There are elementary-school kids who don’t actually look forward to recess. I know; I was one of them. They don’t enjoy watching their limber peers fly across the monkey bars, gymnasts-to-be attempt the balance beam, and kids with pent-up energy from snoozing through math play dodge ball and knockout on the basketball court.
My recesses consisted of sitting on benches around the tanbark box, reading. This may sound familiar if you, too, grew up a bookworm, awkward in sports. While others competed for relay records, I was setting my own: number of books read during a 15-minute recess; number of seconds to read a single page.
Of course, if recess was a trial, physical education was torture. There is no ducking sports at P.E., no sneaking a book out, either, and at my school we often had to “run the mile.”
Rarely would I complete the mile without stopping to walk. Bands of us would stroll along the part of the track farthest from our teacher’s view, rolling our eyes at the earnest runners as we were lapped once, then twice.
I see my child-self dawdling on that field and imagine that I wanted to run, desperately wanted to know how fast I could move. It’s a desire all children share—to find out what their bodies can do. But, accustomed to excelling in class and already typecast as “an unathletic Indian,” I didn’t dare look a fool on the field.
How silly, I think now, to have sat out of all those games of soccer and capture the flag. How sad that even as children we are conditioned into self-consciousness, that something as natural as running should ever feel foreign.
II. Snow Storms
We are 14,000 feet above sea level when it begins to snow.
I have been hiking in the Andes. Despite the fact that our trekking group includes mountain climbers and ex-military, I am consistently at the head of the pack. “Superrrr hiker!” our guide congratulates me.
Me? Super hiker?
It must be the coca. The dry, bitter leaves are balled together in my chipmunk-cheek, numbing gums and tongue. Coca, illegal in the United States, is considered a miracle plant in the Andes. High in protein, iron, calcium, and a number of other alkaloids besides the infamous cocaine, the coca leaf has been used for centuries in the treatment of altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger, and pain. The leaf has significance in religious ceremonies as well, and it is exchanged like currency in the highlands through which we trek.
But even coca cannot explain how I am able to hike so fast, withstand the altitude, suffer the snow with bloodless hands and feet, and consistently make it up each high pass. With energy, with joy. Even coca cannot explain how I spend four days and nights in the mountains of Peru—no bathroom, no running water, sleeping in an ice-covered tent—in conditions of discomfort experienced by millions all over the world, but entirely foreign to me. So foreign as to seem impossible when viewed from the vantage and the comforts of my everyday life.
III. Running the Mile
It takes me years to understand why I dreaded running the mile. It becomes clear one afternoon in our university gym. I am standing at a treadmill, contemplating stepping on. There are rows of collegiate women working out in shorts and sports-bras, reading magazines and assignments, towels draped over their shoulders, water bottles half-drunk. They are running or cycling. And there are young men, too, listening to iPods, bare-chested and sweating, some running impossibly fast, others groaning with exhaustion.
It’s not the running. I don’t want to be seen running. In the moment of turning away from the treadmill, that rationale feels like it makes sense. Now I wonder: How many aspects of our lives are conditioned by such patent foolishness and self-delusion?
I graduate from college, and I no longer have access to that crowded, incredible gym. The runners and cyclers are gone. Without peers for the first time, I am free to run. Without anyone watching, I am not afraid to try.
I begin running outdoors. Around the block, then two blocks. In a matter of months I am running not just one mile, but many miles. I run six days a week. I go to a local running store to get fitted for my first pair of real running shoes. They ask if they can videotape me in order to understand my stride. How do my feet hit the ground? Where do I put pressure?
For a moment, I hesitate. The idea of “the self seen” can paralyze. But I have come farther than I thought I could, and this small thing won’t deter me. They tape my stride; I watch the tape. I am prepared to see feet flying in the wrong directions. I am prepared for embarrassment. Actually, I look pretty good.
I run in a race. I don’t place, but I finish strong, and the satisfaction I feel is something like a runner’s high, when you run so hard and fast that the body compels a flood of endorphins into the system. I know I haven’t run hard or fast enough to actually have a runner’s high, but I feel it anyway. I strip off my sweaty t-shirt, grab my water bottle, and saunter home.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.