A while ago I went on a few dates with a retired professional baseball player. I met him while I was soaking my legs in an icy river after a long run. There were a couple of young guys near me, fishing in a half-hearted way, and we started chatting. Turns out they were rookie-league players, in town for some games. Who’s the old dude, I asked, nodding at the middle-aged fit guy casting a line downriver. He’s our coach, they said. He’s a legend, they said. He won a Cy Young award.
I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t suffer from some form or degree of imposter syndrome. For me, it started with an acceptance to a university my guidance counselor said I had zero chance of getting into. I spent four years there thinking that someone made a mistake by letting me in
For many years I’ve been a ride and tier. You might think this sounds kind of dirty. Often, it is. I have finished ride and ties covered in dirt, dust, blood, horse snot, Gatorade, and pee (you don’t want to know). I have been exhausted, depleted, elated, pissed off (at myself), and overwhelmed with gratitude. I’ve crossed the finish line in first place, in the middle of the pack, holding hands with my partner, limping from a badly sprained ankle, and always, always smiling.
I am running uphill, not fast, having a conversation in my head with him, wishing I had said the same things but differently, wishing I hadn’t seen the hurt land on his face like that, wishing I had more tact, less candor; wishing for restraint, for subtlety, for the ability to blind myself to the things that bother me more than they should; wishing for the strength to keep my mouth shut. And then I fall.
This part of the trail is no more or less narrow, no more or less rocky, no steeper, no slicker, no more treacherous than any other part, but I fall.
What I think is: Oh, this again. What I think is: I fall.
My right hand bashes into the dirt, my right shoulder hits hard. I know what’s happening to the skin on my knee. Now it’s red, scraped against my tights, which have earned another hole, but soon that knee-skin will start to bleed and I will feel the blood slick and angry. I have bonked my head, but not hard, and I see a rock inches from where my skull hit. And I think: It’s okay. I think: I will be okay.
When I’m being kind to myself I say I fall because my stride is so efficient; I say I run with such economy my feet skitter mere inches above the ground, all energy moving forward, nothing wasted. I tell myself I fall because when I run I go so far into my own head that my body sometimes gets left behind. I tell myself I fall because I’m fearless; I charge down hills where others hitch and hesitate.
When I’m being honest, I know I fall because I make mistakes. I don’t pay enough attention. I get lazy. I try too hard. I don’t try hard enough. I get distracted. I get cocky and start thinking about the fact that I’m eleven miles into a twelve mile run and haven’t fallen once and then—down I go.
I fall. I fail. The difference is an “i.” An I. Me. I do both: I fall and I fail.
Before I was a runner I had a boyfriend who ran. He’d go at night, after work, into the forest on trails that were rocky and rooty and dark under loblolly pines and thick kudzu vines and he would come back with knees scraped, leaves in his hair, glasses bent. When I asked what had happened he would say with a shrug that he had fallen and what did I want for dinner.
How can you fall?
I fall, he said.
Who falls? What kind of a grownup falls?
I don’t know, he said, but sometimes I do.
Years later, the guys I spent miles with on Saturday mornings became so accustomed to my falling that they barely stopped to wait for me. I would go down and they’d say, “Oh Rachel’s fallen again,” and would take advantage of the few minutes it took to right myself to retie their shoes or pee against a tree.
Once, one of them fell, a leggy guy who kept a careful calendar and did business with numbers and wore suits to work. He wasn’t hurt—no blood, even—but you would have thought he’d been assailed. You would have thought he had broken or bent something. During the rest of the run he talked about his fall, believing people like him didn’t fall.
I fall. I fail. I move on.
At first it may have bothered me, but I can’t remember, really, a time when I ran and didn’t fall. My legs look playground-wounded, like kickball days after school, like summer nights spent hiding and seeking. When it’s warm I wear shorts and skirts and forget that middle-aged women are not supposed to be so freshly battered. People see, worry, ask. I say, I run, I fall. They are confused.
Sometimes I stay down a few minutes longer than necessary, allow myself a moment to absorb the shock. We grow up and forget those quick bits of suffering when tears come as a surprise. And then, over. The perfume of a mother’s touch, a kiss, a treat. On we go.
I do not like to fall, not any more than I like to fail. But falling reminds, as does failing. The question becomes how to proceed, how to keep moving, how to get there. The question becomes one of understanding, perhaps parsing the reasons why, trying to learn, trying to see what to do differently. Falling is a reminder that to try is often to fail.
I used to strain to hide it—the shame, the hot flush of being found out. Whenever the memory of a failure sparked I would douse it before it could do an encore of injury. Push it away, will it gone. If I can’t see it neither can you. This didn’t work. Every misstep, every badly played move would return, looping in my head, reviving the disgrace, reigniting that heart-pang, that sick-twinge, the wanting to hide, to disappear, wishing I hadn’t said yes, embarrassed that I had said no, not getting it right, not doing it well enough, not knowing.
I have learned to look at my legs and see not just the ravages of damage, but reminders of all the times I have gotten up, have kept going, have made it back.
I fall. I fail. I move on.