On this global running day, may we have a moment on the run to reflect back on our roots, wherever they may be, and wherever they may lead us. Running is an international language and connection for which I am forever grateful. Running helped me find who I am and reroot in my identity during the times I felt least myself.
Reflecting On The Run
I’m Justine Marie Josephine Fédronic, French-Caribbean-Hungarian-Swabian-American immigrant. Born in Germany. I carry three passports and speak three languages well, and some others less well. My spice cabinet is extensive. As an elite track athlete I represented France via Martinique and spoke with an American accent while my mama cheered me on in Hungarian from the stands. I don’t fit into a clean, orderly category.
As a kid, I wanted to be an octopus - the true masters of camouflage, they can change their skin to mimic the color AND texture of their surroundings. They can squeeze into little spaces or change their shape. As a kid who had a hard time finding belonging, this seemed like the ultimate skill. The ultimate assimilation. The code switching mastermind.
Today, when someone asks me where I’m from, I start my response with a quick scan of their face and a calculation - do they want the story or was it asked as a pleasantry? I used to wish I had a simple answer, one strong root to this earth. While I’m grateful for the life I’ve lived, growing up a multicultural, multilingual, multi-continental human has not been simple. I am the gray area, the nuance, the octopus.
The problem with frequent shape shifting is that it makes it quite challenging to identify who you actually authentically are. Turns out, knowing who you are and what you stand for is a crucial part of being a healthy, happy adult. For the octopus, camouflage is a survival technique. I want to thrive.
As I got older, I grew less interested in pretending to fit in, and more interested in learning who I was. I wanted to become consistently me - no matter where I was in the world, no matter which language I was speaking in a post race interview, it became important to understand my roots so I could learn how to respect them and integrate them into myself. And more strong roots means more stability when the earth shakes, right?
This past January, I went home to Martinique for the first time in 17 years. I’ve spent my life with my heart in many pieces all over the world, and I was desperately ready to feel more whole. I went home to our family land to spend time on the soil and in the waters of my people, so that my roots could go strong again. I learned about our past and cried over our emancipation papers. I celebrated us and what we’ve contributed to the world.
And I ran. And I felt so deeply sad, so authentically happy, and more whole than I had in a very long time. What follows is a letter I wrote after I'd come back to my American home.
To my ancestors
I am made of your stories.
My strength is a reflection of your resilience and force, my persistence sourced from your willpower, my creativity the translation of your resourcefulness. My heartaches and darkness are a bond to your pain. I am powerful because you had to be.
From the beginning I could feel you while I ran. I didn’t know whose urgings roared me to finish lines, who gave me breath when my lungs could not, who gave my muscles the resolve to claim back the force my feet left on the earth with every step… but I could feel you.
I grew up away from you, living a life that you couldn’t possibly dream would exist for us.
I was multi continental, a cultural chameleon. I learned from mentors and teachers, giggled and squabbled with my brothers and friends, twirled carefree in the wilderness. I ran around at recess, my steps a language of connection even in places I didn’t yet have the spoken words to assimilate. Running gave me belonging, wherever I was in the world. I could chase down anybody. My body could float at my will.
I didn’t question who built the freedom to use my strength as I chose to use it. Running fast not to survive, not away from, but to. To medals, to university, to national teams. To joy and affirmation and opportunity. To the Olympics.
I relied on my strength, I was proud of it. The resilient one.
Resilience is exhausting.
I tied my strength to my running. If I could just run faster, I would be happier.
By now, I was aware of you, and your sacrifices so I could thrive.
You were ripped from your homelands, transported to an island to toil. Madinina, Martinique, an island where lusciously beautiful flora and a history of pain coexist. You survived and passed on your power, your grit, your endurance. Despite the generations of enslavement, servitude, of labor in the fields, of surviving the attentions of the enslavers, you built a home. You earned your own land, grew your own food, struggled and loved. The sugar cane and banana smell sweet, but their abundance comes from your sacrifices.
I ran to prove to you that I was thriving, to honor our strength by parading it to the world in stadiums and on television. My body broke many times, and I ignored its pleadings. I regrew myself each time. I ran desperate to prove my resilience, to earn my place in our family history.
I lost what running felt like when it was pure, how it empowered me to face the day with an invisible support and vitality. I forgot how picking my way across trails, eyes and ears alert, could bring me back to myself, to us. I lost how a run can encourage my resolve, how running could grow the strength you built for me.
You didn’t intend to, but you also gave me your wounds. They are woven into my being just as they were once part of yours. Sometimes I lose myself in despair and apathy. My body remembers the desperation you felt, the agonies in your lives, even if it doesn’t know the details. A guilt layers the darkness; how can I, child of freedom, elude happiness?
I was lost, in my running and in life. Running felt poisoned and purposeless. It had been who I was for 15 years, but it no longer felt like me. I could only faintly remember why I'd loved it, how it had been a dance of connection. My steps were speaking a different dialect than my mind.
In these months of loss, a space opened for your whisperings. In the stillness, in the quiet, you became more insistent. Resilience is more than running faster. You are competitive because we had to survive. You are strong because we had to be strong. You are adaptable because we learned to be. Running is a language that connects us across time and culture, are you still listening?
You asked me to come home, to learn about you, and to learn who else I could be.
It's been two years and I am finally here, to learn from you and honor you. I am here, in the home you created. When I close my eyes I can feel you dancing around me, finding joy in the in-betweens, supporting each other through trials, enveloping me in your warmth. I feel your presence in the blades of sugar cane, in the glittering grains of black sand around my feet, in the tastes of rum and lime.
When I run, I feel your roots reaching to me under the earth, feeding my strength with every contact, rejoicing that I get to feel freedom and joy. You have nursed me through many runs, through many races. You have pulled me out of the chasms of my mind, reminding me that I am generations of determination, ferocity, and compassion. You remind me that resilience is also about finding and sharing joy. Even before I chose to listen, you cared for me.
You remind me of where I come from and why I must continue. Our wounds will take time to heal. I get to heal and thrive. For us.
I get to reclaim my running, my steps and breathe a connection to you, and the people I choose to join us. I get to reclaim my running to make an impact on my communities, to honor you and share your light.
Thank you for your strength, your survival, your pain, your forgiveness, and your joy. Thank you for giving me the language of movement, a language that traverses time and the barriers we construct. I feel your lives and power in my daily breathes, and will honor you in the steps I choose ahead.