“Who’s here for the first time?!”
I'm starting this out with a confession: if the voice that shouted those words had not belonged to a woman like Alison, I may not have come back a second time to Harlem Run. It was a cold night in 2015, and I had timidly joined a mass of people huddled outside Harlem Shake. I was totally unsure of what was about to happen. I hadn’t run in two years, and I’d never run with a group of people, let alone complete strangers.
What drew me to the movement and kept me returning was the female leadership, and the sense of inclusion and community it creates. The women I encountered from day one inspired me by being themselves and creating a safe, judgment-free environment. Anyone who knows Alison doesn't need me to explain that ... But I don’t just mean our fearless leader—I’m also talking about the women and men with whom she surrounds herself, and who choose to be near her.
It was important that the voice I heard that day was female—not because I don’t love men, but because hearing a woman’s voice helped activate a positive voice inside of ME. Most of my youth involved coaches trying to yell me into being quicker, thinner, stronger. It didn't work. Instead, I felt inadequate. Running, which felt like a punishment, reinforced everything that was wrong about my body and physical capabilities. With every step, negative thoughts echoed in my head.
In the years following, my relationship with running changed. I started running to lose the “freshman fifteen”, but it escalated into an obsession and an eating disorder. Running became a punishment for eating. It also became an escape and my coping mechanism for depression. Looking back, running was probably hurting as much as helping me during those years, as I used it to mask some serious problems.
Years later, after finding professional help and working through underlying issues, I decided to stop running. I was tired of forcing my body into a form of exercise that I no longer needed as a punishment or an escape. Instead, I walked and practiced yoga every day. My body started to feel amazing. My mind cleared. I was happy.
Two years went by. Things were under control. I had overcome a difficult period in my life, and secured a job that I loved. Running and I had broken up for good, I thought (and were never, ever getting back together...) But then one day in November 2015, I saw a group of people running down my street in Harlem. They were all smiling and talking as they jogged past. Their energy was electric, and contagious. Something awakened in me again and my body said, “it’s TIME.”
I googled "Harlem running?" Result: Harlem Run. I didn’t overthink it. The following Monday, I showed up. Lots of questions were swirling in my brain. Would I be an outsider? Would I look funny running? Would they really want me? Would I make friends? (and wait—how do you even make new friends in your 30s?!)
The answer to all those questions was Yes. Yes, I was an outsider (at first, because these things take time). Yes, I look funny running (not really, but I’m working on self-perception)! Yes, they really wanted me (they want everyone who really wants to be there). Yes, I made friends (p.s. it's all about showing up, and being authentic).
The list of things I discovered about myself and the people I've come to know and love over the last year is very long. I’ve realized that in order to change how I felt about running, I had to change its function in my life and learn to REALLY listen to my body. Three half marathons later, running is now a celebration, and an act of love-- for myself, and for my running family. Sometimes negative thoughts and voices of old coaches return. But the voices that I listen to belong to the people around me, and they are always stronger than what goes on in my head.
"Who's here for the first time?!"
Every Monday when I hear that, I smile thinking of the new people whose lives are about to change.