How to do what you thought you couldn’t… by Liam O’Rourke
I was never really a skinny kid. Nor was I coordinated. In adolescence I only became more ungainly, my body more unwieldy. Unlike my sister who was an excellent gymnast, I was always at odds with my limbs and my body had an antagonistic relationship with the world around me: objects, the ground, anything. I begged my parents for a skateboard at age ten and then never used it because the sensation of falling scared me. I played soccer for my school in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade but was terrified of the ball and would kick it away from me as fast as I could. I also did track in 7th grade. “Did track” is a euphemism for whatever spastic, asthmatic, queer movement I could force my portly body to enact on a track. I ran the 800m and was always, always last. At every meet. They gave me the award for “Most Improved” at the end of the season. We all know who gets that award.
I was a frightened, gentle boy (what the French call “a fucking wimp”) who was about to realize that he was gay a few years later and who wanted no part of anything physical, anything that had to do with comparing bodies with other boys, anything that required what I perceived to be a certain macho attitude. Essentially I thought to be athletic, you had to be like this:
And so my body only became more awkward. And I gained more weight. Near the end of college (where I didn’t attempt a single physical activity besides running downstairs to let the calzone delivery guy in), I was around 270 pounds. I also wasn’t yet fully out of the closet. My body was an easy hiding place: on some level I thought few people were going to ask that kid why he didn’t have a girlfriend. Not that I pretended to be straight. And not that anyone had any real illusions that I was straight. Nevertheless, by the time I was 20, I had become comfortable with being uncomfortable in my own body.
And then my senior year I came out to friends and eventually in the following years to family (these were my own hang ups, I went to a liberal school, had loving friends and my family would only ever have been supportive). I mention this because, surprise, surprise, in the two years after coming out, without doing anything, I lost about 20 pounds. It was eerie to see my mind and body let go of all that stress and weight on their own. But it’s not magic; learning to accept myself was only a first step. I was still around 250 pounds and still had a somewhat troubled relationship with my body and what it could or couldn’t do.
One day in 2005 when I was about 27, I was sitting at my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn and I saw a book called The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx sitting on the shelf. I pulled it out and read the first pages. I was instantly hooked. Jim Fixx was 35 years old, 240 pounds, and a two-pack a day smoker when he started running. And he started with short, slow runs and walks until he could do more and more, until he became a runner, a good runner. Reading his story was like staring in a mirror. I sounded like the man he was describing—I was younger than he was and I wasn’t a smoker, but I was very overweight and, like Fixx, couldn’t imagine that I could ever be a runner. What compelled me in his introduction were the descriptions of his somewhat embarrassing first runs. He would describe how slowly he jogged at first, how he walked when he needed to, how his body was not kind to him. His openness about humiliation as a first step towards success suddenly empowered me. I thought: I can humiliate myself—THAT is something I can do.
I put on some sneakers and headed out that very moment to Prospect Park. I said to myself: I’m going to run for as long and far as I can. But, like Jim Fixx said, slowly. So slowly that it’s embarrassing. Even when I see grandmas cruising by me in their walkers, I’m not going to speed up. I’m going to go slowly and accept that I am that overweight, sweaty guy landing his feet like a Clydesdale, and I will enjoy the humiliation—I will enjoy it because I will be doing something I haven’t done since I was thirteen. Something that I otherwise never thought I could do.
And I did. On that same day I pulled that red book off the shelf, I made myself run the entire loop of Prospect Park (3.35 miles) without stopping. Several glaciers passed me, but I didn’t care. I was running… ish.
That was the beginning of something that continues to change my life. I ran when I could for as long as I could as slowly as I could. I was becoming a runner—actually more of a galumpher. But it was working. In November I did the Prospect Park Turkey Trot with my friend Sarah: five miles and I ran the whole thing. The joy and challenge and adrenaline that came from running with all those other people allowed me to push myself harder than I had expected. It wasn’t about competing with others—it was about celebrating movement with others. We moved in a shifting herd, a train of bodies in motion.
That was it; running in races hooked me. I never wanted to stop running.
Over the next months, with the obsessiveness of a seven year old leveling up his Pokemon, I ran more races, taught myself to run farther and faster. With each daunting challenge I set for myself I thought: Just because you can’t doesn’t mean you won’t.
I hadn’t run a 10K: Just because you can’t doesn’t mean you won’t. May 2006, I ran my first 10K.
A half marathon: Just because you can’t doesn’t mean you won’t. August 2006, I ran in the inaugural Nike NYC Half Marathon. I got to run through an emptied out Times Square. Mindblowing. (Full disclosure, I walked large chunks of the last 4 miles).
And then in 2008… oh yeah, why don’t I run the NYC Marathon?
I was barely two years into running and still pretty slow (I had managed by the skin of my teeth to break a nine-minute pace in a 5K and I was still running half marathons at an 11+ minute pace.) Training for a marathon was daunting. But there are schedules and plans out there: more than you can reasonably be expected to sift through. I approximated a schedule based on the few plans that I read and tried to follow it.
I won’t bore you with the details (too late!) but let me just say that training for a marathon is just as much to prepare you mentally as it is to prepare you physically. Running a marathon is an undeniably trying experience for the psyche. Every doubt that I had about myself, my abilities, and my body came rushing to the surface throughout my training. You’re just a schlubby, slow goof who can’t even get through a half marathon without walking. Who do you think you are doing this? You’re barely jogging—how can you call that running?
But something else happened at the same time: I was running farther than I ever had before each week (plenty of walk breaks included). Each time I went out for a long run, I ended with the realization: You just did something you have never done before. You are surprising yourself. Your body is capable of more than you ever thought. You’re doing something that plenty of people whose bodies are far more Ganymede-like than yours don’t contemplate doing. Keep going.
And then the day came. And I ran over the Verrazano Bridge. And down 4th Avenue. And up Lafayette Avenue… Remember when I described running a race as being part of a herd? Running the NYC Marathon is being part of the most mind-blowingly diverse herd I have ever belonged to. Old, young, American, African, European, Asian, one-legged, two-legged, no-legged, fit, fat, short, tall, women, men. The unconventional bodies that surprised me with their ability to move gracefully brought me to tears.
And then I realized I was one of those bodies that defied something I had believed for so long: I can’t. Even though I was 225 pounds and stocky and slow and distinctly un-gazelle-like, I was there running, and later (tendon injury) limping and walking 26.2 miles through the streets of New York City thinking of everyone who told me that I could that I would do this, running alongside some of my best friends for the first half, seeing my aunts and cousin, my college roommate, my friend Diana and her sons, thinking about my parents who couldn’t be there because my mother was in the final weeks of her life, choosing to tell myself, even when I was in agony at mile 20, that I was going to finish this marathon. And I did. It took me forever, but I did.
Four years later I ran a second marathon in Los Angeles almost an hour faster than my time in New York. Recently I gamely completed my first sub 2-hour half-marathon. I can run four miles at a sub 7:30 pace. Things that I never conceived of doing with my body come more easily to me now. I weigh over 70 pounds less than I did in college. But the most important transformation has taken place in my mind. If someone told me I had to run a marathon this year, I know how challenging it would be, but no part of me would even think: I can’t.
So if you have ever had even the slightest inclination to run any distance at all but thought to yourself: I can’t, please remind yourself: Just because I can’t doesn’t mean I won’t. It only takes a little self-humiliation. And let’s face it, we’re all pretty good at that.