In junior high, I ran a thirteen minute mile. Not because I walked it and not because I twisted my ankle at lap three--although both of those things happened, but because being told to run in a circle so some national whatever could keep tabs on my fitness level pissed me off. At least that’s what I told my gym teacher. Accustomed to my insubordination, he responded with his usual expression of befuddled anger, eyebrows lifting as if to flee from his bulbous nose.
What I didn’t tell him was that running outside intimidated me.
Even after I began taking endless angsty teenage walks and pedaling to nowhere on my parent’s old exercise bike, even after I moved on to slow jogs on the treadmill I dragged to college with me, and years later spinning classes at Gold’s Gym in LA and finally a yoga practice facilitated by Chicago studios like Bloom, I was still afraid to run outside where people could see. As a spinning instructor, I sweat and screech daily in front of hordes of gym-goers, so self-consciousness couldn’t have been entirely to blame. Yet I kept grinding away on the treadmill despite longer runs and faster miles.
A girl never forgets her first gym.
Maybe my reluctance to run outdoors owes something to the more general anxiety I harbor: I’m afraid of getting lost. I’m afraid to be alone. I’m definitely afraid of squirrels. The Immense Outside brims with walkers and mockers and kamikaze drivers, with wind and sun, and sometimes even waves strong enough to knock a runner over. I was afraid of all of those things, and yet, once I finally made the decision to run outside, those are the things I embrace. They make each run different. They make me feel like I’m on an adventure. And running despite my fears makes me feel liberated, returned to myself, a new version of something very familiar. I never made a clearcut choice to become a runner; rather, years of incremental shifts became a sudden solid choice. Sometimes that’s how change works: one day, you simply try something new.
Chicago is a great place to have made that decision. And I’m not the only runner who knows it. This is the first in a new Our Town series highlighting one Chicago Runner a month. We’ll be asking runners of all levels for tips on music, routes, gadgets and more. You’ll hear firsthand what makes a runner, and maybe discover your own impulse to run (away from squirrels.)
October's Runner: Kathie Bergquist