I started running because my fiancée said she wanted to lose weight for the wedding. I couldn't handle the idea of being the fat dude standing next to her.
Looking back, I feel awful about the way my heart sank when she said that. We were about eight months away from her having to wear a wedding dress in late August heat, in front of everyone we love, in hundreds of pictures that we'd be looking at forever. She wanted to look dope; it was 100 percent reasonable.
A better man would have been on-board right away. Like, "Kid, I get you. No, better yet, I GOT you. Let's you and me hit the streets. Let's get fit. Let's get healthy. Let's get our sexy right."
I'm not a better man.
I am, however, self-absorbed, so my lady saying she wanted to do something positive for herself made me worry about what that would mean for me. She's nothing if not determined; in the middle of grad school, she went from "can't run a mile" to "completing the 2008 Boston Marathon," just to prove to herself that she could. (She also did it to raise money for a good cause, which, frankly, felt like even MORE of a passive-aggressive dig at my relative lack of merit.) She was going to start running again.
Cue the mental montage.
I saw her shivering after finishing five miles in the snow while I sipped beer and smiled at how my NCAA Football '10 recruiting class was shaping up. I saw myself rolling over in a huff as she groped to snooze the alarm she'd set for an early weekend run. I saw us hugging after she reached her goal weight, then me apologizing for getting a little marinara from my chicken parm sub on her shoulder.
I saw us at the altar, her a vision in white, me a ZIP code in whatever color "BOOOOOOOOO" is. I saw the looks.
More to the point, I felt them -- coming from her, from our families, from our wedding guests, from everyone. Not anger, really, or disappointment; more like muted disgust. Like, "The woman you're marrying worked so hard to get here, you creep, and you've done nothing."
(It's worth noting that neither she nor any of those other people have ever looked at me that way, and that these looks existed solely in my head. Self-absorbed and insecure: I'm a catch.)
I couldn't deal with the thought of those looks or the reality of deserving them, so I grumbled assent for the "let's run" plan. The montage ended, the images faded, and all that was left was a single sinus-rhythm mantra:
No f***ing WAY I'll actually keep doing this.
Two guys smoke cigarettes outside the Silhouette Lounge in sub-scenic Allston, Mass. The first is a plaid-and-pipe-leg post-collegiate, too cool for any room but hanging in this one specifically because it's the divey-est dive bar around, obviously. He stands out front between trips to the jukebox to put on some Thin Lizzy or Foghat ("lol"), sucking down loosened American Spirits or, depending on his level of commitment, burning strands of Checkers packed into a filter-less, hand-rolled slip of paper.
The second is a leather-lunged lifer drawing deep off a USA Gold before heading back in to hold down the stool right in front of the Keno screen. He throws down beer after shot after beer after shot, watching the Bruins and waiting 'til the pool table's open, waiting 'til the dartboard's free, just waiting. He's actually enjoying the Foghat.
A hipster and a regular: their faces change every few minutes, but it's the same two people every night, forever and ever, amen. They both think I look ridiculous. They're right.
Part of deciding you're going to start running is finding clothes in which you can do so. When you've never regularly run, you probably don't own any clothing well-suited for that purpose; I stink at clothes-shopping in general, and I didn't (and still don't) know how to buy new gear. Also, winter in Boston is frequently snowy and always cold.
Combine those elements and you have my awesome "let's become someone who runs" outfit:
- A thick black polar fleece that I got as a free gift at my company's annual meeting;
- Cheap, nondescript black New Balances that the lady at Foot Locker said were better for working out in a gym than running outside;
- A pair of decade-old blue Champion shorts that stopped well before my knees, but did have pockets that could hold a house key;
- A fuzzy grey polyester headband that I think I stole from the college radio station I worked at early last decade;
- A bright orange bandana, protruding from under the headband like a proud flag to alert passing cars that I was running at nighttime;
- Worn over the black fleece for the same reason, a massive, light blue XXL T-shirt promoting the now-defunct band Grandaddy, featuring an image of a robot deer;
- Knee-high maroon soccer socks, purchased at age 15 to match my high school lacrosse uniform, worn independent of context at age 28 for reasons that remain unclear.
On top of making me look like an unhinged patchwork sideshow performer, the ensemble was the diametric opposite of functional. Layers of fleece, cotton and polyester trapped every drop of sweat I shed as I chugged along. By the end of each run, no matter how long I was out, I felt like a soaked gym sock stuffed with sponges and set in a freezer. I'd be cold, wet and tired, and I'd swear that this would be the last time I went out.
Then, on the cool-down walk back to my apartment, I'd reach the corner of Allston Street and Brighton Avenue, where I'd pass the front door of the Silhouette. When I got there, without fail, the huddled smokers would unite and stare at the weirdo in the bandana and high socks.
Sometimes they'd straight-up laugh. Sometimes they'd offer a simple, sarcastic "Looking good, man." Sometimes they'd just grill me, their smirks digging into my back as I kept moving en route to the Brazilian grocery on the corner. There couldn't have been a more perfect ending to the awful experience of being a fat dude running through ankle-deep snow and slush in 10-degree weather.
And yet, by the time I'd rounded the corner and gotten home, I always felt more resolved to get out again the next day. Why?
Because f*** 'em, that's why. These pricks think I'm going to stop coming out here because they snicker and sneer? They think I'm just going to fold up because they've got jokes? Guess again, a**holes.
Yeah, I'm wearing high socks. They help my calves stay warm. What's up? You think they can't go higher? Oh, word? They're actually folded over just above the three stripes, dog! These'll get up over the kneecap if I really want them to! You think I won't? Just try me, dude.
I'll be out here every Goddamn night if that's what it takes to shut you up. I'm gonna get so healthy that you're gonna f***ing CHOKE.
I wouldn't stay angry for long -- usually, it'd all go away once I got inside my warm apartment and started to stretch out -- but the seed was already planted. I couldn't stop, because I had to show those two jerks what I was all about ... which, apparently, was not only looking like a lunatic, but having the inner monologue to match. Whatever. Keep them looks coming, guys. All day, every day.
I know in my brain that these aren't good reasons to do things. Shame and rage tend to be unfit parents that rarely produce healthy offspring. My reasons for running should have been simple and positive -- to support my future wife, to feel better and stronger, to find the inner peace and light that in-shape people always seem to have on the covers of fitness magazines. The journey of a thousand miles should have begun with a peppy, jaunty step. But it didn't.
Fear of looking gross and disappointing people got me started. Anger at perceived slights kept me going day after day and turned isolated action into firm habit. Even after winter became spring -- after I'd retired the polar fleece and bought honest-to-God running shoes -- I still always felt like everyone I passed along my route saw through me with the same sneer. You're not really a runner. You're just some fat kid playing a part. I'd worked up to knocking out a 10.2-mile route in just under 1:29, gotten down to a weight I hadn't seen since I was 16, and I still never stopped feeling like a tourist.
This, of course, is ridiculous. The parents pushing their kids in strollers and the drivers on Route 9 likely never gave me a first thought, let alone a second. I probably left the heads of the guys outside the corner bar as soon as I exited their field of vision. The woman I was going to marry never once looked at me with a furrowed brow. It was all in my head. But it worked. It pushed me out there, it kept me out there, and it got me past the point of having to worry about being the fat dude standing next to her.
Motivation is where you find it, and if you can find yours in the pursuit of good health or a runner's high, then that's awesome. I'm glad for you. I found mine -- and continue to find mine, less frequently than before the wedding but more frequently than at any other point in my life -- in the persistent fear that all those looks I think I see are real, and that they're right. And, maybe most of all, that if I stop, then they never will.
Dan Devine is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a contributing writer for Ball Don't Lie, Yahoo! Sports' NBA blog, and his writing about sports and culture has appeared on FreeDarko and PopMatters. He makes little jokes just about all the time on Twitter and Tumblr.