So last Friday, I hit a jogging milestone. I jogged for 28 minutes straight, non stop, in a 2 mile loop around my neighborhood. For context, I attempted a similar run about a year ago and made it about 3 minutes before collapsing into a sweaty breathless shamble. After that abject failure, I decided to try one of those Couch25k things and see if I could build my tolerance for this terrible, terrible activity. I told myself to stick with the plan, go twice a week, and when the day came I couldn’t make it through a run, I’d know my limit.
I still haven’t hit my limit. I’m pretty pleased with myself, not gonna lie.
Anyhoo, I was feeling like the queen of the damn world when I looped the block towards home. That great feeling lasted right up to when I hit a slick patch of leaves and ate pavement in front of group of snickering strangers. My face burned. They didn’t even try to hide their laughter, and why should they? Fatty slapstick is a time-honored humor tradition, and it’s double the hilarity when the fatty is a woman. I weigh just north of 250 pounds, so I know I am comfortably in the ha-ha fat range. My face burned with ugly, familiar shame. I wanted to crawl underneath the leaves and stay there until I died.
The laughter is not an unusual occurrence, by the way. When I exercise outside, I endure whispers, shouts, and rude/obscene gestures from jerks on a regular basis. It makes it an incredibly intimidating, harrowing activity. Being a visible, active fatty on the street is dangerous for your self-esteem. You stick out. You don’t LOOK like other exercising people. You’re ungainly. You take up the whole sidewalk. You’re an easy target for other people who want to feel better about themselves by making YOU feel bad. And if you acknowledge it in any way, you fail.
Back when I was younger, people told me I looked like a bear when I ran. And by “people” I mean a group of nasty boys in my 6th grade gym class, and by “told” I mean yelled it in such a way where it rang through my head and shamed me and became my anti-exercise mantra: “Don’t run in front of people. You run like a bear.” Congratulations, crappy twelve year old boys! You changed someone’s life that day! Anyway.
A couple of years back, I had a terrible health scare. The details aren’t important (thought I had a brain tumor, turns out I just have a condition that mimics one, ha ha, good one God) but it changed a lot of things for me. One of the things it changed was the way I treat my body. I can treat my condition with diet and exercise, or I can treat it by having a doctor drill a hole in my spine that needs to be drained on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, I opted for the non-hole solution. My neurologist assured me I would be unsuccessful at sticking to a diet and should probably just go for the head hole. I flipped him off under the table, and my journey began.
I was resolved. I began changing my diet and walking to and from work every day. Luckily I have enough money to be able to buy healthy food on a regular basis and am fairly physically healthy apart from the brain thing, so I was able to make it work for me without too much trouble. My body changed as you would expect it to. I lost some weight, I got a little stronger, and my condition went into remission. There were also some interesting side effects, like the fun guessing game that my alcohol tolerance became after I lost a sixth of my bodily mass. Overall, nothing I couldn’t handle.
Things were going pretty well, but it eventually became apparent that the walking would not be enough if I wanted to continue a successful remission. My diet was fine, but I needed to up my workout game. To do what I needed to do, I needed lots of outdoor aerobic exercise. Again, we have the problem of the running bear. I watched the herds of tiny spandex deer women jog past my apartment every day, and I knew I could join them- but only as an apex predator.
It’s hard to admit, but I was scared. Willingly exposing myself to the outside world for hours at a time doing one of the most physically unflattering things I can do in public was a terrifying prospect.
You know what else is terrifying? A brain tumor. Kinda puts things in perspective, there.
So I did some googling for videos of running bears.
First off, if you have never taken an afternoon to look up amateur wildlife encounter videos on YouTube, you are doing the internet wrong and you should do that immediately. Look for ones where the titles are all in capitals and have multiple exclamation marks. Those are the gems.
Secondly, bears look amazing when they run. OK, they aren’t particularly graceful, but they are fast. They are powerful. Bears run for good reasons, like dinner time or ripping the dudes that stand between them and their cubs into bags of chum. If you see a bear running at you, it’s already too late. You are food. You are dead. Your life is over, and most people would agree you deserve that for getting in the way of a bear. Bears run with purpose. Bears run to kick ass.
Who wouldn’t want to run like a bear?
When I tripped and fell in front of those people, I had a moment of shame. But then I thought about the running bear. I thought about myself as a beast charging down the sidewalk, hellbent for salmon or hibernation. I thought about how running makes me into a powerful creature and I can only get stronger if I keep it up. I thought about how a bear would react if someone wandered down into the woods and started laughing at it for having the temerity to move ungracefully.
I stood up and glared at them. They fell silent. They hadn’t planned to interact with the wildlife, merely observe. By locking eyes I broke a secret ages-old shame based cultural expectation. Fat people aren’t encouraged to call out their bullies, because they supposedly deserve the abuse that people throw their way. By acknowledging that they had pissed me off I was challenging that, and the rules for how to proceed from this point weren’t clear. Through their hubris they’d drawn the attention of a dangerous predator, and I was too close to ignore. Should they run away or play dead?
I stood up and plugged my headphones back in. I am not of you, I thought, I am not some gross human being. I am Ursus Horribilis and I run this forest and if you take one more action against me I’ll rip you in half. I’ll maul you up so bad that Werner Herzog will cry when he sees what I’ve done to you. I’ll make that Timothy Treadwell attack look like a paper cut. Don’t get in between me and what I want. I run like a bear and if you weren’t so stupid you’d already be out of my way.
I flipped them off, and my journey began again.