Running Confidently

It took me until my Junior year in high school before I started to actually enter some sort of growth spurt. Up until that point I was about 5 foot 2, which is to summarize, incredibly short amongst my peers. If you think, in a school of a couple thousand, this doesn’t translate into hanging off the bottom rungs of the ladder of hierarchy, you are sorely mistaken. Add to my small stature an interest in the fringe cultures of punk rock music, skateboarding, and the fashion peculiarities that went along with both, and you have a recipe for constant ridicule, physical harassment and the confidence crushing demoralization that comes with it all.

I was verbally assaulted with the usual, “Skater fag!”, of which I could shrug off quite easily, but it was the physical assaults that took a much greater toll on my confidence and sense of self-worth. There was a particular stretch of my high school career that involved a string of efforts to try and stuff me in a trash can (that I successfully fought off, but dreaded having to do every day), an effective campaign to intimidate me into giving away the meager lunch money I had, a neighborhood of older kids that would toss me around like a rag doll as they exploited their size in trying out the latest wrestling moves they saw on TV, and low-level, but repeated physical assualts in the back of the bus that had me sunk down and fighting off tears that surely would have only escalated the abuse.

There was nothing I could do. I was small. So small that I simply couldn’t fight off the physical demoralization I was faced with every day, even under the pretense of just “joking around”, which actually made it quite worse. A full on attack would have been episodic, but joking around is repetitive, consistent, and harder to convince others to intervene and act on your behalf.

So for most of my growing years I dealt with being in this position on the bottom of the bullying hierarchy. My only solace was having a best friend who would sometimes bear the brunt of the bullying along with me…and the occasional ability to run away from the bullies. It wasn’t anything I could rely upon, but every once in awhile I could escape the physical grip of certain situations and take the hell off, of which I simply couldn’t be caught by the time I reached the safety of my own front door. But running doesn’t fix the effects of bullying. Running just gets you into a physically safe position, while the internal dialogue of frustration, fear and anger continues on unabated.

Then there was the supposed safety net of adult intervention that often came up short, only adding to the sense of isolation and lack of self-worth. The bus driver couldn’t be bothered to stop the bus and deal with the purposefully hidden abuse or even go as far as changing my seat in the order. My mom did her best to appeal to the school authorities for help in certain situations, which resulted in a one-day suspension of a particularly adamant bully, but only served to create an escalated backlash. That safety net of adult intervention seemed to have way too many holes to be anything reliable to fall into for my liking, again, leaving me feeling powerless and alone.

I can really only look to the saving grace of an older, protective sister….or at least the appeal she made to her friends to help ease the onslaught of bullying I seemed to be dealing with. My sister had friends….big friends. Big friends who listened to the same punk rock I did, wore danzig shirts and pulled their hair into devil locks that divided their mascara lined eyes. They were intimidating in every sense of the word and, fortunately, they were on my side. They made a very direct, and apparently convincing, demand of one specific bully in question who was taking advantage of my small stature, and although I remember him dismissing the threats of my sister’s friends, giving me quite an internal worry in the process….he stopped. Immediately.

But that was just one battle overcome. There were others as I worked my way through high school, navigating the difficult terrain of social development with a now fully compromised sense of self-worth, trying desperately to develop the confidence to stand up for myself and be comfortable with who I was.

My junior year rolled around and I gained a few physical inches, and although I don’t remember the specifics, I went out for the cross country team, which simply meant running a mile time trial and then showing up for practices. I, however, ended up as one of the top seven runners, quickly earning my position as a top fiver and affording me the privilege of earning points for the team as we went undefeated in the regular season meets, then winning Sectionals, Regionals and making a go at State.

Maybe more importantly in this process, I had developed that position of value on the team, which inadvertently gave me a sense of value within myself. I had something I could directly reference, even if only to myself, and say, “There. I can do that. I have an ability others don’t. You can’t beat that.”

And that ability ended up affording me a sense of respect, that initially took me by great surprise. Our cross country team basically had enough kids to make a complete team, with not many more to spare, but when we made it all the way to State for the first time in a LONG time, the rest of the school was forced to pay attention to us. And me. That short, “skater fag”, who came from a tiny Catholic school, that offered little of value to others, was now some sort of representative of the school community. I could run, and it had to be recognized. After making it through Semi-state the school  acknowledged our success publicly and the student body did as well, gaining me a sense of POSITIVE attention I was NOT used to. But it was there and that sense of value I achieved through running gave me a confidence that I carry with me to this day as an adult.

There was even a more specific and direct occurrence of validation that came with my running. One of the previous bully’s who delivered some of that low-level, but consistent ridicule and physical abuse was actually on the team, however, I was faster than him. Being able to outrun him on the course and the inherent bonds we had to form as teammates generated a respect and appreciation that overcame any impetus he had to intimidate and bully me. My running ability put him on a ladder rung, in that arena anyways, below me.

Ultimately, running was my escape from intimidation and path towards the confidence I needed to generate to tackle the rest of my life from that point on. I attribute that initial discovery of my own confidence and subsequent growing to my ability to handle most every obstacle that has met me through life, from getting jobs, to navigating relationships, to overcoming adversity of all kinds. There were a number of factors that gave me such an ability, of course, but none that had the lasting power of my running abilities.

As a father, one of the most important traits I want to instill in my son is a strength of confidence. I truly believe confidence becomes more important than any skill or body of knowledge one acquires in traditional schooling, and will carry you further in life than a degree or social standing. This confidence, of course, doesn’t have to come through running. I was simply fortunate enough to discover mine through the act of running and it’s surpassing of the bullying I had to endure. It is simply more important that one discovers their own confidence, wherever it may lie within them.

I have been especially fortunate to rediscover this confidence and develop it even further as an adult, again through my running.

I wish the same for everyone else.

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8 responses to “Running Confidently

  1. That is a great story and an even better example as to why extra-curricular activities in school are so important. I benefited from sports as a child and these really helped me grow into the person that I am. Hindsight being 20/20 I would have benefited from further activities to help grow some more confidence as a teen because I started to linger. I remember feeling so powerless as a teen. I’m glad you found your path and are able to share that with your children.

    • Thank you Dana. I agree, I cringe every time I hear of certain subjects and activities that meant so much to me as a kid being cut from today’s educational curriculum. Kids need as many opportunities as they can get to find their talents and sense of self-confidence, whether educational institutions or society finds them valuable or not.

  2. Chris Shoebridge

    Scott, I couldn’t believe what I was reading as I was reading it! I don’t tell this story often, because I don’t want the past to define me, but in the interests of solidarity, here is my wonderfully-coincidental tale.

    I was bullied extensively at secondary (high) school. Not for being small, but for being big – 6’4″ and skinny (it seems any outliers from the arbitrarily-acceptable physical appearance range will feel some small-minded wrath) – and for being academic. I was regularly punched in the upper body and back by a group of boys who would wait for me to arrive each morning. And I was harassed (physically and verbally) by a separate group of boys on the bus every day. With the latter, there was always verbal abuse, and intermittently physical abuse.

    Like you, my initial complaints resulted in an exaggerated backlash, and the adults in my life (teachers, parents, the bus driver) seemed to me to be entirely ineffectual when it came to ending my problems, no doubt they care about me, but they were powerless. Because of the backlash and the impotence of the supposed guardians in my life, when things escalated I was alone – the worst abuse came when I had a sandwich forcibly and violently rubbed into my face by one boy as another put staples into my head. Tens of kids saw this happening, none intervened – simply grateful, perhaps, that it wasn’t them being targeted.

    (Not a huge surprise that I used to listen to the most angry and aggressive music I could find, for hours every day.)

    What no-one knew, because no-one ever asked me, was that I had been swimming since I was a baby, and training 2-3 times a week since I was about 9 or 10, so that by the time I was a 15-year-old kid I was unbeatable in all strokes in the local area (up to when I stopped swimming when I was 18, I held a total of eleven local records at once, many of which still stand ten years later).

    So when the school put together a swimming team, I immediately volunteered, much to the amusement of my bullies, most of whom joined too, being the big, absurdly-muscular-for-fifteen sporty types. They began to mock my body as we were changing, until they saw my shoulders, arms and legs – all of which were more defined than theirs.

    The first trial was a 50m freestyle. I had finished in something like 29 seconds (I got that down to 26 before I quit for University), before 2nd place was halfway through his second length. I went on to win the 50m fly by an even greater margin (if you don’t have the technique, you probably won’t even finish, haha!), and by the time we were on to backstroke, breast stroke and individual medley, everyone was rooting for me – not for competition, there was none – but just to see how fast I could go.

    Needless to say, the bullying from that particular group stopped – indeed I became a bit of a cult hero to them, they would call me ‘Swimmer Shoe’ and ask how my ‘huge biceps’ were doing, and ask me to show them to their friends.

    Not all of the bullying stopped, of course, but it was a significant turning point for me – realising that I was good at something. Life changed for the better precisely because of the confidence you also discovered. I’ve also had a few challenges in life, as you know – I’m not a parent, and I don’t think mine compare to your own, but I have found the strength to overcome as well as learn from them. I could not agree more that confidence is perhaps the most valuable quality a human being can possess if they want to define themselves despite societal pressure, and to work towards reaching the goals they dream about.

    I hope that you can identify the best way of imbuing your son with this trait, without him having to experience the torture of being a pariah in a system which is incomprehensible to a young mind.

    Thank you for sharing your story, you totally just made my day. And apologies for the long post!

    Chris.

    • Wow man, this is really intense and almost brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing. I have a feeling there are a great number of people who have experienced something similar to our situations, and I hope the current discussions around bullying mean that they are happening less often. We might be the lucky ones in that we stumbled upon something that gave us an advantage over the bullying, but unfortunately, others aren’t so lucky.

      Regardless, despite our past, here we are and probably better people for overcoming the experience. The best thing we can do now as adults is to not recycle the bullying and act as the safety net kids like us needed if the situation should ever arise.

      Again, thanks for sharing Chris.

  3. My school years sucked, often enough. I was a pretty terrible athlete in general though, so running didn’t help me there. In fact, I was very much the chubby nerd kid. When we had to run the mile in gym class, I literally could not do it without frequent walk breaks. It probably took me 15 minutes.

    Skip forward a couple years to college. I got bored one day, and was growing increasingly fed up with my general out-of-shape-ness. So I went to the gym, lifted weights, and kind of liked it. I kept going, and really liked the changes I saw. I was about 190 lbs at the start of this, and cut down to about 160. But that wasn’t enough. I was getting attention then, attention that I had never had before. People liked me, and it was intoxicating. I was the center of attention, for the first time ever. Now, people wanted to look like me, be like me. But I hated myself most every day, for everything that I wasn’t yet. I needed to be bigger, stronger, more cut, etc. I started buying any pill that made promises outrageous enough, including an oral testosterone prohormone (not T itself, but it makes your body produce a lot more) and thryoid hormone. My diet was masochistic.

    It all worked, too. I did get bigger, stronger, more cut. But I also got a trip to the ER. That was my trade. I got the abs, veins, biceps, and everything else I wanted; but I had to trade my gallbladder, endure several bouts of acute pancreatitis, and have elevated liver enzymes.

    At the end of this, the muscle was gone. I had to go several weeks without eating, and had months of malabsorption. I hit, at my lowest point, 126 pounds. When I went back to the gym, all I could do was walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes. Anything else just wiped me out. I was, at 21 years old, pretty fucking feeble. And completely of my own doing.

    But I was determined to rebuild something of what I had been, so I got back to work. My parents, around this time mentioned that they were doing a local 5K, and maybe I should too. I decided that would be fun, would give purpose to my training. I trained by doing run/walk intervals on the track by my house, and using the elliptical when my legs were too beat up. I didn’t know a damn thing about training or shoes or any of that; I wore 30$ Nikes from Kohls.

    That race was a real turning point in my life. I had improved quickly, and managed something around 22 minutes for 5K. I was, for the first time that I could remember, happy with myself. I had made my body do something, rather than just looked a certain way. The body I had betrayed and ravaged so severely was functional, and I had made it that way.

    I was, from then on, determined to optimize that function – without compromising my health. Obviously, I eat much differently now than I did then, and take only a basic vitamin supplement (mostly for the B12). But it’s the running that keeps things together – keeps me together. It’s what has given value and purpose to so many of my days, beauty and inspiration to so many hours. It has allowed me to view my body as an instrument, rather than an ornament.

    Most of all, I can run a race, earn a time, and think: I did that. It gives me confidence, yes, but basic sanity too. I’m 24 now – 25 in a couple months. If not for running, I don’t have a damn clue how this would have all turned out.

    • Man, these stories are so intense and really humbling. They’re also immeasurably encouraging, knowing just how powerful the act of running, or simply discovering the value of overcoming adversity (through running, etc.) can become. I’m glad to know you all and even more to know you have come out on the other side confident and strong.

  4. So Scott, I guess my text triggered some past memories for you. If you have a chance check out CNN. They have a documentary on this month (can’t remember the name – something about bullying. I cried through it and that’s when I started having flash backs about you. I was a part of the Conference this week end at the Convention Center and what an eye openout

  5. What an eye opener. It’s a complicated issue and now there is even cyberbullying. One of the biggest factors in stopping bullying is the support of peers. Yes everyone says they would help someone if they were bullied but when they are confronted they usually shy away. Not because they don’t want to help but because they don’t have the skills tand confidence to know how to handle the situation. That is why when Cari’s friends got involved the situation was diffused, along with your running status. Would have loved foryou to have been there on Saturday. We need more adults like you and your friends to get involved and tell your stories. Love you.

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