The very first time I ran on purpose, I was with my dad. I was eight years old, maybe even younger, and we were in Tucson. The desert felt like a dry red alien planet to someone whose entire context for what landscape and weather is was rooted firmly in the dampness and distinct seasons of New England. We were visiting my uncle, aunt and cousins for the first time. Usually, they fled Arizona for Maine in the summer. That year, we fled winter.
It was early enough in the morning that my mom and brother were still asleep. The light was pale orange as I followed my dad out the door of our hotel and jogged across the street with him into what I remember as a vast dusty expanse of shrubs and nothingness. My throat was dry. I have no idea how far or for how long we ran; I doubt it was very far. Tucson sucks for running outside (at least if you’re an easily dehydrated wilty little sun-wimp like me). But I do remember feeling a rush of something joyful at the end, with my cheeks flushed and my heart pumping strong – I was proud.
When we returned home, my dad and I ran together a few more times, sporadically. We’d tool around our neighborhood in the early morning, a quick jog before school in the September mist. We’d usually see this kid Evan who was about ten years old with glow in the dark glasses frames, and was obsessed with running. He ran all the time. I’d see him in the morning, after school, in the evening – I’d be eating ice cream or playing capture the flag or walking to one of my friends’ houses and he’d be there, with his knobby knees and his shorts and his white t-shirt and wild glasses, just breathing and flying.
I had no ambition to be like Evan; in fact I thought he was nuts for running so much. I didn’t stick with running, or any sport whatsoever, despite whatever endorphins I was getting from it.
As I aged into middle school, I became extremely unathletic. I completed my meager PE credits grudgingly. Despite doing almost no intense physical activity, I was growing increasingly aware of my body. I was also growing increasingly aware of the fact that I was different from my other girl friends.
It’s not exactly unusual during puberty to simultaneously realize that your body is insane, that you are suddenly attracted to some people – and not others. But it is a lot for a kid to handle. Middle schoolers have it rough, y’all. While I was not in the slightest bit ready for boobs and periods, and would in fact pray to the universe every day that I would never get either (and later that they would go away), I was also wondering why the hell I wasn’t wanting to date any boys like my friends.
It’s not that I couldn’t figure out that I probably liked girls more. I had that thought pretty early. It’s just that it was the 90s and I knew exactly zero queer women and had only ever heard of lesbianism in the context of Gross and Scary and Wrong and Weird. Even now, the word “lesbian” still feels cringey to me, which is one reason why I prefer the word “queer.”
Here’s what I did with my new body and my new feelings: I hid. I wore clothes that were many sizes too big for me. I still had my elementary school friends, but was very quiet around other peers and in my classes. Forget participating in sports; I was not about to participate in much at all except hanging out with people I already knew; writing stories about Buffy and Angelina Jolie in one of my approximately 3,000 journals; and eating brownies in front of the TV.
When I was 15, my family moved to a different state and I found myself attending private school for the first time. Academically, it was a huge advantage over my public school in preparing me for college. But it also sucked, a lot. I felt like even more of an outsider, especially among the girls, and found it impossible to hide in the small classes.
The second time I ran on purpose, I was in a YMCA, fulfilling a gym credit. I was with with my bony friend, a girl who modeled professionally and wasn’t actually very nice to me, but she liked me enough to choose to hang out with me and I was really into girls liking me (despite also being EXTREMELY TERRIFIED of girls liking me). She wasn’t the first person I’d encountered who worked out in order to be thin, but she was the first person I cared about who did so. I thought she was beautiful, which was a complicated feeling. I know it comes from internalizing western mainstream beauty standards, and it also comes from the mystery place of being queer and not really being able to point to a reason why. I still don’t know why I’m queer, not that it matters, and I don’t know why I find women attractive, what it is about them. Do I like their soft faces and good smells and general openness because that’s what patriarchy tells me is female? Gender is SO weird and I really don't get it.
Anyway, my bony friend wanted to race me on the treadmill. I was slow as hell, my lungs burning, and she laughed at me. That was just one of the millions of little mind fucks that managed to convince me that the best way to simultaneously make other people like me, make me like myself, and disappear off the face of the earth was to exercise a lot and eat very little.
I hate talking (or writing) about this time period because it was really fucked up. I hurt myself and my family so much that I don’t know if any of us will fully heal from it. But in the 15 years since, I’ve learned that not only am I in vast company, I’m in vast queer company. So many queers have battled eating disorders. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if we’re scared of the queer desires that live in our bodies, and/or if we have body dysphoria, it makes sense we would turn on them. Try to get them into some kind of submission, or gain some sense of control using them.
That’s how I found myself using running as a self-destructive tool. It only felt good for a little while. I was proud of running until I became ashamed of it. When I was thankfully forced to stop, I didn’t run again for six years.
The third time I ran on purpose, I was in graduate school at Copenhagen University. I had gotten into cycling in undergrad, thanks to some amazing cycle-happy friends and an equally amazing national park literally right outside the door of our dingy off-campus apartment. Cycling in college had shown me how to enjoy sport for sport, not for self-destruction. In grad school, everyone around me was running, so I decided to try it again. Over those two years, I surprised myself by getting stronger. I ran my first 5k, followed by my first 10k. Glow-in-the-dark-glasses Evan bounded across my brain, and I finally understood him better. The fall following graduation, I ran my first half marathon. When I moved to Seattle, I found a whole group of Evans and they became my family; I would run many half marathons and a full one within the first year and a half of living there.
Grad school was also the time when I tried in earnest to date men. I really wanted to be straight. I cannot tell you why because being queer is SO much more fun but as I mentioned, patriarchy worked its devil magic on me and it continues to be a slog to undo it all. I was playing some serious mind games in order to convince myself that yes, I did like this Danish man and would totally make out with him and have sex with him, sure would! Except as soon as the kissing part happened I knew – I could not do this. My body convulsed. It curled in on itself and would not allow me to continue down this path. (Bless you, body, you’ve done so much for me).
Literally the next day I listened to a podcast interview with Hannah Hart, who happened to describe exactly the complicated, relentless and exhausting process going on in my brain with the mind games and the longing to be straight. I’d never heard someone speak those words out loud before, and until I did, I wasn’t even fully aware I was engaged in those games. As soon as I heard that interview, I was unable to do anything for days except listen to it over and over. What exactly was I afraid of? Literally no one I care about would think it was a bad thing for me to be queer. I was sure of it (and I was right). Suddenly I was in a new kind of despair: why had I wasted so much time? What the fuck?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my Gay Awakening coincided with my athletic development. Sometimes I think healing happens like that: you might wish parts of your life had been different, but with time and growth you can look at the same scary things with new eyes and realize they’ve lost some of their terrifying power. I was afraid of not being straight, and I was afraid of how running would feel after the total disaster I had made of it as a teenager. I was scared of my body, or scared for it. I’m still riddled with anxiety, which is also a real medical thing, but I see so many things differently now, including my body and how I live in it.
Coming out as queer and advancing as an athlete are twin pillars of courage for me. I’ve never felt more confident, even though I still don’t know everything about my queer athletic self. Even without a clear sense of what kind of relationship I might want to be in, if any; even when I’m injured and unable to pursue the running goals I want. Those things are hard, but they don’t negate the comfort and pride I take in owning the complicated identities of “queer” and “athlete.” I’m a long way from the Arizona desert and a different human than I was at eight years old, jogging with my dad, but in many ways I’m the same.
I’m proud as hell, and I hope that if you’re reading this and can relate, you are too. Happy pride month, y’all.