I hadn’t looked at my passport photo for a long time prior to embarking on my now moderately infamous quest to get a U.K. visa. It’s actually pretty amusing. I have no piercings—not in my ears, not in my eyebrow—and my hair is closely cropped and normal colored. The thing that really humors me, though, is that I’m wearing a varsity letter jacket.
My passport photo is a window into a very specific period of my life, a huge divergence from what came before and what has come after. The photo was taken my senior year of high school, when I was applying for a passport in preparation for a school trip to Mexico. It documents a few month period where I lived and breathed running. By the final months of high school, I pretty much only showed up to school for practice afterward. Even then, I had a note from my parents giving me permission to leave class to go running. Fourth period physics was a personal favorite to disappear from. I shudder to admit it, but at that point in my life I was, at least, insofar as I could be at a tiny and unconventional school like Northland Preparatory Academic, a jock.
All this is amusing, to me at least, because it’s a part of my identity that has so thoroughly disappeared in subsequent years. A few months after the picture was taken, I tore my Achilles tendon on a training run, and my athletic career was over. When it happened, I was thoroughly crushed, but I got over it. I joined the band, went vegan, embraced punk culture, and tried to forget that I had once been the kind of square who would wear a letter jacket.
The person in my passport picture has been feeling a bit more familiar since I moved to Oxford. Following the standard American-in-Oxford path, I signed up for crew and, by merit of being slightly tall, having some familiarity with a gym, and my willingness to practice for more than two hours a week, I found myself in Worcester College’s “A” boat. For the last eight weeks, I’ve had weekly six a.m. outings in complete darkness and circuits in the rain—and absolutely loved every minute of it.
This week was Christ Church Regatta, the first proper race of the season, in which it seemed practically half the student body was competing. Boathouse Island was a non-stop party, with each of Oxford’s thirty-nine colleges putting its regalia out in full. The night before our first race, our crew, consisting of two undergraduate coaches (from the U.K.), six undergrads (all from the U.K.), and myself and one other graduate student (from Australia), got together to carbohydrate load, trash talk Worcester’s B crew, and, as seems to wind up happening, teach me English slang terms. (Those other crews are so naff). Afterward, we watched a horrendously clichéd rowing movie which borrowed heavily from Mighty Ducks and stole its soundtrack from Rocky. It was fantastic.
I hadn’t realized how serious I was about rowing until race day, when I couldn’t concentrate all morning and wound up skipping class to warm up, stretch, and you-tube Olympic rowing matches. At the boathouse, the eighteen-year-olds on my team were putting on pink facepaint (Worcester’s color), but I could practically hear Mr. Elder, my high school coach, reminding me “the only way I want you to call attention to yourself is by winning.” By the time we had rowed up to the starting line, I was half roaring with adrenaline, half sick with nervousness. Two minutes and five hundred meters later, we had beaten St. Hugh’s College, and I was thrilled to no end.
The regatta is a knock-out tournament, so we were slated to race again the next day. In a turn of events that must have been surprising to absolutely no one except the race organizers, it rained for the rest of Wednesday. The river rose, and Thursday’s race was cancelled. After another day of rain, Friday was out too, and Saturday thereafter. We “finished” the regatta unsatisfied, but undefeated.
The silver lining of the cancellation was that I had a chance to run against Cambridge on Saturday. I’ve only run one race previously this semester, an intercollegiate match, but I had to row for two hours prior and rush two miles to the starting line, so it wasn’t exactly a stellar performance. As a result of not running any other qualifying matches, I was thrown into the “mob match” rather than the varsity race, but, having trained for rowing not running, I was okay with the diminished competition. For whatever reason, though, yesterday everything clicked. The course was a slimy, muddy mess, with tight turns and steep hills; in other words, proper cross country. I started out conservatively—assuming that I was out of shape—but around mile two, really started cruising. Even when the misery of running hard for thirty minutes started to hit me, I didn’t let up, and wound up sprinting four-hundred miles to the finish, before collapsing.
While I wasn’t running proper varsity, I’m still pretty proud of the fact that I took second (and the guy in first was varsity last year) and managed a massive personal best for the 10k. It was such a pointless, meaningless race, and yet it felt so good to do well. I had forgotten how much I missed running, how much it had killed me to let go if it freshman year. I was honestly tearing up by the time I got in the van to return to campus, and couldn’t wait to call up my old coach and thank him-once again-for bringing running into my life.
So, I suppose, things have come full circle, and the jock in the passport photo seems more and more familiar to me. I was chatting about rowing with a woman in my program who is also doing crew, and she made a comment to the effect that “I didn’t think vegans were ever into sports…” It made me realize how incongruous my rediscovered passion is with the rest of my life. Sometimes, I struggle with whether or not this is really a worthwhile use of my time. I can’t help but think the people paying for me to be here didn’t do so expecting me to be a B-grade runner and a C-grade oarsman (and wouldn’t be particularly satisfied if I was “A-grade” in either). I’m not going to solve world poverty on a training run, or figure out a life purpose at a 6 a.m. crew outing.
Coach Elder told me once that “running is life.” He didn’t entirely mean it in the you-should-make-your-entire-life-running sense. He also meant that running is, in a weird way, a metaphor for all of life. My existence is, indeed, one long competition: my studies are supposed to be part of the fight against indifference and apathy, but frequently feel like a battle over the inertia of academia. As an activist, I’m in conflict with the university over arms investment and in my personal life, I’m challenging the oppression of animals and the depletion of natural resources.
The toughest fights, of course, are with yourself, and on Saturday—competing against my own limits—I for once felt like I won. And that, to me, is worth it.