I really, really wanted to like this race.
I’d been ill for a number of weeks with a reoccurring kidney infection. Being me, I like to stubbornly think I can beat these things. But sometimes, you really should just take the damn chemicals, rest up for a while, stop peeing blood, and get your life (aka training schedule) back on track.
As part of this getting back on track, I entered a five-kilometre fundraising bubble rush race, run by a popularly-supported local hospice. It sounded like a good-humoured, not-too-serious, family-friendly day out involving running through bubbles. I came with a mission to run 5 km continuously; it had been a long time since I had done so. I told myself that I wouldn’t be disappointed not to make it around the course, though – I was here to join in the fun. What could go wrong?
And people did bring their sense of humour to the race. It’s a shame, though, that people’s sense of humour is often pretty lame.
The experience reminded me of a recent new story which made the headlines: Lindsey Swift, a ‘plus-size’ runner, had an eloquent and truthful social media rant go viral after she was abused in the street. As soon as I started the run, I got a ‘calm down love, you’re no Usain Bolt…’ mumbled at me by an older man who I jogged past (at kidney-infection-peeing-blood speed, I might add).
As someone who works in health and fitness, I know how damaging comments against others’ physical activity can be. It’s a disheartening culture, but seemingly inevitable: if you’re outside exercising, you are a target of others’ attention. People often start running with the intention to improve their physical condition, and it can take a huge leap of confidence to start pounding the streets. So it’s off-putting to be reminded that you’re not in your own bubble when you exercise. It may even make people find excuses not to exercise. Physical health can suffer from this withdrawal: a vicious circle begins, kick-started from just a few comments.
Now, I admit that I am someone who thinks that the world has got far too PC. So perhaps I am hypocritical, and the Usain Bolt comment seems mild – perhaps funny, even. I am well aware that I am not a six-foot-five ripped black male. However, knowing that people are paying attention to me, at a time when I was already hobbling ungracefully around the course under a lot of pain, was hurtful. And the fact that the individual thought these comments appropriate at a family-friendly, fun-themed run is just a bit sad. It props up a culture which is accepting of verbal abuse and body-shaming.
But rather than get high and mighty, I tried to tell myself that it’s easy to get annoyed when you’re hot and bothered on a cross-country race course. I pretended not to hear him and jogged on.
The Bubble Rush is named so because there are bubble stations to jog through at regular intervals. By the time I had got to the third station, it was thigh-deep in white bubbles. The kids around me were up to their necks in bubbles and loving it. There was a photographer at the station, so I tried to look enthusiastic rather than pained, attempting a spurt of pace through and kicking the bubbles up like confetti. Even if just for myself, I was trying to get a defiant photo which made out that I was having fun.
And then came the second comment. This one was cruder, of a sexual nature (consider I’m exiting the bubble station covered in white bubbles and you may get the gist…). As I’ve come to expect by now, the offending caller directed his comment to me by rather impolitely identifying my hair colour. My dark mindset set in again, and for the rest of the race I resented even being there.
By the time I had finished, I was feeling not only crap about my own abilities, but also like the world was watching me. Yes, it was only two people out of two thousand. But it was also at a fundraising race that was full of families and children. If here is a setting for nasty comments, where isn’t?
I’d love to end this log on a high note, or simply with just a point. But the story ends there. I don’t confront the bullies. I don’t feel good about my current form. I go home, having been put off supporting a local hospice again because of two of their other supporters.
I absolutely agree with Lindsey – it’s sad that people don’t engage their brains before opening their mouths. Further, it’s tragic that people are put off their fitness goals by people being small-minded. And not that it makes it any better, but such attentions are not something that you only receive if you are a plus-size. There’s a lot of people out there who are just so insecure in themselves that they like to put others down.
But I guess if I am to retrospectively forge any kind of point or moral out of this, it’s just to ask people to think before they speak. If I do know anyone who thinks this is fun banter, consider how powerful your words are. You never know what someone is going through to be there, and whatever their pace or appearance or motives, they are doing something positive which does no one any harm. A throw-away comment doesn’t just make someone roll their eyes in the moment: it can effect their personal confidence, health and happiness (not to mention willingness to support certain causes!). Direct your critical energy towards something that actually deserves criticism.
But for now, I will brush myself off and tell myself it’s just words. Perhaps what doesn’t kill you just makes you run faster.