The First Time I Knew
Posted on October 21st, 2011
I didn’t know I could run until I was 16. At the end of my sophomore year in 1981, we were taking the President’s Youth Physical Fitness test once again in gym class. You know, the one with all the sit-ups, the shuttle run, the bent arm hang, that no one ever passed? We were doing the 600-yard run-walk that day, so Mrs. Richmond was having us cross the Oak Hills football field back and forth three times on that dewy Spring morning — the very same field surrounded by the track that I ran seven 600s on this past Tuesday!
It was quite the day for adolescent histrionics. I jogged the whole thing quietly while kids walked, complained, swerved around, groaned, held their stomachs, and lamented their inability to ever finish. Think about it — this is equivalent to just one and a half laps around the track, well under half a mile! It was a sad day for youth fitness in this country, or at least at Oak Hills High School.
After I finished, my friend Angie ran up to me, spazzing out. “Ohmygod! You were so amazing out there! You were passing everyone! Even all the guys! We were all watching you! It was so cool!”
I had no idea this was going on. I’d noticed I passed a few guys before the end, but I hadn’t thought anything, except maybe that they didn’t seem to be very good at this.
I hadn’t thought of myself as a runner, ever. I remember the kids who could win the fifty yard dashes in second grade, fourth grade, seventh grade. I was slow to respond to the gun, and ran flatfooted behind the fast kids. I’d bang my shins on hurdles. I thought I had a far better chance of improving my soccer skills to get on the new girls team in eleventh grade, than becoming a runner.
But then that day lodged in my mind. I didn’t know what to do with it in there.
It has always seemed odd to me that I didn’t know I could run until a bit late in my potential career — fully halfway through high school. Why the disconnect? Just in the last couple of weeks I came across a possible context.
Women weren’t allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics until 1984. That was the year after I graduated from high school! There was a belief literally for millennia, up until the 1980s, that women’s bodies were uniquely vulnerable to long-distance running; one pernicious myth was that running makes our uterus fall out. Women weren’t even allowed to run the 800 in the Olympics — two measly laps around the track! — until 1960! Women were barred from Boston until 1972; the organizers declined their applications with a letter stating that women were not physiologically capable of running marathon distances, and that under the rules that governed amateur sports set out by the AAU, women were not allowed to run more than a mile and a half competitively.
So. Women could finally run the half-mile in the Olympics only five years before I was born. Amateur women couldn’t race competitively more than a mile and a half until I was seven years old. Women couldn’t race a marathon in the Olympics until I was nineteen.
No wonder all anybody ever tested me for in childhood was sprinting.
That summer, I followed a conditioning plan they’d given us for try-outs for the soccer team that fall. There must have been calisthenic-type exercises and soccer drills on the plan, but for some reason all I remember were the three-day-a-week runs at the track. We were asked to start with two laps and build up to eight laps at 2:00 a lap. This amounted to two miles total at an 8:00 pace. I found it easy and relaxing to keep that pace down to the second, as if I possessed some internal metronome. I quickly loved those summer runs at the Oak Hills track, evening sun slanting to cool dusk in the trees at the edges, everything peaceful and beautiful and right.
One evening in August, the week before school started, my runner friend Cindy and I found each other on a long hill on Werk Road that I was riding my bike down and she was running up. She excitedly convinced me to come back to school with her right then and talk to Mr. Yung, “Skinny Bob,” history teacher and cross country coach, about joining the cross country team. After a few days with no problems staying mid-pack with my League champ teammates on three- to eight-mile runs, Mr. Yung confirmed it: I was a runner. I never even tried out for soccer.