We are on vacation at Blue Lake when I first go running with my brother, Jack. Until now, I know that I enjoy running. Our favorite recess game is tag, and during elementary school we race along the cracked concrete looping our playground’s lumpy soccer field. But I have never gone “on a run.” The idea is fresh to me: not running away from or towards anything specific, just seeing how my body might feel about the straightforward but puzzling choreography of indefinitely following an abstract line through space.
Jack and I warm up in the abandoned parking lot next to the kids’ beach. Campground dust hangs thick among us; I high-knee and butt-kick an opaque cloud of its pungent softness around myself. Jack’s legs burst upward and outward, scissoring the air and punctuating the slices of evening light that settle over us in cracks through the thick oak trees. He warms up rhythmically, his body cutting odd angles across the parking lot as he dances through moves: skips, drag skips, crab claws. His feet strum the ground, elbows pumping precisely, shoulders thrown instinctually back. I struggle to mimic him. My movements feel like those of a shriveled bird flapping next to his subtle, solid display of prowess. Finally, the bouncing legs settle.
We look at each other. “Are you ready?” he asks me. Sunlight slashes his brown face into shards. I nod yes, and he flies away. His legs usher him with the smoothness of a river.
The rest of this memory glides by as swiftly as Jack lifted away from me that evening. I don’t know where we went for the run, only that the warmup imprints a thick stain on my memory, the capitalized first letter to an essay that my running body writes through the indefinite line of my life.
That first run with Jack was during the summer after fifth grade. When my twin sister and I enroll in middle school that autumn, we join the cross country team. I enjoy practice, but racing burdens me with heavy stones of performance anxiety that settle in my bones and trouble the entire fall season of school.
By the time I’m in high school, I’ve established myself as a strong runner. As a freshman, I brush shoulders on the start line with varsity seniors. Their sleek Nike headbands and long muscled legs gleam before me. I nervously adjust my thick black glasses, graze my fingers over the barrettes that clip my jagged bangs away from my face. I feel small and ugly next to these older, surely more talented athletes. A blink of anger ripples through my brain, frustration towards Jack and my dad for pushing me to be the fastest on the team all through middle school. Now I find my fourteen-year-old self corralled in with elite girls whose legs extend up to my ribs. The gun snaps. I hurl myself down the grass field of the starting chute. My vision foggy with fear, my legs tight with the anticipation of pain.
In high school, I begin to measure time relative to the cross country season. A matrix of ripe performance anxiety, obsession with progress and shorter times as I grow older and stronger, and the solidified concept of Christmastime as a reward for finishing our season, all solidify the sport as the apex of my personal calendar. Running becomes the center around which everything else in my life radiates as spokes of ever-connected consequence. Running persists as not simply the way I orient my relationship with my body, but the channel through which the entire chronology of my world is governed.
My body becomes a dialectic at the border of knowingness and mystery. As I run, sweat, and hurt, I am having a conversation with the strange frontier of myself. Sometimes this labor heals my body, and sometimes it exhausts it. Historically I’ve had difficulty telling the difference between the two.
Through high school, I exercise to the point of exhaustion. I learn not to rest until my body feels significantly punished each day. I embrace the concept of feeling “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” This axiom has been colonized by the hardcore fitness community, particularly the vein of aesthetic trainers who emphasize hardness and control over imperatives more central to fitness, such as holism or body positivity. When I was younger, I weaponized this idea of necessary pain to confront the perennial problem of myself, the frustrating thereness of my body.
Looking back, a thick root of this discomfort with my body was my inability to acknowledge the queerness that squirmed inside it. That queerness, that frustrating lack of ability to fit, was always there. It waited patiently for me to find the words that would hold it, would articulate it. Now I consider discomfort within a queer and trans framework of relationality with oneself and the world. Familiarized unease is common for those of us whose bodies and identities have been othered, have been boxed in or shut out.
Like the discomfort of running, queerness is an avenue through which a marginality becomes available to make home in. A space within which movement, fluidity, and discomfort become more like a language than a barrier. Both are possible means of reclamation and healing, through kicking up dirt and labored breath and callused feet. The queer body, like a running body, punches a hole of clarity through semiotic darkness.
I graduated college this year and find myself living in south central Iowa, where there are two directions to run from the rural house: left, and right. When I run, I am articulating myself in maybe the clearest way I know how.
As I bounce through these gravel roads, the sharp rocks will often cut into my feet. They bully me one way or another along the road until I can find a smooth area to train my feet on for as long as the stretch will take me. I’ve been running so much out here in Iowa as a way to understand the sheer expanse of nothingness around me. I’ve been carving inroads inside myself, as much as I’ve been carving them with my body. When I reach home, I peel my socks away and run my fingers along the hard raised calluses that brace the sole of my foot like weals of clay. The land leaves its imprints on me. I am unwound when I trail through it, letting it cut and shape me with all its crisp rural harshness.
On the morning after the 2020 election, I rose early and went for a nerve-saturated run along the unpaved path that swings through farm grounds alongside another lake, Lake Red Rock. It’s where my partner’s family ranch house stands at the end of a long driveway flanked by oss trees. These trees guard me stoically until I turn onto the gravel road, the pebble of my body clicking down the path under a bowl of sky still star-soaked, predawn.
There is something indistinct, perhaps impossible, to say about the openness of the land. About how the emptiness of everything around me makes me feel cleaved open. Fissured into halves. When I first got here, I would drag a large red square of carpet out to the front yard and lift weights on it while the sun cracked over the land. Country sun blinks burningly close and yet astonishingly far, its horizon crooked with ridges of late summer’s crop. There is space here. There is room to stretch out all the prehensions, the strict tensions, the contingencies of myself.
I no longer time my miles; that is, I no longer see mileage as something that needs to be so regimented. My runs have become gentle, slow, and long. I no longer strive towards the parochial, colonial avowal of pain as a goal in workouts. Instead, I see running as a method of approaching the disquiet of myself. Fitness, like queerness, is something to embody, to approximate, rather than something to do. Running is my manner of reclaiming the hurt of my body and owning it again. Running is how my queer heart opens itself outward.
This grid of relationships presents a uniquely queering subjectivity, a set of ways allied in beautiful unease. These are my ways of being, of interacting with the surrounding environment, of being in relationship with the immediacy of myself and the expansiveness of time as it unfolds through the ritual and rhythm of my life.
On a lonely road, trees toss up their branches like fingers reaching into the sharply cold fabric of the sky. I feel like I’m sharing myself too, reaching myself out to this blanket overhead. It closes me in and opens me up all at once. The trail is a sentence that I write with my steps, punctuating and accenting with the strict rhythm of my breath, an organic and lived poem etched into the land as it burns me anew too. A poem the shape of my brother’s breath, ready to diminish a dirt road ahead of us, inviting me, “Ready?”Jacey de la Torre (she/her/hers) recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She is currently living in her Bay Area hometown while preparing to enroll in graduate school this summer, as the next step on her pathway to becoming a teacher. Her work has previously appeared in publications such as Hobart Magazine, Chalkbeat Magazine, Porridge Magazine, and Atticus Review.