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Finding Legs and Body: Running the Marathon

by Meg Heery

July 16, 2012

When I was a kid, running was something boys did, usually scrambling through backyards and down alleyways in pursuit of something pointless, like a beat-up coffee can or other makeshift "home base." Such was the semi-idyllic, semi-urban life of the Western PA steel town where I grew up, like the many conservative, working-class cities dotting the Rust Belt. People didn’t run except to escape an imaginary enemy in the woods or race the hundred meters down the street from the manhole cover to the crack stretching across the pavement.

Because I was the youngest kid on the block, I always came in dead last in those games. Besides, outdoor shenanigans meant hanging around a gang of 12-year-old boys who harassed me, a six-year-old girl, as if harassing little girls were normal. Instead of running for play I ran for safety, which meant staying indoors, restless.

I ran my first mile on the school playground for the annual Presidential Physical Fitness Test. This was 1982; I was 10. Realizing I was leading the pack at the start of the final lap, I kicked down the final stretch to the cheers of boys waiting their turn.

It made visible a dim dream of running; the 1984 Olympics shook it awake. Joan Benoit cruised (above) to the gold medal in the women’s marathon, with Grete Waitz not far behind. They made history not because they had scorched the course (at 2:24:52 and 2:26:18, respectively, both had run faster) but because they ushered in the first women’s marathon in modern Olympics. Benoit’s run mesmerized me. She just kept going. And going. No sprinting-down-the-track flash; just simple, tenacious, superheroism. Still, from behind my castle walls, it didn’t click that I could run like this, too.

Finally, in 1989, I cracked through the wall. I started running – at night, because I didn’t want the neighborhood boys to see me, even though many who had harassed me were grown and long gone. I ran to feel free inside a small, well-described territory defined by ghosts I feared. But in my mind, I was thousands of miles away. I ran in the cold, by the light of street lamps I imagined were the moon. I ran for solace. I ran because you can go and go under just your own power.

Oddly, running alone in the dark felt safe. When the news broke the following spring that a woman running in Central Park (we now know her as Trisha Meili) alone in the dark had been brutally beaten and raped, I was unfazed. To my sheltered teenaged mind, the type of harassment I had experienced -- by familiar people, not strangers in a park -- was normal and therefore manageable.

So I kept running, expanding my territory. Hurdle forward eight years and 3,000 miles to San Francisco. I had developed a healthy running addiction with a 4.5-mile loop in Golden Gate Park and a 5K hill route through the Mission District, where I lived. Men there would notice me, a 20-something woman running around the Mission, which was still largely a conservative, working-class area. Here I learned that enduring leers and catcalls was not an experience unique to me or my childhood or my home turf. And if a woman wants to keep running, she figures out how to handle it. I followed an “ignore them and they’ll go away” policy or told them to fuck off, depending on my mood. I kept running.

Soon, my marathon fantasy resurfaced, and I let it slip to a teacher who had become a friend, a freakishly fit runner twice my age. He tried to trick me into believing 26.2 miles in a row was within my grasp. The logic went like this: If I can run four and half miles a day, then I could surely tack on another two miles for a 10K. A bit more work and there’s 10 miles. Of course, there’s no difference at all between that and a half marathon – and so on, scaffolding the distances until, lo and behold, he has me gliding across the marathon finish line.

Preposterous, I said, and kept running my loops, even though the Joan Benoit in my mind knew he was right.

Ten years later, I found myself in New York. Homesick for California, I ran as if I might bust through some time-space continuum. I ran to mow down New Yorkers. I ran to evict the ghosts squatting in the corners of my mind. I ran to feel my own body, to get a sense of where I was.

And then, when the opportunity arose, I did the marathon. On a sunny, unseasonably warm November morning, 40,000 athletes ran through New York’s five boroughs past two million people. As each step got harder than the one before it, I kept going. Because that’s why I run: you have to keep going.

I still run, off and on, lately on and training for another marathon. Now when I catch someone leering at me, I look him in the eye and say hello. I like to think it reminds them that what they’re objectifying – that the body they don’t yet realize could run them down – is a human being that’s powerful and free and that keeps going.

(Image: Joan Benoit qualifying for the Olympics in 1984. Photo: Sports Illustrated)

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine.

see "Nine Titles Thinking About Title IX" by Rachel Toor in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See"Water Born: Swimming Along in Competition and Life" by Gwen Deely, in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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