My introduction to running was middle school cross-country. We practiced on the gravel roads and mountain trails of northern Idaho, and then spent our weekends racing around city parks and high school tracks. There were a lot of downsides to running cross-country in the small school league we were in, but the one that sticks out the most was the fact that we often had to run the girls and boys races at the same time.
I consistently placed in the top 20 of the boys races and was pretty happy with my lot in life. I knew where I would finish and didn’t really have to push myself to do it. But when we ran our race at the same time as the girls that would all change. That’s because my comfortable top 20 men’s pace translated to an uncomfortable third place in the girls race, and when you’re in seventh grade, surrounded by obnoxious friends for whom puberty looms large on the horizon, there’s nothing more embarrassing than getting “chicked.”
I hated every minute of those races. My coach noticed it. I used to come in to the finish line reasonably calm and put-together, I’d jog through the maze wiping my sweaty brow and hoping I’d made it somewhere above the middle of the pack. But if there were girls on the starting line with me I’d finish in a panic, grabbing huge sobbing gasps of air, glancing over my shoulder with the desperation of a hunted animal for the pig-tailed athlete behind me. It was good for my times, but terrible for my mental health.
It took me a few years, and a lot of unwarranted stress, to grow out of that attitude and realize that I was just slow, period, and gender really didn’t need to be part of that equation. I graduated college content in that knowledge, assuming I could then move on with my life like some kind of adult.
Then I got a running partner who was a lot faster than me, and who happened to be a girl.
Middle school suddenly felt less like a distant dream and more like an everyday reality. At first I pushed myself to beat her. That failed miserably. I could keep up for a while, but then I always blew up, exploding from lack of fitness and nutrition, bonking hard on the side of the trail as I watched her disappear up it.
Then I’d drink some water, eat some candy and shuffle back onto the trail, resolving to run my run, acknowledging the fact that I wouldn’t see her again until she deigned to nap beside some creek and wait for me. That arrangement wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t been running in Grand Teton National Park much of the time.
It’s hard to find an empty stretch of trail in most areas of the park, and often those trails are populated by tank top-clad college bros, jocular rednecks and spicy older women. In short, exactly the type of folks who like to give me a hard time about how far ahead of me my partner is. I understand where they’re coming from. It’s hard not to comment when she springs past them with a smile, like some sort of nimble gazelle working her way down trail. I follow, shuffling like a wounded hippopotamus, groaning with every step, occasionally stopping to massage my knees and reevaluate every life decision that led me here.
Sometimes she’s so far ahead that I’m shocked they assume we’re running together, and I want to feign ignorance: “Oh, there’s a girl up there ahead of me? She must have had a head start, we definitely didn’t leave from the same car at the same time this morning!” But there’s nothing I can do to mitigate their attempts at humor, their jokes about how I’d better catch her, about how I’m getting chicked.
So I embrace the heckling. I accept that I have a running partner who’s faster than me, because she makes me faster, and I love trying to keep up. I appreciate the jokes because they mean she’s close enough for me to try to catch her and because the people making them are never running themselves, so I’m not concerned with their opinion.
Next time you’re hiking in the park and some girl comes barreling down the trail like a turbocharged ibex in running shoes, keep an eye out for the hairy guy limping a few hundred yards behind her and try to think of some clever taunt. I’ll do my best to give you a perfunctory laugh before I stumble on down toward the car.