Tamara at the end of the 2016 Chicago Marathon—and a long, challenging year.
Welcome to Running Through It: the first column in a new series on Another Mother Runner. In it, we are going chronicle the ways running has helped #motherrunners through a challenging situation or stage in life.
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When I participated in the Women’s March on Washington last January, I struggled to explain why I was there. I reached for words that would express my feelings while hiding the harassment I was experiencing at the time. I couldn’t tell my story, however, without speaking of the predatory behavior that continued for months in plain sight.
A year of harassment had reduced me to silence. At the Women's March, I found a place where I could scream.
When aggression builds slowly and subtly over time, it is easy to dismiss with an empathetic eye roll. For me, tense differences of opinion with a coworker led to chronic interruptions, belittling insults, and public embarrassment. Initially, even I chalked it up to an unfortunate personality conflict. That changed, of course, when my harasser cornered me and named my departure from our organization as his top priority for 2016.
I heard my own pulse in my ears as he promised to make my failure as uncomfortable as possible.
I expected him to demean me and my work, but I hadn’t anticipated the escalating manipulation, isolation, and physical intimidation. When out-of-town meetings required that I stay in the same hotel as my harasser, I asked the concierge to walk me to my room each night. Although my colleagues never took my harasser’s threats seriously, I used their presence to ensure that I was never alone with him in a meeting room, hallway, or taxi. Despite these strategies, I felt safer running through unfamiliar downtown streets before dawn than I did in my own workplace. The constant sense of high alert was exhausting.
As it does for so many, running became an outlet for my stress. I’ve run for nearly 20 years and my local running group was my go-to social scene following the birth of my children. Once under attack, however, I relied on running to give me a sense of control. Even that wasn’t sufficient, however, and I searched for something more.
In spring 2016, Coach Mary-Katherine Fleming appeared as a guest on the Another Mother Runner podcast. She shared her heart-rate based training philosophy that made runners stronger and faster without injury. She pledged to coach and love runners en route to personal growth and healing. She spoke with a contagious energy that made me believe something badass was possible for me.
I registered for the Chicago Marathon – my first in 11 years – and jumped in with two orthotics-supported feet. In the Train Like A Mother online community, I found several hundred women who celebrated one another every single day. Although I never revealed the harassment to them, my TLAM friends helped me create an alternate reality that my harasser could never touch. It’s hard not to feel inspired by women who choose to run at 4 a.m. – for fun – and share their learnings and successes after each race.
My harasser would take pleasure itemizing my inadequacies: my irrelevant work experience, my weak contributions in meetings, even the sound of my voice. When he would tear me down, I would think back to the tempo run that had just made me feel strong and worthy. As my training paces quickened, running gave me a steadying sense of predictability and confidence.
It was during a run that I decided enough was enough. With sweat dripping from my T-shirt, I leapt from the treadmill and emailed a formal complaint. I would no longer quietly endure.
Tamara, running through it—and stronger than she has in years.
Unfortunately, my outrage surfaced too late, and I lost my job. I spent five months finishing my contract and making those around me feel comfortable with their complicity. I never told them how the praise they heaped on my harasser made me physically sick. Instead, I finished what I started to the very best of my ability. And I ran and ran, clocking my fastest half-marathon time in 15 years. I practically floated across the finish line, lighter and freer than I had felt since the harassment began.
It seemed only natural for me to begin my last day at work in my running shoes. Pre-dawn hill repeats gave me the chutzpah to show up and look my colleagues in the eye. No amount of core planks and dead bugs, however, could keep me standing tall by evening. My ugly-cry tears prompted the CEO to hug me so hard that he picked me up off my feet.
As far as I know, he was unaware of the harassment, and I was too embarrassed to explain my sadness. Just six months ago, the culture surrounding speaking one’s truth was different.
After I left my job, I had no desire to talk about my experience. Enduring it once was enough and so many women had it worse. I felt grateful when a new job soon let me put it all in my rearview mirror.
Then, the #metoo movement crashed through my privilege and silence. It woke me up to my responsibility to advocate for other women. It drew a clear red line that I will never allow anyone to cross. Most importantly, #metoo showed me that other people's comfort will never trump my own dignity.
On the morning following the Women’s March, the sun rose over D.C. and I ran. I passed monuments celebrating the country’s great leaders. I skirted overflowing trash cans, a reminder of 500,000 women who tidied up their mess. After three or four miles, the overcast sky released rain that mixed with my sweat and tears in the Mall, Arlington, and the Pentagon.
As it had for years, running made me feel ease amid my suffering. Today, nearly a year later, I am stronger, faster, and standing taller for myself and others.