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Running Dysmorphic

On competitive running, exactness, and finding permission to be myself.

Devin Kelly | Longreads | December, 2019 | 15 minutes (3,955 words)

I’ll begin this essay the way I introduce myself to a fellow runner when meeting them for the first time: By telling you that I’ve run two 4:48 miles back-to-back. That I’ve run five miles in 26 minutes, 10 miles in 55. That I’ve qualified for the Boston Marathon five times and ran my fastest marathon — 2:41 — into a headwind there in 2015. I’ll begin the essay this way because I don’t love myself, because when I see another runner seeing me I assume they see me the way I see me: all baby fat and bone stock.

I won’t introduce myself by telling you that, on days I don’t run, I have to do 200 sit-ups right before dinner if I want to allow myself to eat. That, in the times I’ve had company over or have eaten at someone’s house, I’ve done those sit-ups in other people’s bathrooms. Or that I’ve been known by roommates to, minutes before dinner, rush out the door and run for 15 minutes if I haven’t run at all that day. Or that in college, I bought a scale and a journal and weighed myself three times a day, documenting my weight to the decimal point each time. For a long time I’ve told people that this was about running, that it was about feeling the breeze, beautiful and sun-scorched, for just a little while. But really it was about eating. And permission. And wanting a different body to do all that running in.

I come from a family of runners. My uncle ran a four-minute mile relay split at the University of Missouri. My father ran three miles in 15 minutes as an AAU trackster in Western New York. My brother runs for a track club in Washington, D.C., and has plans to break 70 minutes for a half marathon. He will. Growing up, I ate the same things as my brother but never grew the extra inches. In fourth grade, my nickname was “Marshmallow,” my body Irish white and puffy at the edges. In fifth grade, that same body, some choice lost teeth, and an unfortunate haircut made my nickname “Gopher.” The next year, my brother ran the unofficial middle school record in the gym mile. I smiled through the nicknames and picked up running because I wanted to be like him.

It’s odd to have one of your coping mechanisms become the thing you abuse to seek approval. What I mean by coping mechanism is that I began running because I wanted to, and I kept running because it saved my life. In fifth grade my mother — an alcoholic, a bulimic, an addict, the most beautiful person I know — left my father and my brother and me. Those years, I ran often with a Walkman cradled in my palm so it wouldn’t skip on my downstep, listening to CDs I burned with odd, jangling, melancholic playlists ranging from Jack’s Mannequin to Joni Mitchell. I kept running because it felt good to run away from home and then come back on my own, with no one chasing me, all of it up to my own two feet, my own volition. I kept running, too, because I got less chubby and started to get fast. I kept running through middle school and high school because even after therapy sessions and basement meetings with children of alcoholics, the only time I felt in control of my own body and mind was out on the road, where there was no one to tell me to speed up or slow down other than myself.


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What they don’t tell you about competitive running, though, is that you are often reduced to the most specific of numbers. In a 100-meter dash, a difference of .1 seconds between two sprinters might as well be a mile. Watch any final kick of a mile race, and you’ll often see five or six runners separated by half a second at the finish line, spread all over the track. And consider how being one single second slower than someone else on each lap of a 5K track race means that you’ll be close to a hundred meters behind them at the finish, which might be the difference between being a professional runner and a nobody for the rest of your life. No matter how good you are compared to everyone else you’re racing, when you’re a competitive runner, you have no choice but to measure yourself by seconds ticking away on a stopwatch.

By the time I left high school, I was a decent enough runner to walk on to the track and cross country teams at Fordham University, where I reveled in comparative mediocrity for four years, never making much of a dent in the outcome of any race or meet. But I still loved what it felt like to race. To really be out there, in that liminal space between the moment a stride is taken and the moment just before it lands, the crunch of cinder under my feet and the blood hot in my cheeks. I wanted to be as good as I could possibly be, to reach my fullest potential. I did not want to be an embarrassment. But I began to feel like one. It started with pictures, when I saw the way my thighs loomed larger than the bare essential thighs of other racers. Why weren’t veins cascading down my legs like a map of rivers? I started to be afraid to take my shirt off on long runs when everyone else did. I began wrapping the towel further up on my torso, so no one would see the un-flatness of my lower belly.

For a long time I’ve told people that this was about running, that it was about feeling the breeze, beautiful and sun-scorched, for just a little while. But really it was about eating. And permission. And wanting a different body to do all that running in.

Years before, in high school, my coach had told me I could stand to lose a few pounds. Then, in college, one of my teammates said, “You’re not fat, you’re just …” before trailing off. I began to understand a few things. I looked in the mirror and saw someone society might’ve deemed as lean or athletic, but someone who was too big, too thick around the bones to be taken seriously as a competitive college runner. I understood, too, that this was an issue the women on my team, and women all around the county, faced daily. I knew female runners who were anorexic, bulimic, the subject of harassment from runners and coaches. I understood all this but also didn’t know what to do with it. I was never satisfied in a terrible way. Nights of impromptu diets, nights of less food, nights spent running secret miles around the block. Nights like this, willed against my body, willed for my body, until I looked in the mirror and saw six hard lumps protruding out of my abdomen, then immediately wished that they were more pronounced, that a creek bed ran between them. I bought a scale and began to measure myself daily, but even then I did not know what to do with this information, with all these numbers. Where was the lowest point I could reach? What was ideal? When would it stop? I didn’t know where to put it. I wanted to put it down, but I couldn’t. I still really can’t.

Those years, I learned to introduce myself among runners before anyone else did, so that they would not have to make any sort of judgement audible. “I’m the fat one,” I’d say. Or I’d grab a fist of lower belly and say, “I gotta lose this! I know it!” I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable with the unsaid. I wanted them all to know that I knew whatever I assumed they were thinking. I wanted everyone comfortable with my knowledge of my inadequacy. And that’s not to say that my teammates were even remotely mean to me. Some of them are still my best friends. I love so many of them dearly. But at a high enough level, even if you’re not very good, you learn to unthink your love for yourself. It’s the bane of being a human. If you’re smart enough to observe the world around you, to overhear one stranger’s snide comment to another, to see the person on the train deleting photos of themself from their phone, you can make the mistake of assuming another person’s judgment even if it’s not really there. The world is cruel that way. It doesn’t promise anything but delivers everything instead.

The idea of believing in your own negative self-image as a route to self-betterment is fundamental to the American experience. I think of faith and the way the church and the state have never really been truly separate in this country. Humble yourself before the Lord, the scripture says. Without you, I am nothing, I once prayed. In America, that you can take many forms. Wealth, power, style, a new body. It is part of some collective understanding here that there is always something more to be other than ourselves. It is told and untold. It eats away at the image in the mirror. I look so hard some days to see someone other than me. Because I want to. Because I need to.

What they don’t tell you about competitive running, though, is that you are often reduced to the most specific of numbers.

But what is the end goal of self-improvement? My answer now is different than it ever was. Years ago, I would have rattled off a series of numbers. Finishing times. I would have told you dreams and ideas. Jobs. Now, my answer varies. Some days, it’s simply I don’t know. Some days, the hardest thing to do is to forgive myself for being myself. America makes this hard. America, where you manifest destiny. America, where you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. America, where you suck it up. This America of no pain, no gain. This America of contradiction, this America of dissonance. This America where our mythological origin story begins with work ethic and ends with a shame we lodge deep inside our collective heart and never acknowledge.

After college, I went to graduate school to become a poet and fiction writer, which was not something I explored a lot in college, where I never took a single creative writing class. I leaned into the idea of this new identity pretty hard, while still holding onto my identity as a serious runner. What that looked like was objectively weird. I took up smoking and drank pretty heavily. I stayed up late with my friends after class and sat in backyards and ripped through packs of cigarettes and six packs of beer and stumbled to the last train back to the city in those first hours of morning. Then I’d wake up, make coffee, and run. I was training for my first marathon and putting in 70, 80 miles a week of running. I’d do workouts on the treadmill between classes, then light up a cigarette the moment I left the gym. I wanted to be both reckless and fit. I wanted to say fuck you to a world that said I had to change things about my body and myself in order to be better. I did not want to fit into a prescribed mold. I relished when people would ask the question you smoke … and run?

This stroked an ego that had never been stroked before. In college, even running at a highly competitive level, my mediocrity was front and center. I would line up to race a 5K on the track knowing that I would not win. And then I’d finish in the middle or the back, walk off the track, and notice all the things that were different about the winners than me. They were always taller, skinnier. They walked lightly along the surface of the earth like angels. And I’d pinch my own thighs, find the fat in me, and want to slice it off with a knife.

But I still loved what it felt like to race. To really be out there, in that liminal space between the moment a stride is taken and the moment just before it lands, the crunch of cinder under my feet and the blood hot in my cheeks.

But with this new identity, I could be a hard-living, hard-running rebel. I could deny my past and honor it too. If I didn’t look like a runner, I could look like a writer. In fiction workshops, I learned that the reader delights when the distance between the expected outcome of a story and the actual outcome of the story is the greatest, or when the distance between the expected tone of the content of the story and the actual tone of the content of the story is at its highest. Think of Barthelme’s “The School,” that wacky story of hyperbolic events spinning out of control told in the flattest tone possible. As a person, I wanted to inhabit that distance of expectation versus reality. I wanted to be a walking fucking delight.

The world often asks too much of us, and then we ruin ourselves to be approved by the world. And I think the most sinister aspect of this is that the world’s asking doesn’t often look like asking. In college and after, nearly every time I heard a voice inside my head telling me to lose weight, I couldn’t actually find the voice, or the mouth it came from. The source of that voice was removed, like an elaborate form of money laundering. The voice was there in the way people fawned over the veins bulging out of a distance runner’s calves. It was there when I overheard another runner say, “Damn, man, you look fit” to someone whose ribs were rippling out of his skin. It was there in comment sections and internet forums, as people picked apart even the bodies of professional runners.

And the same could be said about my new identity as a writer. No one ever told me I needed to smoke, to drink myself toward a twilit stumble every other weeknight. But it was there in the packaging, wasn’t it? It was there when I fell in love with my favorite poet, Larry Levis, his eyes catching mine from the book’s back page through a haze of black-and-white smoke. Or watching an interview with Baldwin, seeing him deliver something searing before pausing to smoke, knowing he had the audience. Or the great stories of the great drunks, or the great stories we thought we told while greatly drunk.

It’s about identity, isn’t it? All of it. It’s about the fact that this life is not comfortable if you’re aware of your own your-ownness. It’s about the comfort of ritual, and sometimes the comfort of demands, about what it feels like to see someone else’s structure then to mold yourself to fit into it. It’s about not wanting to be judged. I wanted to set myself apart but also be a part. I wanted to say I’m one of you to as many people as I could because I was scared of being myself.

I ran my fastest marathon during those grad school years, when I was drinking and smoking more than I ever had or would in my life. I don’t know how, or why. I wouldn’t recommend it. I was also losing a bit of myself, every day, to ideas of who I should be and my desire to both inhabit those ideas and deviate from them as much as possible. I was a tourist in my own life.

Today I am six years removed from my last race as a collegiate athlete and probably 20 pounds heavier than I was then. Maybe 30, I don’t know. I don’t let myself buy a scale. I still look at myself in the mirror every time I take a shower. I turn and turn and see my body in the light. I push the belly around, pull it down, try to find the body I used to have. I am trying to learn how to be proud. I don’t really know how. No one ever taught me. This is part of being a man in America. My girlfriend, coming back from a run of her own, will often mention how she passed a man while running who then, upon realizing he had just been passed by a woman, sprinted past her. This happens to her at least once a week. It’s sad to live in a world where vulnerability is still widely seen as weakness, where the things men are taught to be proud of are often the things pushed outward and not turned inward.

The violence of shaming someone is so often a result of distance between what you see in front of you and how you feel inside. I know this because I shamed and still shame myself. I am concerned with the violence of men. I am a victim of my own masculinity, which is as dark and deep as the surface of a lake stretching out in the middle of the night. The shame of obesity, the shame of addiction. The shame that sounds like pull yourself together, or make better choices, or I did it, why can’t you. Shame neglects the work of understanding. Shame is waking up in the morning to see the lake in daylight and saying it looks too far to cross. The potential for understanding is the rowboat moored along the shore. In America, especially, there is a long line of men sitting on the beach, taking photos of the lake they’ve yet to cross. I am with them, too, waking up each morning to get in the rowboat and begin anew the long, relentless journey of learning to love myself. Some days I don’t even try. Now, more than 15 years after my mother left my father and brother and me while struggling with addiction, I want to hold her and say I don’t get it, but I do. How hard it must have been, how hard.

I still turn to running to find solace, because it’s the only place that offers it for me. Frustrated, tired, stressed — the first thing I think to do is lace up my shoes and go for a run. Out there, years of practice have allowed me, no matter how I look, to maintain some semblance of control over my life. I can speed up and slow down. I can have an easy day or a hard day. I can push my own threshold of pain, dial back, and push it again. I imagine this kind of feeling is not limited to running, and certainly not limited to the physical. I think of dancers, those who meditate. That sense of carving a world within the world that you know just a little bit better.

The shame of obesity, the shame of addiction. The shame that sounds like ‘pull yourself together,’ or ‘make better choices,’ or ‘I did it, why can’t you.’ Shame neglects the work of understanding

Two years ago, my friend Matt convinced another friend, Nick, and me to sign up for a 50-mile race. It was uncharted territory for the two of us. We had run marathons together, but 50 miles seemed daunting, too great a task. I’ve written about that day before, how the unimaginable distance leveled expectation. It was the opposite of the Barthelme story. Because it was so outlandish, the only way to approach it was in the most ordinary way possible: step-by-step.

Since that day, I’ve run multiple ultramarathons, as well as two 24-hour races. They are the only places where I feel at home in my body, where judgment feels unnecessary because of the absurdity of the task. There is a sense with ultramarathons that the further out you go, the less you carry with you to be measured by. Yeah, there are people racing these races, but if you go to any ultra-long distance race, you will find that the majority of people don’t care about the veins bulging out of your calves or whatever rippled leanness you present to them, whatever beautiful and rounded edges. Mostly because everyone is banded by a sublime weirdness. If you run long and far enough, you’ll find something good in yourself and see something good in someone else. The thing is, this isn’t even that strange of a concept, because life is like that, too. All these people. All different. All on the start line of today’s morning wearing different things and being different heights and sizes. It’s not really a cliché so much as a fact. It’s difficult enough, life is. Who cares what you look like doing it?

The word endurance means, quite simply, to suffer without breaking, to continue on. It boils down to the Latin word durus, which means hard. To be without pliancy. Which is interesting because of the way so much of endurance, to me, is to bend without breaking. I think of James Wright’s collection of poetry The Branch Will Not Break and how the title is referenced at the end of his poem “Two Hangovers,” as the speaker gazes at a blue jay alighting on a branch:

“I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows well as I do

That the branch will not break.”

There are a million branches we each stand on over the course of a given day. A lot of us are standing on branches held out by people we will never meet, people with power behind certain doors, people who want us to buy their shit. I think those branches break. I think those branches break often. And I think the same people who make those branches make other branches to catch us when we fall. There are other branches though. The start line of an ultramarathon is a kind of branch. It’s sturdy, too. Not because the people standing on it are light, or especially fit, or anything other than human. It’s because they are human, and they recognize their own absurdity, and they revel in it, and they give themselves permission to find joy.

The Greeks had their own word for endurance, hypomone, which appears frequently in the Bible and is often translated as endurance or steadfastness, but literally means to bear up under. I find this more agreeable. It is the bearing that remains a constant for each of us, but it is also the bearing that takes on different forms. Bearing can look like bending. One who bears a load on their back must stoop to tie their shoe. Bearing assumes a constancy that is not in the rock-hard, unbending quality of the spine, but a constancy, simply, of the bearing itself. We bear and bear and bear.

To recognize each person’s individual capacities for endurance is, I think, one way in which we can create a world that relies more on generosity than judgment. In what ways can we recognize the race we are each running, on our own separate tracks that have no specific shapes, where there is no such thing as time, no such thing as an Olympic record? It is the exactness of time that destroys us. It is the way time has been commodified. It is the how-much-can-you-fit-in. It is the way, when you begin talking about how much you can do or how much you can consume, you begin to think of how to alter yourself so that you can do and consume more.

What I mean to say is: My better is not your better. I want to say it to myself in the mirror, to the face that looks back at me and says you’re not fat … you’re just … I’m working on it. So much of life is about what you give yourself permission to do or don’t do, and how that act of self-permission leads to joy. This requires the discernment to know what joy is, or how it feels, and in what ways it is true. Both of these acts — permission and discernment — take a lifetime to learn. And the choice to learn requires its own lifetime. It goes on, this work. It endures.

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Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross