It’s finally spring on this side of the world, and one of the reasons why I feel like celebrating is that the warmer, lighter evenings will allow me to start running again. I’ve written on here before about how much I love to run the streets of Hobart – not in any attempt to set records, simply because it makes me happy.
This year I’m hoping that my running routine will be even easier to keep up, because as part of the redevelopment of the oval across the road the council has installed a new track around the perimeter. It’s a huge improvement on the bumpy, soggy ground that I had to contend with previously, and while running short laps isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, it’s a great way of getting started again.
Voluntarily choosing to go out for a run or a cycle still feels strange – it doesn’t sit very comfortably as part of my identity because it’s something I didn’t start doing until my mid-twenties.
As a kid living out in the country I stayed fit without really trying – walking the dogs, shooting hoops, and kicking a soccer ball against the side of the house for hours on end. And as a university student in Edinburgh I got good workouts walking all over the city each day and dancing until the wee small hours several nights a week. But I hated school PE lessons with a passion. So how did the girl who hated exercise become the woman who loved it?
“Stand up straighter!” my PE teacher shouted across a crowded basketball court. “Come on Ruth, lift your boobs up!”
I was mortified. I could feel my face flushing bright red, and hunched my shoulders even more than I had been already. What a thing to say to a fourteen-year-old girl. Unfortunately, it was just the latest in a long run of horrifying experiences that I’d had in high school PE.
From the Scottish country dancing lessons, where I had to grasp the clammy hand of an unwilling partner; to the badminton session where my best friend caught me with a racket and gave me a black eye. From the cross country runs that started at the bottom of a steep hill and had me reaching for my asthma inhaler before we’d even begun; to the term – pre-contact lenses – when I tried softball and could never see the ball coming.
There was the stink of Impulse body spray in the changing rooms. The efforts at contortion as forty girls tried to switch from their uniforms to their sports gear without revealing a glimpse of bra. The swimming gala where I had to be hauled out spluttering during the ‘fun race’. The sports day 800 metres where I gave up after 400.
The only sport I could find enjoyment in at high school was hockey, and even then I would only go as far as attending the after-school training sessions, never the games themselves. I didn’t feel competitive enough to care about the results, wasn’t keen on travelling around the region with the other girls, and didn’t want to give up my Saturdays.
(I had a habit of making that kind of defiant decision at school – I also signed up for French lessons in sixth year to learn about film and literature but refused to sit the exam…)
And perhaps that is the key. High school PE comes with innumerable pressures, and not just the pressure to adopt public nonchalance about your awkward, fast-changing body. Even within the core, compulsory lessons, there is pressure to improve, to compete, to push your boundaries. It is taught – or at least was taught twenty years ago in rural Scotland – in a way that provides rewards and incentives for competitive, extrovert personalities. If you don’t want to be the best, the fastest, the highest points scorer… well there must be something a bit wrong with you.
It has taken me many years to understand that it’s okay to challenge that way of thinking – to find quiet pleasure in something for its own sake.
Even as adults, a lot of people who enjoy sport and exercise as a social activity are surprisingly intolerant of those who prefer to do it alone. When I posted on here last year about how I always run alone, I was bombarded with messages from well-meaning strangers telling me to join the local park run, that I would surely love it if only I gave it a chance. But in my mid-thirties, I am finally able to say that I will only exercise in the way that I want to.
It has been interesting to realise that I’m not alone in this. Among my friendship groups there are literally dozens of women who have only fallen in love with sport in their late twenties and early thirties. For many of them, it has been running. But I also know people who now play netball every week, who swim in the ocean all year round, and who participate in martial arts.
The sole common factor for all of us?
It makes us feel good. It makes us happy.
Sometimes, that is enough.
Some further reading that you might find interesting.
The Guardian: Are PE lessons too traumatic for teenage girls?
The University of Edinburgh: Arts and PE help pupils to thrive at school.