Sunday, March 24, 2013


The kickball hung in the air, and I stationed myself under it. I had one thing going for me. No one was paying attention.
I caught it, slapping my arms against the grooved rubber, and gave a glance to first to keep the runner honest. Then I rolled it back to the pitcher.
"Did you see THAT?" one of the kids yelled.
He said it in surprise, like he figured there was no way I'd have a chance to complete even a routine play. I let it go, just like I let the other thousands of derogatory comments go before them. By then, all those comments had taken root.
"He's right," I thought to myself. "I was lucky. I'm just glad no one was paying attention."
• • • 
By the time I reached seventh grade, my place had been well established. I was a bottom feeder, someone the crows sought out when they needed to nibble on some roadkill. Part of that, of course, meant that the bullies assumed I was not an athlete, and that, because I was sort of a loser, that I was lucky to be able to walk through the hallways without tripping. 
This was the 1980s, when bands were macho (even the hair metal bands who put on lipstick and used hairspray leered at hot chicks in 97.3 percent of their videos), movies like Rambo and Rocky and Red Dawn killed the box office and bullies could call us "fags" without worrying about a sensitivity meeting with the principal. Sports, and the ability to play them, ruled my junior high school. There wasn't much room for individualism, and no group hung together to encourage it. There was no perk to being a wallflower. I was in band. I was a good player, too. The only people who cared were other band people. Not many of us fit in.
Here's the thing. It may not seem like it, but I'm over it.
I had a good time in high school, and I had enough friends in college that I could even be considered kinda popular. I blossomed like the second half of an ABC afterschool special.
Besides, they were right, in a way. I'm not a natural athlete. I've never swung a club, but I doubt I could ever hit a fairway. I'll never dunk. I'll never return a kick for a touchdown. I'm not sure I could even catch the football. I played basketball in a rec league with the newspaper, and my only flaw was I couldn't run and dribble at the same time. I played soccer as a kid and, well, um, same thing.
So I'm over it.
Just not completely.

• • • 
When I first turned to running, I did it to stay in shape for the mountains. I chose the mountains because they weren't really a sport. They were an activity. They were scenic, and I loved them for the simple fact that I wasn't much different from my golden retriever: I loved to be outside.
I moved out to Colorado to be close to them after years of spending almost every day of my vacation from the Salina, Kan. paper every summer climbing them with my father. When I did make the move, I spent five years doing something only a few thousand have achieved. I climbed all 54 14ers in the state.
I fell in love with them in junior high school for another reason. My taunters weren't around when I was climbing them. And my climbing partners, even my father, were much older and knew nothing about the emotional battering I absorbed in school. They simply encouraged me. They even said things like how they wished they had my ability to climb rock.
I've talked about my running journey before. I've talked about it enough. It was, initially, a way to keep in shape for the mountains, but I got hooked on it, and I became a runner.
It was, at times, hard to wrap my head around that transformation. Running was not only a sport, it was one of the hardest, and remember, I had been convinced that I was not an athlete. That famous T-shirt is right: My sport is your sport's punishment. It hurts in so many different ways. It burns and aches and fatigues. I had to start using an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma: Even with all the mountain climbing, I never knew I had it until I started running.
It fit me, though, because determination mattered, not skill, and the peaks taught me how to be determined. Running is tough, but it is also generous. It gives you back what you put into it.
Running also meant I began hanging around people who possibly would have made fun of me in junior high school. They were definitely athletes, real studs, some of them. When I went to my 20th high school reunion, I spent as much time with the guys on the cross-country team as my old friends, even though I had exchanged maybe a half-dozen words with them when I went to school.
Some had even come out to race the Pikes Peak Ascent, they told me, and though they did better than me — my school's cross-country team was a state champion — we all laughed over stories about wanting to puke as the trail climbed above 12,000 feet.
I took it a step further when I began to offer a few tips. I recently wrote about that here. It turned out to be one of the more amazing and encouraging experiences of my life.
The running's gotten better every year, despite me turning 41. And I think I know one reason why.
We have a local running club here. We like to think it's pretty special, but you probably have one like it at your running store. Anyway, more than 25 gather once a week to run intervals together. Intervals are what we do to remind ourselves how much running can hurt. I guess they help you improve, too. Anyway, there are always new people, but it's a pretty loyal group, and there are many who still run who were there years before I joined them in 2005.
Many are great runners, people who have qualified for the Boston Marathon or run 50-mile races or won their age groups in big races.
I love the group because these are great athletes, and as such, they don't like being passed. They will challenge you. They will push you. But they will also tell you when you're doing well, and you know they're not bullshitting you.
These first two weeks, I know my running is going better than ever because I'm passing some of the better runners in the group. At first I thought it was because I was just pushing it a little harder than I should. But it's felt good. It feels like I'm flying, and it's easier than it should be.
It's not just the training. That's part of it to be sure. I've worked hard. But it's their voices in my head as I pass them, or as they work to keep up with me: Nice. You're looking FAST. Strong work.
Last week, after one interval, I overheard one running talking about me, and it reminded me of the kickball years: "Did you see THAT?" Then she smiled at me.
People can tear you down and make you believe in your limitations. They want to set your ceilings for you because that way you can't rise above them. You can believe in those ceilings for your whole life. It's hard to completely shake them.
But there are others out there who want to lift you up.
It's taken me a long time to figure out that those voices are the ones you should listen to.
It's taken me my whole life, really, but I have started to believe them.