"I meant you dear," she said. "Do you work at it?" "A little," I said offering an embarrassed smile, the heat of self-consciousness burning my cheeks.
This woman was obviously confused and had clearly forgotten her glasses at home. I glanced around the gym hoping that no one had overheard us. I was sure people were looking over and giggling. Her? Strong? I hurried through the rest of my workout, anxious to leave before she could dole out any more unsolicited compliments.
On my way home, I couldn't help but wonder what on earth she meant. No one had ever called me strong before. As a child, I wasn't particularly athletic. I was the first one cut from the grade-school teams and the last picked during gym class. The athleticism I stumbled onto, as an adult was average at best.
How could she not have noticed that last five pounds I wasn't ambitious enough to lose? How could she not have seen the slight bulge at my waist, or the extra jiggle in my thighs as I stepped into my lunge?
The gym rats with their rippling muscles and taut tummies, they were strong. They didn't have the extra padding that came from a weakness for cake icing, or an insatiable appetite for morning pancakes dripping with syrup. They didn't flinch at the inevitable pain of mile 20 in a marathon. Nor did they roll over and ignore their alarm clocks, skipping their morning run.
When I first joined the gym, I dreamt of the sinewy arms and flat belly that would surely be my reward; I longed to look like an Olympic swimmer. Sadly my body didn't acquiesce. Though it became slightly more toned, I remained round in the wrong spots and not round enough in others. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be one of the "strong ones."
Returning to the gym, I was afraid of seeing her again, afraid that she would realize her mistake. "I thought you were someone else," she'd say, no doubt referring to someone fitter, someone firmer, someone stronger. Before entering the weight room, I peeked in to make sure she wasn't there, not wanting to handle the awkwardness that would likely come from our next encounter.
But I couldn't avoid her forever. "Hello dear," that familiar voice cheerfully called down to me as I lay down on the mat to do some crunches. My desire to run for the door was overwhelming. Forcing a smile, I grunted hello.
"What are you training for?" she called from the bench, where she sat doing wrist curls.
"Pardon me?" I asked turning to face her.
"What are you training for? What's your sport?"
"Well," I stammered, "I don't really have a sport. I mean, I run, but that's all.""You run?" she asked.
"Yes, not really fast, but -- well, I run marathons."
"Wow," she said, her eyes widening with admiration. "No wonder you're in such good shape. I admire people like you."
People like me? I was stunned into silence. I wanted to explain her that I wasn't the person she thought I was. I wanted to tell her, I'm not like those runners you see cruising for the finish line with a big smile on their face.
I'm the one with the grimace, the one limping slightly who looks a step or two from death. I'm the one whose body screams for mercy at mile 20, the one who always fears she'll never make it to the end, but somehow always does.
Quietly, I went back to my lunges, attempting to avoid making eye contact with her. Wanting to see what she was seeing, I watched myself in the mirror as I lunged forward and back, the precision with which my legs made each motion, the way my calf muscles contracted and relaxed. I stared at my arms and noticed the slight bulge in my bicep and the long, lean line of my tricep.
What I saw was a body that wasn't marathon thin or bulging with muscles, but that had shy, modest muscles and did everything I asked it to do. I smiled to myself. It was then that it hit me. I realized that although I didn't "look" like a marathoner, it didn't matter because I had the determination, heart, soul and strength of one.
From that day on, I knew that being strong doesn't always translate to having a body of granite. It means working out consistently, even though you'll likely never develop a perfectly-sculpted physique. It means allowing yourself to indulge in store-bought icing and a huge plate of pancakes every Saturday. It means a body that brings you to the finish line each and every race, no matter what your time. And finally, it means getting a small compliment when you least expect it.
Stephanie R. Kinnon is a passionate marathoner and freelance writer based in Vancouver. She has written for Reader's Digest and Northwest Runner magazine, among other publications.