When I was a kid, I got hit with a vicious affliction: the belief that being fit means looking good and spending lots of money. The idea was malignant, a cancer with roots in my childhood career as a competitive figure skater. Figure skating, for those who don't know, is Dance Moms on ice. You'd have a hard time finding first graders more cutthroat, more acutely self aware than those inside your community ice rink. For the first half of my life, I adored skating: the thrill of superhuman speed, the freezing wind in my face, beneath my feet. But all that organic energy eventually fizzled out, under the pressure to appear supremely put together.
Sleek, skin-hugging Spandex, dripping with teardrop Swarovski crystals, clinging to stick figure physiques: skating costumes could cost upwards of $500 a pop, in the '90s, when I used to compete. My single mother sewed my dresses from scratch. She cut all my hair off because divorce consumed her and she didn't have time to fight knots. I never fit in with the other girls, whose parents were heart surgeons and chiropractors, whose dresses cumulatively cost more than our car, whose long locks were professionally pinned into gleaming auburn and blond chignons before important competitions.
I quit skating in my teens because I couldn't achieve the necessary aesthetic. I went to college and spent four years sitting on my butt, earning an English degree. I was anxious and sad, always, because I wasn't moving my body. I'd been conditioned to believe that breaking a sweat was the ultimate exercise in futility -- if I couldn't look like the cover model on any given issue of SHAPE magazine. Many a New Year's Day, I pooled my Christmas money, purchased a fancy gym membership, shelled out for color-coordinated exercise outfits. I'd completely psych myself out, so desperate to look the part of Fit Girl, I'd be totally exhausted before my feet even touched the treadmill. One New Year's Day, I was so conscious of my butt bouncing inside my expensive yoga pants that I lost my footing and face-planted against the unforgiving black belt, which threw me against the wall with great haste.
By my early 20s, lethargy had so completely consumed my body; it was beginning to waste my brain. My thoughts were sluggish. I didn't feel like writing, which is pretty pathetic when you're enrolled full time in a graduate creative writing program. I missed the unadulterated thrill of loving sport for sport's sake. I hadn't felt that pure since I was 7, when I used to win all my ice skating competitions, because I cared more about how I moved than the way I looked.
That first semester of grad school, I found a flyer advertising a local 5k on the telephone pole outside of my apartment. That sheet of paper reeled me in like a limp fish, with its promise of racing with dozens of real, live runners, receiving an official time, crossing an actual finish line, donning the custom free T-shirt.
I'll do anything for a free T-shirt.
I showed up to that race without having run more than short, spastic, train-catching sprints since college. I hadn't put much thought into my outfit either: a pair of those butt cheek-bearing, preteen cheerleader shorts, a cotton t-shirt from the clearance rack at T.J. Maxx, a pair of ginormous pink sunglasses from Target. It had been my amateur hope that running was one of those zen sports, which transcend outer appearances -- that runners were holistically concerned with getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible -- and absolutely nothing else.
At the starting line, as I bounced up and down, expending tense energy and hoping to feign some legitimate warm-up routine, a girl sporting muscly legs, Terminator shades, and streamlined, seamless running shorts approached, scanned me from head to toe, computed that I did not belong.
"Did you run the Philly Half?" she asked. "I remember someone wearing those exact, same, giant sunglasses."
She had a tone. I could see her eyes narrow behind her dark, serious lenses.
I was immediately self-conscious: of my plastic bug eyes, two sizes too big, my thin shorts, two sizes too small. And I felt a surge of guilt, also, for imposing myself on an event for serious runners, even though the flyer had said all were welcome. "Do I look like I've run a half marathon?" I giggled, hoping to defuse the tension with gentle, self-deprecating humor. I was, after all, seriously lacking in muscle tone.
"No," she quipped, and skipped off to the sound of the starting gun.
I felt dumb for the first mile. And then the thrill of running a real road race took over. Cheers from the spectators drowned out Wonder Woman's critique of my running ensemble and flooded my heart with joy. The second I crossed that finish line was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I was instantly hooked on running for running's sake. Here, finally, was a sport I could enjoy in cheap shorts and a T-shirt. No matter what I looked like, finishing felt the same.
Over the last five years, I've run over 200 road races. I've even won a few. I run almost every single day because I love it, because nothing bridges the gap between my mind and my body better than bounding across miles of smooth asphalt. Running is so ingrained in my daily routine; it honestly requires less discipline than it takes to brush my teeth. (I still do brush my teeth.)
People ask me all the time: "How can I become a runner?"
I'm a running purist. Aside from a great pair of shoes, there isn't much else you need to pound the pavement. Especially if you're just getting started. But our culture doesn't want new runners to know this. There's a terrible deluge of commercial hype surrounding every New Year's, pressure to fortify your fitness resolution with a pair of overpriced yoga pants, because they're supposed to make your butt look better (exercise alone will do that). There are a lot of synthetic, sweat-wicking fabric fanatics out there. They'll look you dead in the eye and tell you what a fool you'd be to even attempt running in a cotton T-shirt. If you're training for a marathon, you'll probably need to invest in some high-performance gear; you'll definitely need some Bodyglide. But if, like most people, you simply want to rediscover yourself though the art of pure sport, then screw the #running world, teeming with $50 fluorescent sports bras atop teeny, tiny, Photoshopped waists. Throw on your sneakers and go.
Trust me. You'll love it.
Follow Elizabeth Licorish on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@FitLizzy