On Running

I’m running again!

Something that’s quite wonderful about technology (specifically, RunKeeper) is that it saves all of my data from all of my runs from times past, so I can go back to when I started training for my first half marathon and see how bad I sucked then and how quickly I improved, so that I don’t get discouraged when I have a bad run this time ’round.

In a weird bit of cosmic poetry, I started that training for that race – which I ran in 1 hour and 51 minutes, on November 10, 2012 – on July 1, 2012. I was finally feeling well enough to get back to running on July 8, 2013. Now, I’m back up to 3 miles in 30 minutes. That puts me on track to run another half marathon before Thanksgiving, although I probably won’t be able to on account on my exchange surgery, which is scheduled for that same time frame. I did find a halfie that runs around Central Park in January; I’m supposed to take six weeks off running after my surgery, but…we’ll see.

I forgot how nice it is to have a hobby where you can actually watch yourself improve day-by-day. In the other creative aspects of my life – my job, my writing, my relationships, my attempts to be a not-totally-sucky person, my ability to drink a vodka tonic or two without immediately making everyone in the bar my best friend – improvement is very subjective, virtually impossible to measure. But when I run, I can see progress every single day. I can go from running 2.5 miles in 30 minutes, to 2.75, to 2.9, to 3.0 and, as of this morning, 3.1. I know, I know, it’s slow – my high school cross-country self would probably be ashamed to even record times this slow – but WHATEVER. I basically nuked my body, boiled the hemoglobin right out of my blood and poisoned myself to the brink of death, so the fact that I can do anything besides shuffle/crawl on all fours is fantastic.

Running gives me a lot of gifts. It makes me proud of my body again. It’s the first step (ha!) in rebuilding my relationship with my physical self, a relationship that’s been a bit contentious ever since my physical self went rogue and tried to off itself. It gives me endorphins, which, if you don’t exercise, are VERY real and you should totally exercise because it’s good for you and it feels good, seriously. And it’s also given me the confidence to walk around bald.

I never took my bald head anywhere without a wig or beanie on top of it for the duration of my illness. I couldn’t even bring myself to hang out in the living room hatless; the image of the sickly, hairless Gollum I saw in the mirror just didn’t jibe with the conception I had of myself with big, bouncing brown curls and thick, natural eyebrows, and I didn’t want people – even my parents – to get an image of bald-me into their heads that they couldn’t get out.

So for a while, I tried to run with a beanie. I even have a nice UnderArmour hat for just this purpose. But if you have been following the weather reports here in New York, then you know that it has been HOT. So hot that every day at 12:30 this disembodied voice would come on the loudspeaker at work and almost make me crap my pants by playing an emergency siren before announcing that we were shutting down half the elevators in order to prevent a city-wide blackout from the stress on the power grid. And even though I go running in the mornings, before the sun has had time to heat the tarmac to the temperature of a sautee pan on the stove, I would find myself sweating, uncomfortable and dizzy, in the heat.

And, you guys, if I ever write a movie about my life, this scene will be in it: The scene where I realized, F–k it, it’s just too hot, I cannot wear this beanie anymore! Beanie, you are maybe made out of wool (I dunno, I didn’t look at your label) and just because I no longer conform to traditional feminine beauty standards and look like G.I. Jane slash Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta if I’m being super super generous about my looks, I shouldn’t have to hide myself from everyone! BEANIE, YOU ARE HOLDING ME BACK! And I stuffed it in my sports bra, bald head on display, and continued on my way.

I had this whole speech prepared for if anybody heckled me about it, too. The gist of it was pretty much, What, you’ve never seen a buzzed head before? Who are you, THE HAIR POLICE? And then depending on endorphin level, possibly a middle finger. I never said I was role model, y’all.

But no one – NO ONE – heckled me. I learned a lesson here, too, and that is that even though we’re all the hero of our own stories, no one else gives a shit. Generally, people are too busy with their own thoughts to give much thought to whatever trait about yourself make you self-conscious. And if there IS anyone out there concerned enough to give you a hard time about having a big nose or being too tall or whatever it is that makes you embarrassed, then I feel sorry for someone who has so little going on in his own life that he has to butt into yours. Sure, some people stared a bit, but mostly I just look like a really aggressive lesbian, and in New York (and specifically Greenwich Village, where I live), that’s anything but a rare sight.

I was actually so emboldened by running around bald that I started ditching the beanie entirely, not taking it with me on my runs at all. On one such run, I was jogging down the greenway when a man caught up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Can I take your picture?” he asked.

He was probably about 50 or so, completely bald himself, and was out jogging as well. At this point I was enjoying a pretty good endorphin high, but I was still a bit skeptical, so I asked, “What for?”

“My wife is bald,” he said. “She’s so beautiful, but she’ll never go anywhere without her wigs. She doesn’t feel beautiful. But she is. She’s so gorgeous. Look.”

His pride was obvious. He took out his phone and flipped through some pictures so that I could see how beautiful she was (and he was right, she was gorgeous).

“Don’t tell her I showed you this,” he added in a mock whisper, and swiped to one of her without her wig. She still looked beautiful, just like he’d said.

“I want her to know that it’s okay to go out without hair, that there are beautiful girls out there who look amazing with no hair, like you. I want to show her your picture.”

DUDE. DUDE. OF COURSE YOU CAN TAKE MY PICTURE. Let me just stop CRYING over this incredibly EMOTIONAL THING YOU JUST SHARED WITH ME. I gave him a wide smile and let him snap a shot.

“Do you mind if I ask,” he added, “do you just choose to shave it, or did something happen?”

“Eh, I got a little bit of cancer,” I shrugged.

He offered his condolences, then asked, “Are you in remission?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“Six weeks.”

“Amazing. That’s amazing.” He high-fived me. “Good luck to you, and I hope you live a long, happy, cancer-free life!”

Then he jogged away and I stood there on the greenway, hairless, sweaty, looking at the downtown skyline and thinking about his wife and whatever demons she faced as a bald woman, too. That guy probably thinks I gave his wife something great by posing for that picture, but he gave me something much greater by asking for it. Confidence, purpose, a sense that some good can come from how gross I look when I work out.

Like I said, running gives me a lot of gifts.

20 thoughts on “On Running

  1. Oh man… You made me cry in my office…. I’m so glad you’re doing well. And well enough to run. I shaved my head in March because my friend Susan (who first turned me on to amazing you and your fab blog) was freaking out about losing her hair almost as much about the cancer; and I committed to keep it that way for a year. I had really long, pretty blonde hair; but once I decided to do it, it seemed like a new adventure, not a sacrifice. (It took my husband a lot longer to cope, but he’s into it now. He’s great.)

    Sometimes I feel like I look exotic, and sometimes I feel like I simply look odd. But NEVER until now have I had so many people come across stores and malls and sidewalks to talk to me, let alone opening with, “You are SO beautiful!” Wow.

    This has been a nice bonus, but mainly it has reminded me what’s important. Life. Health. My friend Susan and other friends. Everyone I love. One thing for sure–it ain’t hair.

    And as for running–I was a couch potato til I was 30, and I’m 60 now and slower than my grandmother (who’s dead). But like the front of my No Boundaries t-shirt says “Running changes everything.”

    Okay, I’m really sorry to have taken up residence on your comments, but you hit so many notes. Thank you for your wonderful writing and genuineness. And profanity.

    • ubensmom says:

      She/you made me cry too. This is my friend who is NOT bald as an extreme reaction to summer. She has not for a minute let me battle this alone.

  2. ubensmom says:

    What an incredible experience. I just started going part-time publicly bald too (actually I have about 2mm of hair), also due to heat. When people stare I just mentally say to myself, ” Cope people cope!” Culturally no one here in Germany would ever ask about the baldness….I have 2 friends who buzzed in solidarity and one was asked recently (Wisconsin!) if she was battling cancer or was having an extreme reaction to summer. Best bald question ever!
    Run on, you are such an inspiration.

  3. This is, without a doubt, one of the best things I have ever read. Period.

  4. sydney maraldo... says:

    You inspire me.. thank you…

  5. Wow, this one brought All The Tears. PS way to go on hitting the pavement again!!

  6. Daile says:

    This is such a beautiful story Michelle! I hope your courage helped the man’s wife realise how beautiful she is. You are beautiful too!

  7. Caroline says:

    I’m legit crying at work. I love everything about this post.

  8. lisa says:

    Sitting here, teary eyed, so beautifully written! Thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us…xx

  9. SDS says:

    Excuse me while I go cry all over everyone/everything. Such a moving story, so beautifully written.

  10. fransiweinstein says:

    Now he’s a husband worth keeping! Enjoy your running.

  11. Just, ya know, sitting at the office. Wiping tears. I’ve gotta stay off your blog at work.

    Sick undies campaign, gal ;)

  12. Tdizzle says:

    Amazing post. You are an incredible writer and have an amazing ability to pull readers right into your life. Thank you for sharing this incredible story. Cheers to your great running community!

  13. Catherine Schultz says:

    Clearly I am not alone in my tearful response to your post. Definitely one of my favorites to date!! It created such a “visual” for me of you running bald in a park in New York and then the man stopping to ask for a photo. The only thing missing was a film crew. The scene says “movie” all over it! I’m cheering you and your little follicles on Michelle and feel so blessed to be along for the virtual ride through your blog. Thanks so much for sharing your life with us!

  14. marina says:

    Laughe and cried at the same time. That’s good right?

  15. […] You can read one of her latest posts here. […]

  16. I loved that running story! BALD IS BEAUTIFUL!!!!!

  17. Maureen says:

    You are such an inspiration! I totally relate to your running, it truly saved me, from different demons in my life. 61 and still going strong, keep going, you rock…..

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