One — huff — more — pant — lap — puff.
One — huff — more — pant — lap — puff.
It’s prime running season. It’s warm enough for bare arms and the faint beginnings of a sports bra tan, but cool enough for a brisk breeze whipped like egg whites around whisked ankles.
More than half of my writing begins while I’m running. It’s not intentional — it just happens. It’s like getting my feet off the ground lets my head float a little higher in the clouds, where the lofty ideas are easier to reach.
One — huff — more — pant — lap — puff. My shoes smack the sidewalk while my eyes scour the scenery while my brain starts making metaphors from every endorphin-surged sensation.
I usually head west from my Williamsburg apartment, then jut to the right when I hit the waterfront, weaving in and out of the coastal parks. Across the river, the Manhattan skyline bursts up like a magnificent geode, the shiny combs of buildings crowded together, glimmering, small enough to seem graspable. While I feel like I’m flying, that view reminds me of rooted gravity; while I feel infinite and invincible, it reminds me that I am so very tiny, and so very vincible.
I typically finish with a few loops around the track at Greenpoint’s McCarren Park. As I’m losing steam, I like surrounding myself with other panting people — fellow runners, racing circles around groups of kids playing soccer on the field in the center. Some jog slowly, chatting with friends, fanny-packs bouncing. Others stretch on the sidelines or do sweaty sets of sit-ups and push-ups. On the benches, elderly Brooklynites prop up their canes to rest their weary legs, tilting raisin faces towards the sun. There’s a persistent airy pop of tennis balls bouncing on the courts just a few feet away.
“One more lap,” I was reciting silently to myself on an evening earlier this week, as I prepared to quit. One — huff — more — pant — lap — puff. I slowed and turned my head towards the playground equipment, where I spotted a stranger doing pull-ups from the monkey bars.
His arms must have been thicker than my thighs, carved as stone, strong — sweat dripping, hands gripping. I would never have guessed, if I’d only seen him upward of his chiseled abs, that he was a double amputee. But he was — both of his legs ended at his knees. Next to him, a wheelchair waited while he pulsed resolutely up and down, showing no signs of stopping.
I sped up again.
I am not a natural runner. Before 2013 or so, I was just as much a runner as I was a circus clown, or an emergency surgeon, or Beyonce.
If you’d asked, I would have told you that my body wasn’t built for it. Translation: I was scared I’d be bad at it. I would have said I didn’t have the time. Translation: I hadn’t felt the benefits firsthand, so I preferred to prioritize other things — namely, Cheetos; watching reruns of Say Yes to the Dress on Netflix; squeezing into sequined skirts for sticky parties and hoping people would mistake the sparkle for a reflection my glittering personality.
Nowadays, I am most definitely a runner. I am a writer. I am a photographer. I am an illustrator. I am a yogi. I am a plant-based cook and a pun enthusiast and a New Yorker. I can fit myself into far more fascinating labels than those skirts I’ve pawned off at thrift shops, because I’m far more interested in discovering how to sparkle from the inside-out.
Many writers are afraid to refer to themselves as “writers,” oftentimes for years, even after being published many times. I know this because I devour personal essays and podcasts by writers I admire so I can learn how they work, so I can find my pace among the rest of them — the same way I search for my own path, my own footing, when I’m jogging.
When people ask what I do, career-wise, I give a variety of complicated answers, because the complex web is the truth — I do a lot of different things. I am a lot of different things. But I’m quick to try on any of the epithets that seem appropriate in the moment. I am a writer — I practice saying it with confidence, because I know it’s normal to feel self-conscious about it, but that makes it no less true. I am a runner — maybe just for a few years, maybe not naturally, maybe not professionally or impressively or successfully, but I run, don’t I? I run. I write.
We are what we do — or at least, what we practice. Sometimes, I think it’s as simple as that.
When I made that extra loop around the track, and then another, the stranger stopped his pull-ups and sat propped on the wood chips, watching the rest of us run by. I wondered how he’d gotten down — whether someone had helped him from the high monkey bars, or he’d simply landed.
My eyes welled up, and a few unwieldy tears might have slid into my sweat — the same salty, watery material, anyway — as I thought about what that must feel like, to be watching, weighed down by gravity, to be unfairly restricted from an activity as commonplace as standing or walking or jogging.
He might have been a runner himself before an accident only months ago; or, maybe, he’s never known what running feels like. Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he prefers pull-ups and otherwise traveling via wheelchair. I don’t know. All I know is that I suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about how glorious it is to have legs.
Stepping inside somebody else’s shoes for a moment can make the most menial routines become magical.
One — huff — more — pant — lap — puff. And then another. And another. At some point, he left without me seeing him, and I finally quit.
As a person with type 1 diabetes, I’ve been warned many times that amputations might be in my future. When I was a child and teen, doctors and nurses tended to hold the threat of amputated limbs over my head, as a warning, when I wasn’t caring for my health as well as I should have. (The Cheetos and the reality TV, remember?)
For so many years — my non-running years — I thought of my body as some sort of foreign alien. It was an unwieldy marionette. It was a separate animal from my creative brain. I didn’t consider the fact that agency stems from simple action. I didn’t realize that just because my anatomy often acts out against my will, it doesn’t mean I can’t do strong things within the limits I’ve been given.
Weakness doesn’t negate strength. In fact, perhaps every weakness — every flaw, every fear, every sense of inadequacy or not-enoughness — is a call, an invitation, a gentle prod from the alternate universe in which our best and fullest selves flourish. “Are you up for a challenge?” asks that wiser alter-ego, with a poke. “Do you want to dance with me, fly with me, run with me, over here on this side? Are you curious to meet me? Or are you content to stay small and stuck and stable where you are?”
I recently listened to James Altucher’s podcast interview of Jesse Itzler, who wrote a book about the month he spent living and training with a Navy SEAL, just to see how it felt. He wanted to jolt himself out of autopilot and mix up his routine, curious how it might make him into something more than what he was.
The SEAL taught Itzler what he called “the 40% rule.” When our minds start telling us we’ve reached our limits in strenuous physical activities, our bodies are only 40% finished — supposedly, we still have 60% of our potential left inside us. It’s a strange sort of survival mechanism, maybe, to maintain energy stores.
I don’t agree with pushing perpetually past our apparent breaking points. I think the brain might need rest at times when perhaps the body doesn’t. I take issue with the word “hustle,” and I worry about the way we sometimes use it to substantiate self-worth. Ultimately, I’m fairly sure our culture is over-saturated with pressure to strive.
But I also think we sometimes cut ourselves short. We either take the hustle too far, or we neglect to hustle enough, because we were never taught to find our intuitive limits. We don’t know where our lines are drawn.
The only way we find out which walls are steadfast stone and which are shiftable stacks of Legos is by attempting to push past them — gently, if we want to avoid getting hurt, but purposefully.
You are endowed with certain dispositions and inherent strengths. But no one is born with the bulky biceps of an athlete, nor the vocabulary of a writer — you earn your labels with time and practiced effort, and you can swap them as you please. Ultimately, you are what you decide to be. You are what happens inside the walls you build and the ones you break down.
You have to learn to love your limits. You need sleep; you need food; you need the comfort of companionship. You cannot do everything. And you cannot do some things all the time, with maximum success. In certain ways, you’ve been restrained by unchangeable circumstances.
Life might be easier if human bodies weren’t so needy, but more like robots, fully capable of programming for complete consistent control and constant productivity at 100% potential. But where would be the joy in that perpetually predictable ease? The challenge? The questions? The curiosity?
You must learn to love your limits, because they show you who you aren’t and who you are.
And here’s who you are, no matter what labels you wear:
You are sweat and tears and watery bits of biology, wrapped in layers of decisions. Your daily doings aren’t your DNA — they’re just the ripples of decisions you once made, strengthened by practice. You move with the muscles you exercise — with what you train and build.
You have limits. But your limits have limits, too. Your limits are limited by however much agency you dare to take.
And I’m willing to bet that you have at least 10% potential left unexplored inside you. Maybe 20%. Maybe 60%. I bet your walls are farther off than you think they are. I bet some of them aren’t stone, but just stacked Legos to be shifted, or to be leapt like hurdles. And I’ll be cheering from the sidelines, while you try, just try, to go just one — huff — more — pant — lap — puff.
P.S. A few final seeds of related inspiration…