70. The Shelf Curse

70. The Shelf Curse

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

The Shelf Curse

Be different, stand out, and work your butt off.
 ~Reba McEntire

My mother often attributed her robust figure to her German heritage. “In the old country, if the mule was sick, my ancestors strapped the plow to their own backs to work the field,” Mom explained while reaching for her fourth slice of cake. “You just wait. The ‘shelf curse’ will catch up to you one of these days,” she warned me.

The “shelf” was a nickname for the derrières grown by the women on my mother’s side of the family. Their rears were bountiful to the point of providing a bookshelf-like protrusion under their backs. Growing up I lived in fear, wondering when I would sprout my shelf.

My parents’ generation wasn’t much on physical activity. They loved to sing, play guitar, tell funny stories and eat. But breaking a sweat wasn’t something they did on a regular basis. Running became my way of proving that the cycle of sedentary ways could be broken. I rarely missed a day and kept adding miles. Finally, I set the goal to run a marathon. That would surely break the “shelf curse.” I trained religiously until my knees screamed in pain from the impact of pounding the pavement.

“Try using a cushioned track,” a runner friend recommended.

That sounded boring, but there was no way I could continue to run on asphalt. Obsessed with breaking the family curse, I took my workout to the track.

It was love at first run. No longer did I have to worry about being hit by a car, tripping over bumps in the sidewalk or dodging dog walkers. I was free to run, run, run, without a care in the world. Soon, I took over the track, and put everything I could ever want on the bench at the quarter-mile mark. I’d drink every two miles, down chocolate energy gel every five miles and change my CD every six miles. I loved getting exact times per loop, and was amazed at how accurately I could pace my tempo. When I really wanted to shake things up, I’d turn around and run in the other direction!

Life with my track was pure bliss. I could practically taste the day I would officially break the family curse, opening the door for my son and daughter to participate in organized sports of their choosing.

I’d reached 14-mile distance runs when disaster struck. In the final two months of my marathon training, school started! Swarms of teenagers, all dressed alike in kelly-green gym clothes, descended on my track. One P.E. class after another, my space had been invaded by the Countryside Middle School Screaming Eagles.

And what strange life forms they were. They hugged the inside lane in clusters, whispering and giggling as I’d run past. They made me self-conscious and I felt like saying, “until you can run as far as me, you’d better keep your mouths shut!” But I didn’t want trouble with the teacher. He had the power to banish me and at this point, I was too attached to my track to even consider training elsewhere. Whenever I’d run by his post, I’d lower my gaze and pretend I was oblivious to the fact I was running among thirty adolescents. I even considered wearing green in an attempt to blend.

Then one morning my presence was made obvious when a very astute boy shouted, “Hey, Mr. Lewis… that mom is running on our track again.”

Without thinking, I looked up and broke my no-eye-contact rule. Now I had to say something… I jogged up to Mr. Lewis, “I’m not in the way, am I?” I asked as if I’d never noticed the gym class around me.

Before he had time to answer, I blurted out, “I’m training for a marathon, and this is the best surface to run on, my knees were bothering me, it’s my first one and it’s important that I finish it, there’s this family curse I have to break, and.…” I held my breath, waiting to be sent to the principal’s office.

Mr. Lewis laughed. “Go ahead, keep running. You’re good inspiration for the kids. Just keep to the outside.”

Ancestors, did you hear that? Someone referred to me as athletic inspiration.

I did complete that marathon!

~Sherrie Page Najarian

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