Down the last straightaway, I relish the burn in my taut legs. Thirty-mile-per-hour winds have plagued me for much of this 5K, with no one in front of me to curb it. A gust picks up and I fight back, snapping one foot from the concrete and pounding the other down. I barrel down the final few meters and hurtle across the finish line. After the chute, I crouch low to the ground, and close my eyes to enjoy my body’s throb. I have finished first for women.
When other competitors start crossing the line, I stand and cheer for them. A man finishes, chest reamed with sweat. He approaches me with a look of coy dissatisfaction, one that reminds me of boys’ faces in my middle school PE class after I won the timed mile.
“Nice job, girl,” he sneers. I am twenty-four. My form is muscle and height. He lets his gaze crawl up and down my body. This man is not the first. In high school, while on a run in my neighborhood in Oklahoma, a construction worker leered She’s one warm-blooded cat as if I was not there to hear. During my PhD, a baseball-capped boy in a low black car slowed and followed me for a quarter-mile, his hand held to his chin as if appraising my form, the words fine ass sliding from his throat. While running my daily miles in Texas, nearly a decade ago, a man threw an empty beer bottle at me from the window of his truck, not needing words to cut away at me.
In my daily life, I am scared to take up space. I am quiet. I smile. But in motion, I am striation of quadriceps and pure speed. No horn blasts or men yelling from trucks’ open windows can diminish me when I’m in flight.
I am not the only woman to feel this way. Leslie Heywood, in her acclaimed 1999 memoir Pretty Good For a Girl, writes about her experiences as a standout cross country and track athlete in Arizona. The book opens with a scene familiar to any runner: a 4:00am wake-up call, a ride from a parent to practice, and a long set of grueling miles. But Heywood does not only run for the camaraderie or fitness that the sport offers. Abused at home by her father, and later sexually abused by a coach, she runs to assert her power.
In the opening scene, set on a desert road where she and the boys’ team are to complete their mileage, italicized segments of text signify competing voices in Heywood’s consciousness as a young adolescent. One moment, her coach says “I want her to stop thinking like a girl runner”—the next, a memory steeped in violence intrudes, her “father turning the meat on the grill…dogs drawing away before their ribs were kicked, my mother’s face, a handprint as big as a burn.” Heywood’s experiences and the voices in her head tell competing stories of who she is: there are the newspapers that report on her course records, but also the haunting episodes of familial violence; there are her coaches’ desires, the teenage love notes addressed lovingly to “Leslie [Airhead]” from admirers, and the complex fears over developing a “woman’s body” because she believed she would no longer then “stride through any space like it was mine,”
When Heywood runs, she is no longer a victim, no longer an object to be coveted, no longer a woman in the way she fears. She reclaims the word “girl” and chisels her body into formidable muscle. She describes holding her place among the boys, “carving it out, running myself from shadow to guts with every carnivorous stride.” As she describes in many of the lush, lyrical sentences that pervade this book, she finds strength in her body through running. Her legs are “steel pistons,” “lungs like pumps of lead,” and steps like “big bites, tearing the road.” In motion, her body swallows distance and stamps down ground. And, she beats the boys.
Within her running form exists agency and confidence, but, like all runners, Heywood cannot reside permanently within the strength of her stride. There is danger when she’s not in motion. While she lifts weights at school, the coach of the high school football team grabs her by the wrist and throws her against the wall, reducing her to a ghost. At practice one day, her track coach makes her run through the wet sprinklers after her workout is already done. He tells her it’s “a nice sight.” One week later, her parents out of town, Heywood’s house phone rings at one in the morning. Heywood answers.
“I know you’re alone,” her track coach says. Heywood describes his voice as low, “coiled there like a spring…more to go before it will unwind.” Over the phone, her coach threatens to set a group of boys after her “so hard you won’t have any idea what happened” if she doesn’t tell him where she lives. After hanging up, he drives to her house and has sex with her on her twin bed. Heywood feels far away from her own body in the act, distancing herself both in point of view, referring to herself only as “girl” during the encounter. From outside herself, she watches as the girl fumbles, “not even moving very much.” Internally, she keeps herself “closed like a stone.”
A couple years later, after graduating from high school, Heywood goes to court to testify against her coach. He resigns from his teaching position as a result, but the legal process—one in which six old men sit around a table and ask, “Miss Heywood, how many times?” and “Did you enjoy it?”—does not leave her feeling empowered. Instead, for years, Heywood lives as a girl with “no mouth” who lingers in the trauma of the memory, who tries to feel her heart beating “but nothing happens.” The only way she can reclaim herself before she graduates from high school is on the track, where her coach’s eyes linger on each of her steps. “See. You can’t fuck with me,” she thinks to him as she rounds a bend. “Watch me. Just watch,” she taunts, and runs the fastest times of her life, believing herself in control again of her form.
There is a theme in Heywood’s life–and mine–of running as reclamation. I have used running to take my body back from sexual assault, from too many visits to the doctor, from taunts thrown at me from vehicles. Heywood uses running to cope with abuse, assault, and heartbreak. But she cannot run forever. Her body begins to break down during her time as a Division I athlete. She experiences mysterious attacks that leave her breathless, extremities weak. Though at first no one believes her symptoms, a doctor diagnoses her with an immune system disorder. “You have to stop competing,” he tells her. She does.
What happens to a runner when her body is stolen away? I know. Like Heywood, I once competed as a Division I athlete, but a strange series of symptoms – dizziness, slurred words, legs that collapsed– took that ability away from me. Like Heywood, I spent the months following my inevitable departure from the team feeling afraid that I’d be just be some girl. No more quick mile splits to prove my ability, no more chiseled limbs, no more confidence that I could walk through life without my body failing me.
Heywood’s story ends years later, with her in a gym, no high school football coach there to violently eject her. She is a body builder now, her form all bulge of bicep and lean, cut leg. At her first bench press competition, she writes, “some ghost within me feels her blood and takes shape.” Heywood runs a slow four-mile jog most days with her dog as well.
I run now, too. My symptoms come and go without apparent cause; seven years of hospitals haven’t pinned down a solid diagnosis. Part of me worries that I’m simply chasing a vision of my old body, but I find respite in the proof of my splits, as if to say I ran ten miles, I’m okay. I also find power.
Months after winning the 5K, I go for a run on my usual route around my small town. It is summer, the humidity like a wool blanket on my limbs. The roads are nearly empty, but I hear the rumble of a loud engine behind me.
A white truck crosses four lanes of open road, veering toward me. I quicken my stride, gunning for the gas station ahead. I’d like to take a bite of that candy apple ass a man leans out of the driver seat to yell. Heat from the truck’s fender radiates toward me. Scent of diesel. Sound of laughter.
In this moment, I am girl, I am memory of my traumas, I am muscle, I am speed. I am scared. The truck careens back into its proper lane and I pound concrete until my hands stop tremoring, each step leading me far away from the angry heat of men and metal, each step guiding me back to my exquisite, fallible frame.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir of running and illness. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. She recently won runner-up in the Black Warrior Review Nonfiction Contest.