Imagine, Achieve, and Stay Strong: The Story of How I Started A Whole New Life
What the hell am I doing? I am an overweight (possibly obese) African American women "jogging" down the street. One would have thought I was the big bad wolf in the story "The Three Pigs". As hard as I was breathing, I could have blown someone's house down. Oh, no! Here comes a car. What if someone in the car knows me. I can hear them now, "Look at that fat black woman. I know she doesn't think she's a runner". At that thought, the embarrassment and self doubt start creeping in again, as it usually does when I think about my weight, body image, and ability to do any type of physical activity well.
If reading and researching were a sport, I would be the Tigers Woods of the academic world (pre-cheating incident). I have always excelled in the area of academics. I have a bachelors, three masters, one Educational Specialist degree, and hopefully a doctorate by next year. If it sounds like I am bragging, I am not. That is just the confident tone I speak in when someone comments on my intellect.
However, all of the intelligence in the world couldn't help me solve the riddle of why I agreed to join a group of African American women to run on a cold November day. The fastest I have ever moved has always involved food as the reward. I can't explain it, my friend told me about the group Black Girls RUN! and I felt compelled to complete my first run the following group. Black Girls RUN! is a nationally recognized group that encourages physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle through running. It is arguably the largest group that focuses on decreasing obesity related diseases in African American women.
How hard could it be? You put one foot in front of the other and just move a little faster than you do when you walk. I was an intellectual, I could figure it out. But five minutes into the run, I knew I had displayed a grave error in judgement. Which leads me back to the original question, "What the hell am I doing?" It wasn't for my health. To be honest I really didn't care. I had once been 130 pounds (size four) and enjoyed the fruits of my labor (or maybe that is a poor choice of words since I got to the magical weight, by literally starving myself). Yes, I had seen the statistics. Four out of five Black women are overweight or obese. I knew that due to poor food choices and lack of exercise, African American women were at a higher risk for obesity related diseases than their Caucasian counterparts. Plus, haven't you heard, Black girls don't run? Furthermore, you know that your uterus would fall out if you ran. The fact that I had had a hyterectomy two years before didn't stop me from using that old wives tale as an excuse. I had to preserve my imaginary uterus. So basically, I went about my life wishing, in the back of my mind, that I could lose weight, but accepting the fact that my medical history which includes three major surgeries in three years, would always stop me from doing any type of physical activity. I didn't care that my doctors kept telling me that I could probably get off of some medicines if I started a regular exercise program and my therpist said that I would be much less anxious with regular exercise. When I heard these canned suggestions, I did what came naturally in these types of situations. I lie and say I am going to get started on an exercise program right away and run to the front desk to give the receptionist my copay so that the only thing those doctors could see was the burning of rubber from my tires!
That night, as I massaged my aching feet and calves, I realized the answer to my question. I was lonely. I was depressed. I had no identity beyond being intelligent, my work as a counselor and being a mother and wife. Quite simply put, I had lost myself in between my job, my books, my research, my mounds of fat and a blanket of lonliness. Although I was cold and tired that day, I felt an undescribale energy flow through my body when the run leader said, "Wait, before you go home, you have to join us in our running ritual. We always take a picture at the end of our run and post to Facebook." Now, normally, the mere suggestion of posting a picture to Facebook, circa 2008 (The Year of the Weight Gain) would have been greeted with phony, strained laughter and about twenty excuses regarding why I my picture couldn't possibly be posted online. One time, while out with my husband and some people from his job, I was asked to pose for a Facebook picture. I nearly choked on a piece of chicken as I panicked. I told them that my job required that I could not have a Facebook page, nor could I ever be seen in any photos on the internet. This would have been a perfect excuse for an FBI agent or an undercover cop, but I was a school counselor--not a job that requires a high level of secrecy. Needless to say, my loving husband didn't blow my cover, but the incredulous look on his face told me that I had some explaining to do. Surprisingly, with the new acceptance that I had serious body image issues, I never thought to do anything about it. "This is the way God made me. Plus, after beauty leaves a person, intelligence never does", I repeatedly rationalized to myself. Every excuse bit of self doubt was always answered by, "It doesn't matter because I am so intelligent".
I am a self admitted introvert. It has never bothered me that I didn't have a long list of friends--who needs them. Being an introvert has its advantages. I can read a whole novel in one day. Truth be told, I could go without human contact like a camel can go without water. So feeling that surge of emotion go through me on that cold November day (my first run) was strange and foreign. It seemed that taking the group picture and having other group members cheer me on as I huffed and puffed my way back to the starting point started to strip away the layers of loneliness that I wore like a protective coat. From that day forward, I started running every week. Sometimes I would go ten or twenty miles out of my way to join another group just to meet new people, talk, and the ultimate; take the group picture at the end of the run.
The unofficial motto of BGR Raleigh is, "We leave no woman behind." Not only did they NOT leave me behind, they encouraged me, slowed their pace to meet mine, and kept telling me how they valued my commitment to running. I can't remember the last time someone told me I was valuable for reasons other than being smart. Most encouraging of all, there were skinny Black girls, fat Black girls, short Black girls, in shape Blacks, out of shape Black girls. It made me smile to think that we were a collage of beautiful. In other words, I was surrounded by Black girls who could run! It then occured to me that these women were looking for the same thing that I was looking for--friendship, belongingness, and a journey towards a healthy, physically active lifestyle. I finally fit in with a group other than nerds and geeks. Now don't get me wrong, I truly love being a geek. I still revel in having that title. But since I started running, I learned that you have to be more than a two dimensional figure, to truly have a well rounded life. My life isn't 360 degrees; maybe 180 degrees.
Fast forward seven months later....I live, eat, and breathe running. I completed my first 5k at the beginning of June (48:33 was my time, thank you). Today I would actually describe myself as an extrovert and someone who is anal about healthy living and fitness. I beam with pride when I run for an hour on the treadmill. Even more impressive is the way I look in the mirror and smile at myself when I can barely see due to beads of sweat on my forehead. I am still what is considered a "slow outside runner". Somehow I am not ashamed of that. I have only lost 14 pounds, but surprisingly, that doesn't matter to me. I am more interested in my strength and endurance than the numbers on the scale. From a former "eat-only-one-meal-a-day" to stay skinny fanatic to thinking through my meals to see if I have enough protein, this is major people.
What you just heard is not the amazing journey. In between my first run and today, I have had three additional surgeries, several trips to the emergency room, and several bouts of depression. (Honesty is always the best policy and there is no shame in my game). However, through all of the trials, I realized that if could run beside my BGR sisters, I would somehow feel better. Now, my cure for worrying and being anxious is to lace up my Mizunos and run (slowly, I will admit). Through a healthier lifestyle, I have learned about the advantages of yoga and the affect it has on depression. For my chronic insomnia, I have learned that adding strength training to my exercise regimen is helpful. Through the friendships I have gained from participation in Black Girls RUN!, I have learned the importance of belonging and motivation.
When I started running, I began to set small goals for myself. If I managed to make the goal, I would get a tatoo with a word that had special meaning to me. So far, I have hit three major milestones in my running journey. Thus, I proudly show the words, "Imagine the possibilities, Achieve, and Stay Strong" on my legs. This has become my personal mantra. As I run, I look down at those tatoos and I know that I can overcome anything that is thrown my way. Running has not changed my circumstances, but it has changed the way I view these circumstances. Do I still doubt myself sometimes? Of course, I do. Do I still fall back into the same unhealthy eating patters? You better believe it. Do I still feel lonely and depressed sometimes? I do. The difference is that now I have a coping mechanism and that makes all of the difference.
So whenever you have anxiety, depression, or other problems, try getting some physical activity. More importantly, open yourself up to something new. Explore what is missing in your life. Above all, think to yourself, "Imagine the possibilities. Achieve. Stay Strong".