If I introduced myself to you today, the first things you might notice about me are my muscular arms, shoulders, and legs. Based on these features, you might also assume I am an athlete. If I met you in 2011, however, you’d make a much different evaluation of my physical fitness. At 300 pounds, it was quite clear that exercising was not a priority of mine. In fact, it was something I completely avoided because the fear of failure was so debilitating I was not even willing to try. This fear, which set me up for over a decade of self-destruction, took root at an event that should have boosted my self-esteem: a middle school track meet.
I was no stranger to competition; I have an entire folder full of certificates indicating my success in public speaking, academic trivia, and problem solving. However, those competitions were a test of my mind, not my body. As I sat on a school bus crowded with pre-teens dressed in tear-away pants and mesh tank tops, my nervous system was rattled by both the excitement and terror that arises when facing the unknown.
I was an awkward 12-year-old trying to find my place in the world, and often looked to my brother for advice. He was my hero in many ways. Not only was he a significant part of my upbringing in a single parent home, but he was also eight years my senior and always ready to share the wisdom he had acquired while blindly navigating his way through his own teenage years. He wanted to offer me the guidance he had not had as a first born child. He found himself as a runner, earning impressive accolades on both the cross country and track teams throughout high school. In him, I saw the person I hoped to become: athletic, confident, and ambitious. He inspired me to run, and provided endless support in my pursuit to do so. True to form, he took time off of work to watch me run competitively for the first time.
My middle school self wanted so badly to impress him, to make him proud, not yet realizing that the person I really needed to make proud was me.
My event was the 400-meter sprint. As I placed my feet behind the white starting line, I subtly sized up my opponents. I easily outweighed them by 30-40 pounds, but it did not translate to my adolescent mind that my larger stature had any bearing on my ability to perform physically. I did not understand the implications of being overweight as I do now. So, when the gunshot indicated that the race had begun, I was surprised to almost immediately find myself behind everyone else. The illusion I had of crossing the finish line in first, second, or even third place rapidly deteriorated.
There were at least four other runners. Initially, it wasn’t so bad. They were only a few meters ahead of me. And then a few meters more. As I watched their lanky bodies quickly disappear in the distance, my own body felt as though it weighed a ton. I imagined that my shuffle-like cadence must be leaving impressions on the surface of the track behind me, a feeling that would resonate with me and prevent me from participating in many physical activities in the years to come.
I could read the faces of the spectators in the stands, displaying both judgement and pity that would become so familiar to me as an overweight adult. As I found the final curve in the track, I saw my brother standing at the fence, cheering for me despite the fact that I was the only person still running. When I crossed the finish line, bent over in both exhaustion and embarrassment, I could hear my teammates in the stands, not cheering for my finish, but snickering at my failure.
My brother approached, and in his best attempt at his “big brother” voice, said, “Hey kid! Good job out there!”
I couldn’t help myself. I broke down. In the time it took to blink through my tears, my childhood confidence, optimism, and hope dissipated, morphing into shame, fear, and self-loathing.
The next day, I quit the track team. It was the last time I would compete athletically for fifteen years. In fact, any physical activity would be transient and inconsistent for the next thirteen years.
That 400-meter race was the moment that defined my attitude toward physical fitness for almost half of my life. It was because of the unadulterated fear of another devastating failure that I chose a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle, one that likely caused irreversible damage to my wellness. Eventually weighing in at 300 pounds, I could not climb a flight of stairs or walk to the mailbox without being winded, standing throughout the course of the entire workday was a true feat of strength, and certainly, running 400-meters was a thing of the very distant past.
But I am one of the lucky few. I was offered a pivotal moment in my life that allowed me to face those fears and overcome them, to halt the damage that I had done to myself before it became life threatening. After losing 150 pounds and gaining the physical capacity to not only participate regularly in CrossFit, but also compete, I have reclaimed the fit life I abandoned on the track that day.
And, more importantly, the pride I once hoped my brother would feel, is pride I feel for myself.
We all have experienced this moment in our lives, a moment that generates fear so monumental that it sticks with us for a lifetime. A moment that defines how we react to seemingly insignificant things. A moment whose imprint causes more harm than good. It is both difficult to identify the implications of these experiences, and to convince ourselves we can conquer them.
And this is why I am sharing my story. We’ve all been that insecure little girl on the track, trying to find our place in an unforgiving world. Sometimes the very thing you need to convince you that you can change undesirable aspects of your life is a success story from someone to whom you have no direct ties, someone who has experienced similar battles, yet remains unbiased and detached from your personal situation.
One experience does not define who you are or the way you live your life. And even if you have allowed it to hold you back for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, it makes no difference. But YOU must be the person who decides that you will crush those fears and bury them with your former self once you do so. It will be difficult, that is certain. But it will be so worth it.