Reclaiming Trauma Through Running
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This summer, I ran my first marathon. I also observed the 10th anniversary of my sexual assault.
It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t sign up for a race to commemorate the occasion. But when I realized what I’d done, I began to place a great deal of weight on the coincidence. What better way to prove how resilient I am, how brave I’ve become, than to run 26 miles through the mountains?
For many years after my very first boyfriend (by then an ex) assaulted me on a school trip overseas, I moved through the world under the weight of a self-imposed rule. If I got to know someone well enough, I thought, I would be compelled to tell them What Had Happened.
What had happened, of course, is difficult to put to words in a way that conveys its magnitude. But here are the facts. The summer before my senior year of high school, I went on a school-sanctioned trip to the U.K. My ex attended, too, along with several of my friends. I woke up one night to find that I was being assaulted. For reasons it took me a decade to parse through—I was shocked and half-asleep; he terrified me—I didn’t scream or cry for help. I just whispered, “Stop.” He didn’t.
By the time I mustered the courage to tell a teacher, it was too late to send anyone home. For the rest of the trip (and much of the rest of my life, to this day), I would see my rapist everywhere, whether he was there or not.
In college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, when I told the men I dated about my assault, they reacted in one of two ways: anger or indifference.
“That’s too bad,” one boyfriend tried, gingerly patting my arm.
Another told me he wasn’t sure that what I’d described was rape, really.
By then, I didn’t have the energy to explain. I just got up, left, and stopped answering his calls. I also, as a general rule, stopped telling people about my assault.
A few weeks into my sophomore year, I resumed running. I’d never particularly enjoyed it, but I remembered the blissful feeling of having finished a long run—the runner’s high. I wanted to experience it again.
In the beginning, I ran fast. (Fast for me, anyway.) I ran until I could hear my heart beat in my ears.
No matter how fast I ran, of course, I could not outrun my ex-boyfriend, the one who swept me off my feet at cross-country practice and later assaulted me. I could not run fast enough to escape the sound of his shoes pounding the pavement next to mine. One afternoon, in a park in Boulder, I jogged by someone who could easily have passed for my ex. Spooked, I sprinted down the greenbelt, sure he was right behind me. When I got home, I threw up in the yard.
It took a few months for me to realize that my relationship with running had grown unhealthy. I was running farther and faster, but dreaded my daily runs. I became obsessed with my weight; if I could lose five pounds, or 15 (too much on my 120-pound frame), I’d be better—a better runner, more worthy of love.
I ate so little I felt lightheaded in class, which probably explains why, when I ran, I regularly imagined him running after me. I still ran with friends, occasionally, but mostly I stuck to workout routines I hadn’t shared with my ex.
In the years after graduating, I allowed myself only brief moments to process the pain of what I’d experienced. I spent as much time as possible outside, climbing and skiing and working seasonally as a backpacking instructor, raft guide and avalanche safety instructor. I went to graduate school for outdoor education and researched risk and decision-making.
In my newfound career, I was strong, assertive and in control. I did not let myself cross the imaginary threshold of my youth. If I didn’t tell anyone in my new life the story of my assault, I could almost pretend it never happened.
In the great outdoors, I met the man I would later marry. Bix was one of the few people I trusted with my secret, and, to my great relief, he listened thoughtfully as I told him about my rape. He did not pepper me with questions I could not answer—”Why didn’t you call for help?” or the more insidious “Are you sure?”—, and, more importantly, he did not appear to love me any less afterward. He just listened, and when I was finished, asked if I wanted to go for a run. I did.
Of course, our baggage always catches up to us. Mine caught me as my classmates began planning the dreaded 10-year high-school reunion. A full year before the 10th anniversary of our graduation, I was invited to join a Facebook group for my graduating class. I ignored it, but it didn’t stop the friend requests from classmates who’d spread rumors that I’d made the whole thing up, who’d said I just wanted attention. I found myself staring into a cavernous collection of painful memories. My nightmares resurfaced. I became listless and depressed, plagued by anxiety, unable to focus at work. The reunion isn’t until 2018, and I think I’ll pass.
I had done what I thought you were supposed to do with a wound: I’d let it scab over, refusing to touch it, assuming it would heal and disappear on its own until I was left with a scar, the cause of which only I knew. Now, with the longtime scab ripped off, I could think of nothing else. I picked at what remained until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I picked some more.
So I started running again. It was the only way I could distract myself, albeit momentarily. It did not require the precision of rock climbing or the hazard evaluation of skiing big mountains. All I had to do was lace up my shoes and coax myself out the door, where I’d remember that I was myself, my 10-years-older self, who had survived.
My runs grew longer and more difficult, and eventually, I set my sights on a marathon. It was a way to quantify what I’d put my body, and, more importantly, my brain through. I picked a race in the middle of June, on dirt trails at high elevation—a throwback to my collegiate understanding of running as self-punishment—and set to work.
My marathon training was exactly the opposite of a Rocky-style montage. I did not grow exponentially stronger or undergo a profound physical transformation; my running pace remained more of a shuffle.
I preferred to be alone with my thoughts, which meandered from work deadlines to what I’d make for dinner and always came wandering back to that summer before my senior year in high school. It didn’t matter that I was determined to reclaim my past. I could not outrun it.
Bix, by now my husband and a seasoned endurance runner, had signed up for the marathon, too. This was not his first long race—he’s one of those people who can, aggravatingly, run 26.2 miles essentially off the couch. I had assumed he would finish a good hour ahead of me, then wait patiently at the finish line and tell me what a great job I’d done. I expected to spend at least five hours wading through my own trauma, then collapse melodramatically at the finish, physically and emotionally spent.
On the morning of the race, Bix insisted he’d run with me to the first aid station, a little over seven miles in. From there, he said he thought he’d run with me to the turnaround, 13 miles and 3,000 vertical feet from the start. By the time we reached the halfway point, I understood that he planned to run with me the whole way, despite my protestations that he could and should run much faster and that, really, I was fine.
We finished the race near the end of the field. I had expected this, but I wasn’t too exhausted to be a little disappointed.
Running a marathon in hopes of reclaiming the 10th anniversary of my sexual assault was not the cathartic experience I had hoped it would be. I still woke up the next morning feeling at loose ends. I still could not shake the inescapable feelings of sadness I’d tried to bypass for a decade. I had accomplished something, but I remain unsure of what.
But there’s this: for the first time in my adult life, the person running alongside me, chattering away at me for 26.2 miles, was not the phantom of the ex-boyfriend who so thoroughly betrayed my trust. Finally, I did not have to outrun him.
Emma Walker is a freelance writer from Golden, Colorado. You can find more of her writing at myalaskanodyssey.com, or follow her on Instagram @emma.r.walker.