There’s a tipping point, in any sport, where a woman feels that they can stake some kind of claim to their title. But, for some of us, the idea of laying claim to honorifics like Runner, Athlete, Sprinter, Distance Runner, Ultra-Runner, seems incredibly lofty, especially if we showed up late to the party. Some of us grew up playing sports, so the feeling happened when we were young and without too much work. I’m the guy who showed up late. 

At 25 years old, I was 85 pounds overweight, pack-a-day smoker, heavy drinker and terribly depressed person. I was managing a restaurant. I had no real hobbies. I lived only for the pleasure of the day-to-day. I had no ability to see beyond whatever was on deck for evening plans.   

I joined a weight loss program and the first chunk of pounds just fell off with healthy eating. But eventually, I plateaued. I arrived at the dreaded stuck point. Still a smoker and quite sedentary, I was still averse to becoming one of those people. You know, the women with the bouncy ponytails and the bright clothes and a zeal for life that can make one uncomfortable. I hated those people. 

But, when I return to that feeling and ask myself why, I come to a clear conclusion:  I was jealous. 25 year old me would have fiercely rejected this answer, but in the end, it is the truth. I hated them because I didn’t know how to become them.  That kind of life seemed so far beyond my reach.  I had never cultivated any kind of discipline. I was completely unaccustomed to discomfort. I didn’t know a thing about pushing myself other than to get myself out the door at ten pm on a Friday night.    


I’ll tell you the truth of the matter, and I’m not proud of it:  the initial desire sprang from sheer vanity.  I was drinking at a bar with my sister and this hot little 22 year old girl with a mini-skirt the size of my headband turned to me and said, “Ya know, you look like somebody famous”. I was enthralled. I had been feeling so low, uncomfortable in my own skin and was preparing myself for a compliment.    

“Oh, yeah? Who?” I smiled. 

She hiccupped out the name of an extremely overweight actress. That was it. It was all I could take not to cry right in front of her.    

The following morning, I dug out an old pair of swishy shorts from my closet. I walked onto my porch, (a place typically reserved for drinking beer and smoking cigarettes), stretched out the ‘ole hammies and set out on my maiden voyage. I made it about six houses before I felt like absolute garbage. My stomach itched, my lungs burned and my legs felt like logs. 

Upon my return, I spotted a young neighbor boy perched in a busted lawn chair, “Did you just go running?” 

I think I did. 

I will tell you: it sucked for a long time. I didn’t wake up and magically sprout wings. I struggled on the struggle bus for months, maybe longer. And I didn’t always get it right. I tried (even triathlon). I failed (I can’t swim to save my life). I asked questions (how do you stop all your parts from rubbing when it’s 90 degrees?) I ran a 5k in three layers of FLEECE. (Lord Jesus, how did I not die?)


After sticking with running and cycling for a while, the last few pounds came off. But despite shedding the weight, the feeling that still clung like fly paper was that I was a total fake. They were going to find me out.  They were going to show up to my race, see the blackness in my lungs, the extra skin hanging on my belly, the crappy 90’s workout wear and they were going to call me out. “TOURIST!  IMPOSTER! FAKE! THIS PLACE IS FOR REAL RUNNERS! OUT! GET OUT!”

I had worked hard. I had achieved so much.  And yet, my grasp on any kind of title felt so tenuous. I ran my first half marathon, my first 50k, my first hundred mile race. And still, I felt like a girl who invited herself to the party. I felt like I could wake up the next day and it could all be taken away, every medal, every achievement, all of the weight loss.  And the reason why I could not celebrate myself was because I felt intrinsically unworthy. Now what the hell sense does this make? I was out there moving my actual body through actual space, sweating, grinding, and working my ass off! Why could I not roll down the windows of my car and scream, “I AM A RUNNER!”? 

Because I was taught not to. I was taught never to cheer myself on. I was taught that self-love was synonymous with egotism. 

Ten years later, I have learned an incredibly valuable lesson. I learned that every single woman on the track or the trail fears the same things that I do. I know you don’t believe me. But I swear on my life it is true. Elites? Olympians? The women you run with every week that you think, she is so fast, I bet she never doubts herself.  ALL OF THESE WOMEN FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL. I met my running hero a few weeks back. And you know what she told me?  She told me that she had doubted herself. That she had felt every single dumb thing that I ever feared: You are fat, you are lazy, you are old, you are slow, you are not worth it. And for a moment, it totally broke me. This was the strongest woman I have ever known. How could she feel these things? It’s not possible. But after a minute, I realized something. I realized how incredibly united female athletes are. We are united by unspoken shame.


And you know what that made me wonder? WHAT WOULD WE BE CAPABLE OF IF WE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN OURSELVES? Our bodies can recover from the damage we cause in a race. But, the damage we do to our spirit when we tell ourselves we are not good enough is indelible. I want female athletes to unite for our strengths. I want us to stop apologizing. It is so easy to make a list of things we don’t like about ourselves. Make a list of the things you are the master of. 

I am so grateful to running for all it has given me. I have learned so much from the glory of a win and, even juicier and more potent: a miserable failure. I know now that I started for all the wrong reasons.  But I stayed for all the right ones. Running has granted me transcendence. And that has more staying power than anything vanity could ever afford me.   

After ten years of running I have finally discovered that an athlete’s acceptance into a sport is not based on her ability; it is based on her attitude. Sometimes, I regret that it took me so long to learn that.  What I don’t regret is the scar that shame and unworthiness has left on me. Because the scar reminds me to tell every woman I meet that she is, without a doubt, worth it. 


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Allyson Ely