I ran a marathon last Sunday: my second-ever in life, my first in over seven years, and my first race longer than a 5k since giving birth 3.5 years ago. I only signed up a few weeks ago, but I’ve been running a steady 3-4 times per week since January, thinking in the back of my mind all along that I was in training for “something.”
These last eleven month have been a harsh reminder that long distance running is an exercise in wrecking your body to make it stronger. Because I am a runner, I will never sport a pair of strappy sandals to a dressy event. My soles are completely calloused over. On any given day, I have a few blisters in various states of healing on the backs of my heels or the sides of my toes. Some of my toenails have fallen off and grown in so many times that they are thick and leathery and impossible to disguise with a coat of glossy Essie nail polish. On runs over eight miles, my sports bra chafes against my chest, leaving raw marks that scab over and last for at least a week. When I run outside in the afternoon, sweat drips from the tip of my ponytail onto my skin, inviting a rash of angry red pimples across my shoulders. In July, I crashed into the asphalt after stepping sideways into a pothole and it looked like I took a cheese grater to my knees, forcing me to wear long pants to work for two weeks in the middle of summer. I wrestled with a foam roller off and on all year, trying to tame my IT band into submission.
I ran along the lake in the pre-dawn, I ran through the city after dark, I ran north to Winnetka past mansions that will never not blow my mind, I ran south to Uptown past the parks and beaches that remind me of being newlywed, and then a new mom in Chicago, I ran through neighborhoods where I would not feel comfortable slowing to a walk, I ran in the pounding rain, I ran in the snow, I ran off hangovers and anxiety and period cramps and rage, I ran until my lungs burned and I fell into the dirt sobbing when Brock Turner was sentenced three months in prison, I ran to the grocery store, I ran awkwardly through what looked and sounded like a bumping block party, I ran 18 miles on a treadmill at the gym, I ran, and I ran, and I ran.
Last weekend, on a calm, warm day in between the Cubs win and the Democratic loss, I put my training to the test with the marathon put on by the Milwaukee Running Festival that I’d signed up for just four weeks earlier. I’d been wanting to run another one since I crossed the finish line at the Chicago Marathon back in 2009, and even made it halfway through training for one back in 2012, but things kept coming up (pregnancy, 60 hour work weeks, a two week trial in Delaware, parenting, life) that stopped me from committing until last month, when I realized that I had the weekend of November 6th free and that I’d put in enough miles that I could probably survive 26.2.
I drove up to Milwaukee from Chicago on Saturday, swung by the race expo to pick up my packet and some 30% off workout gear, hit up our favorite pizza joint for some carbs, and hit the hay early in a hotel that was even dirtier and scarier than I expected it to be based on the discounted rate. In the morning, I woke up early and ran.
The first half was exhilarating. I went out fast and hard and was thrilled to be speeding down the middle of the road through a beautiful Rust Belt city on a Sunday so gorgeous you’d never guess it was November. I was moderately surprised by a series of hills, as Chicago is pancake-flat, but delighted that they sloped down as often as they climbed up. I hadn’t been certain that I would be able to finish the race without injury, but now it looked like I was going to knock an hour off my first marathon PR!
I couldn’t keep up that pace forever, though, and the second half became exhilarating in its brutality. The day turned hot, my legs burned, and my feet turned to lead. Somewhere between miles 18 and 20 everybody around me started walking and the goal shifted from keep running at a 9:30 pace to keep running period. The hills doubled in length and grade. The course took a turn through Milwaukee’s more industrial neighborhoods and I pounded pavement past brewing complexes and broken glass. I repeatedly jammed my rubber earbud into my ear canal because it kept slipping out. I dutifully choked down energy goo and shot blocks every 20 minutes, as well as a fibrous chia bar around mile 23 that I immediately regretted on account of how quickly it went through me. I managed to pick it up in the last two miles, which ran along Lake Michigan, and I crossed the finish line one minute under my 4:10 goal.
Every part of my body was sore and shaky and sick and soaked through with sweat and I was ecstatic that I’d not only accomplished something I’ve been wanting to do for years but that I’d left every ounce of energy on the road behind me. My husband and daughter were waiting for me the finish line, and I lurched over to them, grinning and gasping for air. After a desperate pit stop at the port-a-potty, I laid in the grass and split a chocolate milk and a giant cookie with my three-year-old. We stayed there until my legs started to seize up, and then we got up and wandered around, slow, woozy, stomach roiling, happy as I’ve been in recent memory.
When I lost the will to continue propelling myself forward, we headed back to the car. I’d packed fresh, soft clothes to change into for the drive back to Chicago, and could not wait to get them on. I dug the extra-large concert tee and american apparel sweatshirt and clean mesh shorts out of the duffel in the trunk and ripped my disgusting race shirt off my aching body. There were a fair number of people milling about between their cars and the race course, other runners, beat up, with medals hanging around their necks, and their families, helping them along. Amid the noise, people shouting, music from the post-race party pounding in the background, I heard a voice above the rest:
Check it out! Over there! Taking off her shirt!
Before I’d even registered that it could be directed at me, half obscured by cars behind and in front of me, in my sports bra and shorts, I had the clean shirt on, and I heard the voice again:
I feel cheated!
I turned and saw that the voice belonged to a middle-aged man, and I considered throwing him the finger, until I saw he was accompanied by his two young daughters, so instead I just turned away. I’d planned on changing completely behind the car, because who cares, but decided to finish up in the front seat instead.
To recap: I trained for eleven months and accomplished a physical feat of Lifetime Achievement-level proportions, one that makes men bleed from the nipples and women shit themselves, and this idiot thinks my body is something to look at. He tried to take my body–in that moment, an apotheosis of strength and stubborn persistence–and turn it the butt of a truly lazy joke premised on the assumption that women are sexual objects.
Of course, as a woman, I experience things like this, and much worse, all the time, but the unusual circumstances of this encounter threw the disconnect between our ideas of what a woman’s body is good for into relief and revealed societal obsession with female form over human function for what it is–completely and utterly absurd.
Growing up Mormon, I was taught that my body was a temple. Temples are sacred, inviolate, literal houses of God. They are also magnificent to behold. In the early days of the church, pioneer women donated their best china, which was dusted into fine powder and mixed into concrete so that the walls of the temple might shimmer like the walls of heaven itself. The first time I went into an LDS temple, I was 14 years old, on a youth trip to Washington DC. I spent the entire worship session trying to catch the eye of a cute boy from Chillicothe, Ohio. There was a dance at the church later that night and I dusted glitter powder from Bath and Body Works on my face, arms, and bony adolescent chest. The temple in DC is a many-spired architectural marvel meant to draw the eye and so did I.
An LDS temple is far more than just a pretty (or ostentatious, depending on your take) building, though. It is an edifice in every sense of the word. A building, yes, but also the pinnacle of achievement in Mormon theology, the solid center around which everything else grows. Permission to enter the temple, granted by a bishop following a formal interview, proves you are worthy. Getting married in the temple qualifies you for salvation. Going back to the temple, to participate in rites and ordinances on behalf of your ancestors, to receive direction, to commune with God, means you belong. The temple is a symbol, a stand-in for everything Mormons believe, and my body was too. As a teenager, keeping it covered, refusing permission to enter or even touch, meant I was worthy. Attracting attention from men meant that I had value. Later, giving birth and nursing a child meant that I was fulfilling my most elemental role, the one that would get me into heaven. Looking, acting, and talking the part of the believing Mormon wife and mom–covering my shoulders with sleeves even though I’d never qualified to wear the sacred LDS undergarment, turning down a cup of coffee even though I was secretly locked in an exhausting battle with booze, offered a chance at being saved and the illusion of belonging.
The only trouble with being a symbol is that I hated it. Or rather, when my body was a symbol, I hated my body. I poisoned it with drugs and alcohol. I starved it and stuffed my finger down my throat, not often, but enough to do damage. Men pawed at it and I blamed myself. I lifted my shirt in the mirror and grabbed the fat around my stomach every day for more than a decade, only stopping when my daughter became old enough to follow me into the bathroom.
Until I’d had enough. This year, the year of running, the year of recovery from fear and lack and shame, this is the year I started fighting for my body. I forgave it for being female. I forgave it for not making babies on demand. I forgave it for going haywire upon ingesting so much as a drop of alcohol.
I forgave my body, and then I started to defend it. My body is not something to look at. It is not a symbol. It is not a temple because it is not God’s house. It is my house. I’m the one who has to live here. If I take off my shirt or even (gasp) my bra, it could be for any one of a million reasons. Maybe I am hot, or sweaty, or there is a tag worrying at the back of my neck. Maybe I just finished a longass race and want to change my clothes. Maybe I am running in the sunshine along Lake Michigan and I feel so goddamn happy to be alive and moving that I just want to feel the wind on my bare skin. Whatever it is, you better believe it has nothing to do with you or any other person, thank God (and it has nothing to do with Him either).