She persisted.

I am developing this in celebration of Women’s History Month and in response to two recent events:

  1. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s statement regarding his use of the procedural right to cut short Elizabeth Warren’s speech against Jeff Session’s nomination for attorney general: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
  2. A subsequent posting on Facebook of the following image:

I wondered:

  1. How large of a space would I need to fit all the things I’ve been told I cannot do?
  2. Have I consistently been brave enough to confront the “cannot do’s”?

I realized that each time I don’t persist, I fail not only myself but also the women who look to learn from me.

***

He laughed at me. He was the high school senior I was dating at the time, my first boyfriend and first love. He was smart and enrolled in honors classes, just like me. Unlike me, he was athletic: member of the tennis team and a proficient swimmer and life guard.

It is hard for people who know me as an adult to believe this, but I was not athletic as a child and teenager. I had never thought it was a big deal (though it sucked to always be picked last in gym class with much sighing and sucking of teeth) until the spring of my senior year in high school. The anxiety of college applications, my approaching graduation, and hopes for emancipation from overprotective Latino parents and life in public housing led me to eat. A lot. I packed on the college freshman fifteen while still in high school. My fragile self-esteem sank. Because it was the late 1980s and everyone from Jane Fonda to Cindy Crawford promoted aerobic exercise as the solution to expanding thighs, I decided I had to exercise regularly.

High school gym class was not enough. Daydreaming in the outfield during softball, standing on the sidelines during volleyball, and doe-see-doeing while square dancing (it doesn’t make sense, but take my word for it: at my Catholic high school in urban Queens, square dancing was part of the physical education curriculum) would not get me in shape. I didn’t have money to join a gym or participate in sports that required special equipment, but I did have two legs, my gym uniform, and a pair of Reebok cross-training sneakers I’d bought on sale with Christmas money. I decided to try running, and my boyfriend offered to run with me.

I saw us clearly in my mind: the wind blowing my hair back, the two of us side-by-side, matching strides, rounding each corner until we’d done a full lap around the block across the street from my public housing complex, where there was not as much glass and dog shit on the sidewalk and we wouldn’t have to pass the bodega or the parking lot where all the titeres hung out being loud with each other and to anyone who caught their attention. I anticipated that afternoon running in the sun would bring me and my boyfriend closer and bring me closer to my goal of losing the weight I’d gained. Maybe I could even become the pretty girl in good shape with the cute boyfriend, not a loser gordita nerd from the projects.

What I didn’t anticipate was how hard that first run would be. I didn’t know about endurance threshold and building up my aerobic tolerance. I thought I would just lace my sneakers and go. My boyfriend and I took off at the same time, laughing, he encouraging me, but we were barely to the middle of the block when my legs and chest felt heavy. I was out of breath, and my right side and the fronts of my legs began to hurt. Damn, everything began to hurt! I couldn’t keep up as he continued forward, seemingly without effort, while I gasped, slowed, and finally stopped and stooped with my hands on my knees. He turned around and stopped when he saw me bent over, trying to catch my breath. He put his hands on his hips.

“We just started! Come on, let’s make it to the corner at least.”

He continued toward the corner. I stood straight, inhaled deeply, and moved my feet, but my body’s Code Red alert was blaring in my mind.

“Coño chica, what the hell? Afterschool is time for cookies on the couch, not running!”

Again, I had to stop.

My boyfriend made it to the corner, turned to see me stooped over again, and laughed.

That’s right: the sight of me gasping for breath made the first love of my life laugh.

“You can’t even make it to the corner!”

He was absolutely correct, and I was angry. I was out of shape and my goal seemed hopeless, and my anger was not enough to fuel my fat ass to the corner so that I could smack him. I was too out of breath to even tell him to shut the fuck up.

I was angry at my body for betraying me by being so unacceptably chubby and unable to perform what I willed it to do. I was angriest at myself for valuing myself so little that when I did catch my breath, I did not tell my boyfriend to fuck off. I don’t remember telling him much of anything, definitely nothing that would have risked losing the one validation that I felt I had as a teenage girl: I might have been a gordita nerd from the projects, but at least I had a boyfriend.

It took me at least six months to complete my first non-stop mile. It was painful, and I hated every minute of it. It was in January of 1991 on the indoor dirt track of the Amherst College gym, which felt like it was at least a mile away from my dormitory when I woke up at dawn those frigid winter mornings. I used to set my alarm to go off 20 minutes before I actually would get out of bed so I could take a Tylenol. The pain-relieving effects would kick in by the time I actually did get out of bed to tie on my sneakers and hit the track again. The sloped and packed dirt wasn’t forgiving to the shin splints the Tylenol couldn’t dull completely. My worn Reebok cross-training sneakers didn’t help either.

What motivated me those mornings was that I had to be able to run one non-stop mile to join the women’s crew team. Not as a coxswain. As a rower. Imagine: me, the gordita nerd from the projects, enrolled at Amherst College and only four non-stop laps around the track from being a member of the crew team. I was alone on the track the morning I did complete those four non-stop laps, as I’d been every morning. There wasn’t anyone to tell me to keep going each time I wanted to stop so badly I cried. And there wasn’t anyone when I completed that fourth non-stop lap and was so depleted and happy that I kept crying. It was me alone, and I did it.

It’s been more than 30 years since the days when I was a gordita nerd who couldn’t run around the block. That day was also over 80,000 miles and seven marathons ago. I’ve since run in six countries, 11 states and the District of Colombia, over bridges and sand, up nearly vertical hills and endless flights of stairs, through snow and rain, and as the sun rose and under the light of the moon. There are people who have only ever known me as a runner and don’t recognize me when I’m not in my running gear.

I’ve thought about those days many times over the years, both the day I first tried to run and the day I completed my first mile. I used to think that it was anger, fury, and hate that got me started as a runner and got me out of bed those early years when I still hated running, but was determined to achieve and accomplish because a boy, the boy I loved, had laughed at me. I’m certain those feelings are in the complex mix, but I also see that I was powered by love. Not of the boyfriend who laughed at me, but love of myself.

Pushing and willing myself through those painful initial attempts proved that somewhere under all the low self-esteem and lack of confidence, I loved the girl I was. I needed her to achieve, and under all the negative feelings, I knew she could. I loved her and wanted her to see that whether it was running a mile or getting into Amherst College or becoming a member of the crew team, she was not a loser.

I am now in my mid-40s, but I still don’t always feel strong or valuable or beautiful. I haven’t outrun completely all the cannot-dos, never-wills, and feelings of being a loser that have pursued me all my life. Running reminds me to love myself and that I have beauty. It reminds me of how far I’ve come, and that it truly is me who has covered all those miles and reached those goals. Running has allowed me to catch glimpses of my beauty. I’ve received the most cheers at races when I’ve likely looked my worst: drenched in sweat, drool, and snot, hair wild, face grimaced from a stitch in my side or stiffness in a knee, and the tips of my sneakers blood-stained from toenails coming detached. But spectators have not run from or shrieked at the sight of me. They’ve cheered me because what they saw was beautiful: me, determined, persistent and strong, and on my way to the finish.

I look back on my 17-year-old self, and wish I could show her how beautiful and rich and valuable she was. But as a woman in my mid-40s, I still struggle with valuing myself and I still hate myself when I let others treat me as if I have little or no value. I look back, too, on that boyfriend who laughed at me all those years ago, but I don’t owe him thanks for getting me started. I thank myself for being persistent and remember that every step I take is not just for me: it is also to remind the women in my life we are all strong, valuable, and beautiful, and capable of achieving anything.

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