While tapering down heading into this week’s marathon, I went for a twelve mile run through College Park, Maryland that took me up well lit streets filled with University of Maryland students and the colorful crunch under my feet of fallen autumn leaves. The last week is the week you make sure you train in what you will wear when you race so there are no wardrobe malfunctions. It is when you finalize any gels or hydration aids you might want to use. The last week is the time to calm your thoughts, settle your emotions, and to relax your body for the upcoming task it has trained to undertake. Unfortunately, entering my last week was nowhere near relaxing.
As I prepared to leave Route 1 (the main street outside University of Maryland) and enter the campus, I was particularly nostalgic. The campus holds a lot of memories for me. I spent many days on campus with my sister. While she was in class I would hang in The Pub with the college students and basketball players. As a high school athlete, I was in basketball heaven sitting among Derrick Lewis, Len Bias, Keith Gatlin and a basket of fries. I felt completely at home as I ran among the students; until one spit on me.
I shared the sidewalk with cyclists, other runners, and men and women of all ages and races. We all passed the same guy on the way to the campus entrance, yet as I pass him, I hear over the music in my ears the distinct sound of the pull and the release of spit. I thought, “Did he just spit on me? I know he did NOT just spit on me. He spit on me, didn’t he?” In complete disbelief I asked myself over and over again in hopes of convincing myself that this guy, out of all the people who I witnessed passing him, did not just decide to look me, the sole person of color, in my face, and spit on me as I passed. I have received dagger-like glares while running before. I have even received the random B-word. But never have I experienced something so vile and hateful during my self-imposed running therapy sessions.
Immediately, all the parts of me convened for a mental board meeting to discuss what to do. “Angry Black woman” quickly stepped forward in full neck twisting, hand-waving, Vaseline, and Tims mode taking off her earrings preparing for the fight. “Mom” and “Educator” were too busy trying to hold her down to really voice their opinion. “The Militant” was only slightly better than “Angry Black Woman.” Her intent would still have him hitting the ground. But then she would proceed to call the authorities on herself and begin her public human rights protest until the media showed up and he was expelled from school. “The Public Figure” had to contemplate how this would look in the media. She wanted to hurt him too but surely the headline would read of her attack on him before mentioning his ignorance. Not a good look. The one thing everyone in my head agreed on was that he must feel some type of physical pain for his action.
Just as I reached the decision to stop and confront the guy, “The Child of God” showed up and said, “Relax, it’s over.” What!?!?! Over?!?! Though I thought I was standing still, life moving in slow motion around me and me still in knock-him-out distance, I actually had continued running. Now far from the problem, it would serve no purpose to turn around and return to the ignorance. I tried to remain a disciplined runner and just keep running. Every person I passed began to look like him. My anger began to increase with every white face I saw. Not only was I running with the visible offense hanging from my back but the peace and tranquility of my run was completely broken.
Whether it’s a person and their bigotry, the plantation culture of the work environment, or our own personal failings, in life there will be times we have to make choices on how we handle foolishness wrapped in flesh. The emotional route is always an option but emotions don’t always tell the truth. We can ‘feel’ a way about a situation but when we compare what we ‘feel’ to what we ‘know’ they don’t match. Violence is a choice but is often perceived as the person having no self-control or lacking the discipline to explore more civil options. With diplomacy we can talk it out, radical civil disobedience can force the hand of change, and passivity can….well, I’m not sure but it is a choice. We make a million choices a day about what we will do or not do. Rarely, do we deliberately think to make conscious choices about what we will allow to affect us or not affect us or even who we will be or not be in challenging moments.
I thought about the spitting incident for many hours after it happened. At some point I changed my route to loop back around as if he would be standing in the same space waiting for our confrontation. I completely allowed his ignorant action to affect me, my run, and my mental state. I shared my experience with my fellow National Black Marathoners Association runners group hoping any similar experiences would make me not feel so alone. There were stories but they didn’t give the desired effect. Instead, I was grieved that we were bonding over stupidity, ignorance and racism. It was getting harder and harder to let it go, to refocus on the upcoming marathon, or even to pray.
In an instance, the borderline torment ended. Among our group comments, one fellow runner said, “I’m praying for your peace sis.” I realized I was giving that guy, his actions, and the situation permission to affect me. That was a choice I was making. It was not a choice that was moving me toward my goal. It was not making me a better runner or person. It wasn’t productive. I needed to make a different choice and I did. It still angers me at times. Those are just opportunities for me to make a Godly choice again.
One thing we do not have is control over another’s actions or choices. If I did, I would have chosen for that guy not to spit on me. We do have our own individual opportunities to choose love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We can choose to give, to live, and to be the example of these spiritual fruits. Despite others and their choices not to, we can choose them for the best version of who we are; mind, body, and spirit.