Finding Identity: How I became a runner, Part 1

The messages and calls started coming before I had even heard the news. “Is Sarah Ok? Was she in Boston? I know she runs marathons…” Even though I hadn’t run a marathon in years, the achievement sticks in the minds of friends and family, and plants the seed of possibility that maybe, just maybe I was there when the bombs went off.

The day was a beautiful sunny spring gift, and I had been outside, and probably running in the woods. Upon arriving home and getting those messages, the Boston Marathon bombing became the first disaster I watched unfold via Twitter feed. The more I watched and read, the sadder I got. Every act of violence and terror of course is upsetting and unsettling. The Newtown school shooting was devastating to me because my dear niece here in Maine was in first grade at the time, just like so many of the victims. The Marathon bombing though, was the first act of public violence that I took personally, the first that felt directed at me. Initially I didn’t understand why, and then I realized the bombs went off as the four hour finishers were crossing the finish line. I’m a four hour finisher, if I had been there, that could have been, would have been me. School shootings have at least one small root in the fact that many people hate school and the institution of mandatory education (though thankfully very few of them ever think about committing violence and even fewer actually do). There was nothing sensical about the Marathon bombing, what psychopath hates people who drag themselves out of bed all winter long to go for miserable training runs in the snow? Who wishes evil on the friends and family who come to cheer for those runners? My mind just couldn’t put the pieces together. I felt like a small part of my identity had been violated by this seemingly random and pointless violence. As soon as I had this thought, I discovered that I had this identity. I’d never realized or articulated it before. The attack on the Boston Marathon made me realize I am, in some small way, a runner.

It wasn’t always this way. I have never been athletic or interested in sports, which is not to say I never participated in them. For example, for some reason, I played Little League for four summers while I was in elementary school. It was a miserable existence, and I have no idea why I continued to go back. None of my girlfriends played, at least the first couple of years. Nor was I any good at baseball. You know that Peter Paul and Mary song Right Field? That was me, except for the part at the end of the song where he catches the ball. In all the years I played Little League, I got one base hit. That’s right, I had one non foul ball hit in four years. I was on base almost every inning though because I got walked a lot (having a 6 inch strike zone has its advantages). Maybe our town was so small that they needed me to make up a full team, maybe my mother just wanted me out of the house, for my own good. Regardless of the reason, that was my introduction to team sports, and my curious indifference to, yet participation in them.

Castine Cougars, circa 1985.

Castine Cougars, circa 1985.

After Little League came basketball, another team sport involving a ball for which I had little talent (its not that I was bad, I just wasn’t particularly good either). This sports adventure was all about peer pressure. Most of my middle school friends played on the team, and there was basketball camp for one week the summer of seventh grade (12 and 13 year old girls flirting with and mercilessly teasing 12 and 13 year old boys, while staying in a college dorm, and being worked daily by Very Serious Coaches. My biggest revelation from that week was when my best friend and I discovered that muscles had emerged on the front of our shin bones-we were amazed). This was as close as I got to “jockdom”, that social conclave of locker rooms and sweat and concrete block gymnasiums. Ultimately I participated in sports through 8th grade because there was nothing else to do, and the sports I chose were not a choice, they were simply the only sports available (my friend Jeanne writes more eloquently about this phenomenon here). These were the days before soccer emerged in youth sports, before elementary schools had track teams, and out school was so small that we couldn’t have supported more than one sports team per season anyway.

 

Never did master that split...

Never did master that split…

My life during this time also had a parallel track of physical activity, a decidedly non team sport, non jockish one. Like many little girls, I “did gymnastics”. Our teacher was enthusiastic but I am quite certain, a total amateur. My gymnastics career culminated in almost being able to do a back handspring without the safety harness, and I consider myself lucky to have never broken my neck. After gymnastics I took many years of dance lessons, in genres that ranged from classical ballet to modern to modern ballet. In retrospect, again, I have no idea why I participated in these classes. None of my friends took class with me, the rest of the students were girls my sister’s age, two to three years younger.

Yep, dancing to "Beat It", looking good. Note my sister in the striped shirt on the right. She's the only one really "feeling" it, evidenced by her dropped knee and swining pony tail. She's the real dancer of the family.

Yep, dancing to “Beat It”, looking good. Note my sister in the striped shirt on the right. She’s the only one really “feeling” it, evidenced by her dropped knee and swinging pony tail. She’s the real dancer of the family.

At least yearly we would put on a public recital, the dress rehearsal for which would be an excruciating performance in front of my entire school. One year in dance class, it became known that I could moon walk (as in Michael Jackson moon walk). In reality I am certain that I could NOT moon walk, but my teacher seized upon the idea and choreographed it into a group dance number set to “Beat It”. Imagine yourself in middle school, dancing on stage in front of your peers, with a bunch of younger kids, wearing a sparkling head band and having to attempt to moon walk. In writing this I am realizing that I may have been a more akward ugly duckling than I ever knew.

left: modern ballet about Joan of Arc, right: ???

left: modern ballet about Joan of Arc, right: ???

I kept dancing into highschool, enduring multiple shows wearing silver unitards (my dance teacher was estatic to find a deal on these full body silver unitards, and because she owned them, they had to be incorporated into as many shows as possible). I even started dancing on point, and got to wear the pretty dresses sometimes. I think I enjoyed dancing, and maybe even grew to enjoy the performances (as humiliating as they felt at times). But I never thought of dancing as athleticism, or exercise.

Some times they even let me wear the pretty dresses.

Some times they even let me wear the pretty dresses.

Of course, dancing was exactly that, athletic and active, driving me deeper into the body that everything else in society was trying to push me out of. Participating in those classes, as ackward as they were, was a real blessing.

In high school I rushed head long into the arts and never looked back. I kept dancing for a couple of years, but spent most of my time either in the art room or doing theater. The rehearsal schedules for the spring and fall “Drama Club” shows were demanding enough to preclude participating in sports, unless you just wanted to be in the chorus. I had finally discovered an activity for which I did have talent, so my roles were always big enough that sports were never an option. I do remember one year thinking that perhaps I would try out for softball, and attempt to juggle practice and rehearsal for a season. I clearly remember the first soft ball practice. I showed up wearing the only “gym clothes” I could scrounge up (having forgotten about the practice—which should have been a sign), my outfit consisted of an oversized multi colored tie dyed tee shirt, cut off army pants held up by a ratty hand woven Guatemalan belt and black Converse All Stars. The coach made us run laps around the gym and half way through the third lap, I thought “what the f@#$ am I doing?” and ran right out the gymnasium door and never came back. Hence ended my high school athletic career. By the time I graduated, I was a fully fledged theater person, sneaking cigarettes whenever I could get them (because, you know, when you are 17, smoking seems like a good way to feel like you are making independent adult decisions, when in fact you are doing just the opposite). Theater was everything to me in those years, and you know how they say there’s no “I” in “team”? Well, there’s no “I” in “ensemble cast” either, and the work ethic and group dynamic lessons I learned from participating in theater were every bit as valuable as the same lessons learned by a student athlete.

One year we lotteried into the Mt. Washington Road race, and Bryan got the best bib number ever.

One year we lotteried into the Mt. Washington Road race, and Bryan got the best bib number ever.

In college I made the pragmatic decision to leave theater behind. I struck out into new territory and eventually found my way to nature and science and outdoor education. Without realizing it I found my self in the middle of a community of people for whom fitness was both a professional requirement and a way of life. Running was just something you did, something to stay fit when you couldn’t go climbing or paddling or skiing. My new friends were really cool, and I quit smoking and started running to be like them.

Atop Katahdin, one winter day.

Atop Katahdin, one winter day.

I wasn’t the fastest, I couldn’t run the furthest, but that didn’t always matter (many of these folks are seriously physically talented people who have gone on to be professional mountain guides and adventure racers). What mattered was being outside and having fun, and running was a way to make sure you were fit enough to do that. I led trips in the Maine wilderness and found a new sense of self. I started thinking big, and simultaneously planned a trip with my girl friends to climb volcanoes in the Cascasdes, and asked one of them to train me for my first marathon in honor of turning 30.

Near the top of Mt. Adams, 2002.

Near the top of Mt. Adams, 2002.

And so in 2002 after climbing Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams, I ran my first marathon, finishing in a respectable 4:05. The next year I ran it in 3:48 and they even gave me a trophy. Even through all of this I didn’t think of myself as a runner. I was someone who set a goal, and completed it. It didn’t really matter what the goal was, it just happened to be a marathon. I identified with the idea of doing something I wasn’t sure I would be able to do, and then doing it. And that’s how it went for the next few years, I ran the MDI marathon a total of three times, I threw in a few half marathons here and there. I got a road bike, a real job, a house, and a husband; life went on. I kept searching for my identity, I kept listening to find my own voice, I learned patience and maybe a little grace. To find out what happened next, you’ll have to wait for Part 2.

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.