We started lined up against the wall, firing squad-style. Usually I watched my feet; then I gazed into the middle distance. I pretended to be interested in what was coming past in the road. (Once there was a lorry that burst a tyre on the bend.) There was always, you see, an element of hope; a hope that maybe this time it would be different. So I waited, while pretending not to care. But it always was the same and always shame rose in its familiar flood. It didn’t even take that long.
Do kids still pick their sports teams like that? Do the captains still take turns at choosing, still make no attempt to hide their disgust at being forced to take a share of the dregs? Is that still how it works?
I wasn’t even that unsuited to sports. I wasn’t overweight, or noticeably mal-coordinated, or too short or too tall or blind (not then). I was just unpopular. No, more than that. I was, in a school of forty, a child everyone could agree to ostracise. And so in the eyes of my ten year-old peers I was automatically less attractive to their team even than people who could barely move around the field.
It didn’t get better at high school. I genuinely wanted to play sports well. Partly that was my drive for achievement, a drive which my first psychiatrist, when I was thirteen, declared to be pathologically strong. Partly I wanted the camaraderie I saw in the crowd of swishing ponytails. But it didn’t happen. I wasn’t having the dance lessons which where were the girls got fit. I was short on energy from an eating disorder and deep depression. And I was scared of people, which didn’t help.
I do know that having a horror of school sports is hardly rare among those of us who like books. I no longer feel sorry for myself about it. After all, in the classroom I was the first one up, always with an answer at the ready.
But that horror had, you can imagine, a number of knock on effects. One was the enduring belief that physical activity was not for me. Another was that by my early twenties I still had no idea what fitness was. If you’d asked, I would have told you I was fairly fit, when what I meant was I was mostly a size ten. I didn’t know what physical exertion felt like. I walked a lot and cycled a bit, but that was all, and it was always on the flat. The first time I attempted to scale an Alpine pimple I was breathing so hard I thought I might die. I had no idea that doing that over and over is how you get fitter.
A lot of that has changed. I’m now, when I put my mind to it, an endurance running bore. (I’ve read all the books, at least, and experienced a fair amount of pain.) I ski well enough to have a lot of fun in places where a mistake means you die. I’ve climbed extensively in the Alps, including Mont Blanc in winter. I have, (I’ve said it elsewhere), climbed in the Himalaya. Not just trekked, but actually climbed, carrying full mountaineering expedition kit apart from the tent, and with crampons and ice axes galore.
I still don’t believe I’m sporty.
Really, I promise you.
Partly that’s a knock-on from the sports I choose. I practise yoga, but am not naturally bendy; and because it’s generally bendy people who are attracted to yoga I feel stiff and incompetent. I run, but I cannot sprint, which is what people with big muscles excel at when they run. And I’m slow at endurance because I carry weight in my bones and muscles that your average waif-like marathoner does not. Even when I ski, which my strong quads are immensely suited to, I do it with men, and end up berating myself for lack of technique, when in fact it’s simply that I lack the body weight which would allow me to get more out of gravity.
What I am good at is mental gymnastics. However much exercise I do, my mind will find a way to say it’s not enough, not real exercise, that I’m not good at it at all.
And yet yesterday I ran a half-marathon, which is the first of two I have planned for this month. What’s more, I enjoyed it. I floated round from miles five to twelve, surprised at how easy it felt. It wasn’t that much of an effort, and my legs are not too stiff today. This afternoon and tomorrow I will go to yoga classes. The next day I aim to run again. That schedule is not an unusual week for me; that is the normal pattern of my current life.
So it is perhaps time to reject the mental gymnastics, and instead to accept that I am fit, that by many standards I am sporty; or at least that I do regular exercise.
The weird bit is how hard that is to do.