday, I’d do an easy run for a set amount of time rather than miles to loosen up the muscles and facilitate their recovery.

This was a beginner’s training schedule, and it was hard. It was also painful. A lot of people rhapsodize about running, but unless it comes naturally to you, or you get used to it quickly, running long distances can feel a lot like self-inflicted punishment. For the first few weeks, it took all of my concentration and willpower to keep running beyond half an hour. My legs cramped and chafed. My insides churned. Blisters blossomed on my feet. Everything hurt. So many times, whether from soreness, or fatigue, or boredom, I wanted to stop, but somehow I summoned the resolve to keep going. A few things to note if you do want to get into running (because let’s be real, running is for everyone): sweat-wicking gear, a good pair of running shoes, and Body Glide are your friends. Pro runners may disagree about listening to music while running, but I find it helpful in maintaining motivation because training is both mentally and physically draining.

Soon enough, after a few weeks, the running became, not easy, but less outright excruciating. The more I ran, the more I looked forward to running—to a certain point. Around seven or eight miles, my body settled into a familiar rhythm, and I was pretty pleased with myself. After that, I’ll be straight with you, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. But the practice of setting time aside specifically for running and for the uninterrupted block of thinking time accompanying it was almost like a weekly treat for myself. Sometimes I counted steps. Other times, I philosophized on life. Always, running sent my mind into an almost meditative state, a likely precursor to runner’s high. I didn’t love running, but I liked it enough.

With all the strenuous exercise, I began to view my body as a machine. What I put into it directly correlated with my performance. When I ate junk, I felt like crap and I ran sluggishly. But when I nourished it with lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, I ran like a well-oiled engine. It sounds like some “body as a temple” mumbo jumbo, but when I came back from my runs, muscles aching and exhausted, I started feeling thankful for the way I was built—big bones, large calves, broad shoulders and all. The body I was given was the body that could put up with all the stress I threw at it and that could carry me 13.1 miles to cross a finish line on a muggy May day.

Did I take a selfie with my finisher medal? Of course, but the expression on my face was not ecstatic joy, but grim determination. It was a face that knew hardship and overcame it, but not without struggle, so I don’t know how many other potential runners I actually inspired. I was proud, but also extremely grateful it was all over. After I finished the race (barely—I almost quit midway through a couple times), I chugged three bottles of water, dumped the contents of another on my head, and tried to cram a bagel and a banana into my mouth, but my jaw was too exhausted to chew. So I went home, drank an Oreo milkshake, and didn’t move for the rest of the day. My body, this beautiful, strong machine, had earned the rest.

Running, alone, did not change my life. Training made me better, but still not necessarily good at running. The experience didn’t result in sudden weight loss or a complete conversion into an exercise evangelist. It didn’t negate all my bodily insecurities and transform me into a svelte, ultra-confident athlete, but it did show me just how strong I could be when I tested my body’s limits. Running a half-marathon showed me that with the audacity to try and the will to succeed, you can accomplish great things—maybe not perfectly—but great things nonetheless. And maybe in life that’s all you need.