One Sunday not many weeks ago, I was out on a long run with a crew of CSU runners, a group that on this particular morning, included about a half-dozen men, and Amory, a mother of two. About a half hour into the run, we left the roads and headed down a trail into town conservation land, leaving suburban civilization for the moment, or at least escaping its watchful gaze. Having achieved this momentary privacy, a couple of the men in the group took advantage of the opportunity and veered off into the woods to claim a tree and mark their territory.
It was a very instinctive move. For the other men in the group, it barely registered, since — let’s be honest — it happens pretty much every Sunday on the long runs. For Amory, it registered a little bit more, I think, as she made a gentle observation about needing to avert her gaze. As we continued up the trail, we pondered how our sense of personal embarrassment about our bodies had evolved, or rather, eroded, over time. I know that I was a very modest fellow when I was a youth. But running has cured me of my modesty .
As we all know, being a runner offers plenty of opportunities to lose all one’s dignity. The desperate expenditure of physical effort over a long, sustained workout or race brings on moments when the body simply and suddenly needs to purge itself. Peeing in the woods is, I dare say, relatively genteel compared with other adventures in personal un-hygiene. Uncontrollable bowel movements are a relatively common but nevertheless mortifying occurrence. Throwing up is standard fare for many who race shorter, intense distances, or for those who haven’t learned what foods to avoid before the afternoon workout. Those are the most spectacular examples of “losing it” (our dignity), but there are numerous other fun ways in which our bodies become startlingly unglamorous: snotty noses, bloody noses, bloody nipples, bloody feet, blood blisters, lost toenails, salty armpits, to name a few. And let’s not forget good old sweat, which brings a damp honor to our efforts and multiples our laundries beyond reason.
(As an aside, I’ve read that a well-trained runner’s sweat is relatively pure, with few salts and little odor. I don’t know if that’s generally true, or if it’s a myth that runners tell to make each other feel better. I don’t think I smell bad when I sweat, but I no longer worry about it. Having been sweaty so much over the years and in so many places, I’ve become comfortable being moist in public. I’ve also become quite used to interacting with others while dripping like a tenement faucet. Any shame I might once have had about perspiring in public was drowned long ago in a lightly salty broth of my own making.)
But back to our Sunday group. After musing on how running had worn down our adolescent sense of bodily shame, Amory put things in perspective for us by saying that running might do the trick, but once you had experienced childbirth, that was pretty much it for any remaining sense of modesty.
While I like the comparison. I suspect that running a marathon is a heck of a lot easier than giving birth. But in both endeavors, there’s no reason to spend extra effort keeping up unnatural appearances. The body has a job to do, and that means there’s gonna be a certain amount of blood, sweat, tears, mucus, and shit. Appearances notwithstanding, that’s what happens when the body is just working at its job.
And there’s no shame in that.