What this body can do

I thought I'd take a breather from writing my refugees and immigrants series to talk about something that's been at the forefront of my mind lately: running, body image, and identity.

I am four weeks away from running a marathon. It has been an all-consuming, and quite frankly, a selfish process. Every time I tell someone I need to bail on plans so I can go on a long run, I feel like I'm accidentally bragging. Really, it's just that I have trouble separating the rest of my life from the act of running the farthest I've ever run on a consistent basis.

Three months ago, I had never run more than 11 miles. Now, I can say I have run 20. Each week is a new mileage record for me. No matter how slow I am, how much I'm sweating, or how ugly I feel as I lumber like a wounded rhino through Philly's unrelenting humidity, I remind myself: this body can run 16 miles. Now 18. Now 20.

Running is not a sexy sport, and the changes your body undergoes are not glamorous. Running adds meat to your thighs, but it doesn't help you carve out perfect abs or sculpted arms. Running does not grant us the grace or coordinated athleticism we see in gymnastics or figure skating. That's what's so beautiful about some sports--they don't ask you to look beautiful to practice them. Case in point: I am usually covered in white streaks of sunscreen-tainted sweat, and my mouth is dripping after desperately slobbering at the water fountain. I've had a bug fly straight into my eye, and in the act of trying to extricate it, tripped on a lip of uneven sidewalk in front of an entire audience of restaurant-goers sitting outside. Yet I can honestly say that my body confidence has probably been the highest it's ever been in my entire life.  

I've learned to forgive my body a bit for its imperfections because it has tolerated (for the most part) what I've done to it. When I lost a toenail, my body grew a new one. When I got a muscle strain, I took nearly a month off and my body rewarded me by healing. When I ran through side stitches and heart burn, those fleeting discomforts eventually dissipated. 

Carving up to three hours out of my day to focus on just me and my body's limits has been very telling. I've redefined what real pain means to me--and my threshold for when I must stop running is very different from what it was before. I've found that the farther I run, the less tempted I am to walk, knowing that I am about to hit another record for most consecutive miles my feet have pounded pavement and tolerated blisters.

I have also learned how to trick myself into going farther. I zig zag up and down the numbered streets to disorient myself so that I don't know how far I actually have to go. I use landmarks as motivation. Just to the water fountain. Just to the bridge. Just to that telephone pole over there, where the cute dog is peeing, and then you can stop. Try not to think about how much you have to pee, or how many people have passed you, or what you must look like when you eat an energy gel by ripping it open with your teeth while trying not to break your stride.

My marathon training has reminded me of one simple truth: If I can use my brain to train my body, I can use my body to train my brain. I stand when I need to be awake. I put my fingers to my keyboard and force myself to type, even if I'm not sure at all what's going to come out yet.

Which is exactly what I'm doing now. I just used my body--ass in (cat-hair-covered) seat, fingers to the home row keys--to trick myself into writing an entire blog entry.

This is what we call free writing: the act of letting your fingers run freely and telling them there is nothing wrong, unsexy, or painful about typing one word after the other without stopping.

This is what we need to tell anyone who is learning a new skill. In particular, we need to remember this when judging someone's ability to read, write, or speak a new language or understand a foreign culture. That it is ok to keep going and going even if what comes out is a bunch of finger calluses, misconjugated verbs, misspelled words, or faux pas. The mind-body connection has a lot to teach us about what mistakes we are willing to tolerate not only in ourselves, but in others. 

I am reminded of two Liberian refugee students who were in my beginner ESL class. They requested that I write entire stories on the board for them to copy, because that's how they were used to learning. At first, I was taken aback at the emptiness of a task that required simply copying without comprehending, but now I think I understand what it was they were really after: the simple act of the pen moving for a prolonged period of time without starting and stopping with uncertainty. The marathon of the pen on the paper was a practice run for what their hands would be able to do when they were eventually writing on their own.

Start a timer and do one challenging thing today without stopping--it could be running, writing, meditating, or really whatever you want. Push past the pain, and see how far you can go.