Photo credit: Daniel Heckenberg
The first story I told about myself as a runner was that I was not a runner. I was a clumsy, bookish, late-night kind of lady. I was the kid who ran last in high school races — not one of those sleek, intimidating athletes I saw in the early morning as I was waiting for coffee. If ever I had to participate in anything resembling a sporting occasion, which was rarely, I’d wear an old T-shirt with "Riots Not Diets" printed on the front to express my dissent. I was not a runner. I told this story for the first 30 years of my life and it was a true story.
For years I’d been advised that regular exercise might lift my moods, which had been very low. I was used to feeling depressed and weary. My parents had died in a plane crash when I was 20 and I carried my grief like a heavy talisman. Exercise seemed like a facile response to this terrible sadness, and I refused the prescription. So it was very out of character for me when I signed up for gym membership with the intention of running on a treadmill a few times a week. I was curious about what it might feel like to be fit enough to run five miles. My only expectation of this experiment was that I would abandon it after a week or two.
To my very great surprise, I was a quick and complete convert. I loved
running. I began to crave my sessions on the treadmill. After a few months, I got over my fear of being tripped or mocked by strangers, and plotted running routes in the parks near my apartment.
I raved about my discovery to anybody who would listen. “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else,” writes David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest
. When I began to run, I thought I’d hit on something really new. My body was a pendulum swinging across the landscape; my unlocked limbs tumbled and became light. I learned to feel with my feet, to distinguish between asphalt and concrete beneath my shoes, to love the springiness of wooden decking and the unexpected sink into paths made of shredded tires. What’s more, and by a process I still don’t quite understand, running put my grief in motion. Instead of running away from the past, I was just running.
If I’d known running had such a distinguished feminist pedigree, I would have called myself a runner on the day I’d started.
As I graduated to half-marathons, and then to marathons, I eventually conceded that I had become a runner. I was still clumsy — but I was a runner.
I wanted to know more about this new passion, as if to better understand how it had taken hold of me. I began to read books from categories I’d previously avoided — sports histories, histories of the Olympic Games, biographies of athletes. Another discovery: the wonderful, barely told story of women’s long-distance running, populated by fierce, fit women and villainous officials. There was Kathrine Switzer, who let officials believe she was a man and became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. There was Violet Piercy, who held the women’s marathon record in the 1920s, in spite of much contestation. No one believed she’d run that far, so she did it again and again and again. I read reports written by doctors who were anxious about what long-distance running might do to women’s fertility and frank statements about how unladylike running seemed to be. If I’d known running had such a distinguished feminist pedigree, I would have called myself a runner on the day I’d started.
I was captivated by this history and astonished that it was so little known. I began to see connections to the feminist debates with which I’d been engaged for decades, to see a woman running in a park as a highly charged political figure. Experience of public space and the body are always gendered, and the history of the women’s marathon made that apparent to me in new ways.
Running was on my mind during my day job too, which was then teaching literature to undergraduates. As I prepared classes about 19th-century novels and 17th-century poetry, I looked for women who run, hoping to find some inspiring precedents. Alas, the dominant mode of depicting a woman runner is as a damsel in distress. The more I looked for women running for the joy of it, the more women I found fleeing rapists, bad marriages, domineering fathers.
I decided I would write a book that would draw together all the ideas about women and running that had been surfacing in my reading and burbling through my mind on my long morning runs. I would research the extraordinary, brave women who had run before me and trace a history of thinking from the prohibitions placed on early women marathon runners through etiquette manuals of the 19th century, all the way back to the fleeing maidens of antiquity.
I thought I might write a little about my own experiences as a slow and reluctant runner — but that the book might be a memoir hadn’t even occurred to me. As I reflected on what it means now to be a woman runner, and what it has meant through history, my personal history as a runner came into focus. Why did so many manuals for women runners focus on weight loss? Where was the great uplift that I had felt when I started running? Why did no one acknowledge the fears and inhibitions that so many women hold about running? I started to tune in to why so many women are shy in gyms and scared about running after dark in open spaces. I started to ask ordinary women, the kinds of women who will never break records, why they started running and what running had done for them. And I started to realize my answers to these questions had a place in a book about women and running.
So as I kept reading and writing and thinking, The Long Run
became my story too. I started to write about the unspoken sadness that had started to move when I found my feet on that treadmill. Here, I found a new set of connections, between grief and the body, between my personal history as a runner and my story of loss. As it happens, the things that get said to the grieving aren’t that different to the consolations offered to runners. Just keep going. It will all be over soon. You’ll get there. Stories about running are often like this, in that they’re about something else. They are tales of shape-shifting, of the desire to shed one skin and step into another. One running story may be a parable on persistence or denial; another a warning. It took more than running, of course, for me to be able to haul myself out of the quicksand of grief. But the practice helped me rewrite the script I’d been following, and craft a new set of stories about enduring, fleeing, transformation.
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is the editor of the Sydney Review of Books
. She has worked in digital media for a decade and her journalism and essays on feminism, literary culture, and politics have been widely published. She holds a PhD in English literature and has taught film, literature, journalism, and cultural studies classes to undergraduates since 2001. In 2008 she ran her first half-marathon, and five marathons and dozens of half marathons later, she’s still running. The Long Run
is her first book.