“Lookin’ great, girl!”
Those three words made my morning. It was just before 7am, and I was rounding the corner toward the last mile of a ten-mile run. The sun was shining; the sweat was beading up on my shoulders. I felt healthy, strong, and, quite frankly, ready for some breakfast.
I also felt joyful, alive, and free-but I didn’t realize I was smiling until I heard those three beautiful, encouraging words, or the ones that came after them.
“Go gettem. Stay strong and keep smiling!”
I had noticed her halfway down the block. A stranger on her way to work or the library or the market: A tiny, shuffling older lady with a deeply lined face, who had stopped on her way and was watching me bound along toward her on the sidewalk, my silly grin as unmissable as my bright pink compression leg sleeves. As I approached she seemed to light up, her face stretching into a broad toothy beam. But it wasn’t until I came closer that I could hear that she was urging me on, whooping at me as though she were a spectator at a race and I was about to tear through the finish line.
“Stay strong and keep smiling!”
I haven’t always been strong, and I certainly haven’t always been a smiling runner. Two years ago, I looked at running as torture, a kind of self-inflicted punishment I meted out upon myself for having dared eat a piece of cheese or a bite of pasta. If I so much as lustfully looked at food that my brain labeled “unhealthy,” I felt obligated to run myself toward exhaustion, to escape the guilt I carried about fat, sugar, and my body image. I was trying away from the hunger pangs that had become such a constant companion I barely noticed them anymore.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, all I saw was ugliness and unhappiness, and I attributed it to not working hard enough or not having enough will power. Somehow I managed to simultaneously see myself as “too fat” (scrutinizing how my belly was swollen from hunger) and “too thin” (the hollows of my cheeks always seemed to catch the light just so in photographs). I pushed and starved myself like that until I was as crooked as a Z, my body barely able to stand up straight under the strain of no nutrition and too much exercise. And when the whole thing-my body included-cam crashing down (literally, my blood pressure dropped so drastically one night that I lay crumpled in a heap on the floor until a friend found me), I knew something had to change.
I was not strong; I was not happy. I needed help.
Help came in many forms: A patient and encouraging nutritionist I came to trust, who helped me see that exercise can be reward instead of punishment. A loving and devoted husband, who would hold my hand and remind me that every day was a new gift and a new opportunity to feel better. A network of friends and allies who lifted me up, and made me feel like I was worth fighting for.
And a new pair of running shoes: Good ones, strong ones. A pair that felt like clouds on my feet, not iron maidens. A set of sneaks that would lead me away from self-destruction and into self-love, self-trust. A gift to myself, a new beginning on a brand-new road.
“You want to learn to love running and to love yourself, right?,” my nutritionist asked. “Well first you have to say, Thank you,’ to your body for letting you run, and one way to do that is to fuel it properly.”
She helped me ease back into balance, into a way of life that was active and healthy: Powered by whole foods and energized-not beaten by-sensible exercise.
Once I found my feet again-and my legs, and my arms, and the rest of the body that I had let practically disappear-I started to bound through my morning runs like a gazelle. (Okay, maybe not as gracefully as a gazelle, but bounding nonetheless.) I found myself looking forward to my time on the road or in the park, and I started glancing around and enjoying the scenery while I was out there. I saw birds for the first time, I shared shy smiles with other runners, I caught myself laughing whenever a Lionel Richie song would pipe through my headphones (which happens with somewhat unusual regularity).
And then I started to catch folks smiling at me as I breezed past. “Lookin’ good!,” they might shout, or, “Fast feet!”
It was contagious: The joy I felt at being in my skin spread to those around me, even for a second. So much so that a tiny old woman, her back bent with years and her skin like a well-used road map, felt the urge to stop shuffling along on her way to get my attention and offer a cheer: “Looking great, girl!”
Stay strong, keep smiling. And run yourself happy.