Here, we go on a run with Sarah Stuhr (they/them), newly announced addition to the November Project, Minneapolis co-leader crew, as they reflect on early life as “the fat kid” and how that kid never could have dreamed of leading a group like this.
It was balls cold on Christmas Day 2020, one of our first subzero temp days when the windchill was factored in. Woulda been a great day without the wind (I’m from Minnesota so I’m morally obligated to mention that). Windchill is occasionally something you can avoid in the concrete jungle of downtown Minneapolis where I reside, but you can not escape the wind in the small farm town of Walters, Minnesota. My home town, you can probably Google where that is but they took us off the paper maps when our post office closed. Home is a little more than two miles from Walters and surrounded by fields.
You can’t hide from anything out there.
I carefully watched the forecast all day. My window of opportunity to run in the best conditions would start around 3 and end right around sundown. I was playing cards with my family and I got up during someone else’s shuffle to start organizing my layers. They immediately said I was forfeiting the game because they need any help they can get to beat me at cards. I countered and won the “argument.” We paused the game and I started getting dressed. Socks, booty shorts, leggings, second socks, shoes, baselayer, longsleeve, sweatshirt, headphones, one of those things that covers your entire head and face, windbreaker, buff, insulated buff, ski goggles, hat, gloves. Finally, I was ready to rock and roll. My family looked at me like I was the stray cat that showed up a few years ago. I should probably mention that I’m the only athlete in my family.
“You’ll pick me up in Kiester (the metropolis 5 miles south of our house that had a working pop machine)?” I asked my little brother, Nick.
“Yup.” he replied like I should have known and not needed to double confirm. But he’s 24 so….
“You’re crazy*. Be safe. Don’t get hit by a car or something.” Moms have to say this before you leave the house but especially when you’re going to run on a county highway when it’s quite literally freezing.
I crossed the street (highway), music bumping as I looked at The Big Hill, and started. The Big Hill is the hill my mom and I watched cars come down after the Friday and Saturday night movies let out. The hill I watched and waited for the bus to come down. The hill I’d secretly always wondered if I could climb. The Big Hill’s base is at my home’s driveway and it’s peak is exactly a little more than one mile away with exactly a little more than 200 feet of gradual elevation gain. Everest ain’t got nothing on The Big Hill.
How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time.
Slowly but surely, my feet kept going, one foot in front of the other, my tunes propelling me forward. Sixteen minutes later, I was at the top of The Big Hill. I wondered if my mom could see me, if she’d been following my grandma altered, neon pink and green Cotopaxi windbreaker that looked like the one I wore in the 90s. I cried. I took a picture. Several pictures. Moments later, my headphones died. Rookie mistake. The next four miles were going to feel long. This is the part where I tell you I always run with music in my ears and other runners will be like, ”Omg, it’s so peaceful to run without music,” and I’m like, “I haven’t evolved that far yet.” As I looked toward Kiester, taking in the views of a drive I’ve made at least 2,547 times, I wondered what I should think about.
Barrel rolling came to mind. I’m sure you know it – classic form is to utilize a good barrel roll when you’re going down a hill as a kid. A strange topic for a nearly 34 year-old to think about but I had just barrel rolled five days prior – not down a hill or as part of an obstacle course. No, my barrel rolling was a reaction to Emily & E Rolf telling me that they would like me to come on board as the next co-leader of NP-MSP. And after a couple of “Pssssh, No, Me? No, Psssh,” I found myself barrel rolling away from them on a slab of concrete (Is this the part where I tell you I was a theater major, or do I save that for later?).
Barrel rolling aside, I started thinking about the significance of me, Sarah Stuhr, a fat & queer & sober athlete, holding the title of co-leader of NP-MSP. I would be the first fat person to join the rankings of NP co-leaders, one of two to identify outside the gender binary and use they/them pronouns, one of a handful of queer leaders. Was I ready for that? Was NP ready for that?
My mind drifted as my miles rolled on, up and down the rolling hills of Highway 22. Who thought this route was a good idea? Should I have taken the road to Walters and had the wind at my side instead of in my face and a nice, flat course? “But the hill, Sarah,” my brain whispered. “Oh yeah, the hill.” A smile returned to my face and so did the spring in my step.
Kiester, Minnesota is home to my middle school, KMS and the ball fields where my athletic career began. I was literally running toward my earliest memories of playing sports. I remembered little moments from the “Early Years” highlight reel. When I signed up to play football and my coach called me a pain in the ass (shout out to Mr. Ellsworth). When Tyler Dryer refused to tackle me because I was a girl** and I laid his ass out. When I got called a dyke by my softball team for wearing rainbow socks. When I got called a dyke by my softball team for wearing ankle socks. When I kept up with the fast kids for three laps during the mile but slowed way down for the last lap and Mike Eilertson asked why I didn’t just keep running. When Matt Kluender got pissed at me when I checked him into the bleachers during floor hockey in Phy. Ed. “Just because you CAN hit that hard, doesn’t mean you need to, Sarah.”
Funny, the things that stick with you. I started thinking about that kid, middle school me. Sometimes I feel so far away from them – I was trying so hard to find my place, but how do you do that before you even know who you are? They covered botulism in Health class but not gender identity. I felt like one of the boys but I looked like one of the girls. I acted as both, a tomboy. That’s as progressive as my little town was at the time. But that little kid knew where they belonged: outside, playing hard and fast and smart; feeling the fresh air in their lungs, the sun on their face; and dirt…well, everywhere. Kiester was where my mantra became, “work hard, play hard,” before I knew what that really meant. It’s also where I got picked last; got made fun of for being fat; had boys tell me they’d date me if their friends wouldn’t make fun of them; did people’s homework and thought that meant we were friends; ate lunch alone at least once; was the kid that was friends with the office lady (Hi Charlotte!).
Kids like me didn’t get picked for athletic stuff. I remember Britney Staloch asking me why I wasn’t the captain of our cheer squad when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman. “Beats me,” I exhaled as I helped her pick the next cheer and adjusted the uniform my grandma quicked sewed for me because there wasn’t one big enough for the fat cheerleader. I’d be the honorary captain once my coaches would realize that I, despite being the fat one on the team, rallied around and supported my teammates, worked hard, and genuinely loved to play. I’d win the personality awards but I was never the one chosen to be front and center. My mom and grandma raised me to believe that I was beautiful, and capable of doing whatever I set my sights on, that what was on the inside was what counted but other folks didn’t get that memo. The tall, fat, weird kid was kept at bay. I don’t know if I fully understood how small I was being kept or made to be back then, but I certainly have thought about it later in life.
And now, here I was, running on the side of the road. On Christmas. In an outfit that had at least as many layers as my mom’s 7 layer taco dip***. At the end of one of the most difficult years of my life where I lost my job due to the pandemic, watched my city literally burn in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and under a military occupation, had to figure out how to maintain sobriety while physicallying isolating, wasn’t offered another contract with my football team. Ok, if I’m being honest it feels a little dramatic (maybe this is where I tell you about being a theater major) to say it was one of the most difficult years of my life. The year I came out AND got sober was no piece of cake**** (if you know, you KNOW), but this was certainly on the top 5 list. The thing that got me through was trusting the universe to put me where I needed to be. She might be moody but she knows what she’s doing. I had ignored her gentle nudging before, but couldn’t deny the path that was being paved for me now.
The beginning of a new day.
The starting line of a new race.
A new number on a jersey.
Back on the highway, I saw my brother’s truck waiting for me just ahead. I handed him my dead phone and, checking my watch, told him to meet me a half mile down the road. I thought about NP, about being a co-leader, about E Rolf’s wise words to take time and reflect on making sure this opportunity was a fit for me before saying yes. And as I passed the turn for KMS, I thought about middle school me again. About how that kid would have never, truly in their wildest dreams, imagined climbing The Bill Hill, going on this run or even being in a group like November Project, let alone being asked to lead. I laughed because the same was true for 2016 Sarah. But 2017 Sarah started following along, curious. And 2018 Sarah showed up. And 2021 Sarah had to keep showing up – not just for themself, or their community, but for middle school Sarah. It was time to rewrite that narrative that fat kids with big dreams and heartfelt ideas had to stay in the back, hand up and waving but never being called on.
I caught up to my brother’s truck. We had a small photo shoot as the sun went down. I tried to do one of those cool jumping pictures and it looked like I was tripping because my cold legs were like, “Nah, bro.” I stretched for a minute and got in the truck. “I didn’t turn the heat up because I figured you’d be hot. I brought you a water, too.” Ok, maybe we need to give 24 year-old little brothers more credit. “Thanks. Do you have my phone?” He handed me my phone, attached to a charger – ok, he deserves a lot more credit. I opened my messages, and sent a text
To: E Rolf Pleiss, Emily Minge
“Td;lr – went for a run, had thoughts, confirmed a big ole fuck yeah to being a coleader.”
When I think about what November Project, Minneapolis has given to me – a place to belong, to be in community, to be my full and authentic self, a love for hills – I am overwhelmed with gratitude. That first day, when I was walking up to a bunch of slim, athletic looking white dudes I had no idea we were going to last this long. But it only took a Ben Bauch welcome and high fives from dudes with weird names – Clayton, Rein, Jerry and laughs from people named Natalie and Carly to know that I belonged here. And if they kept offering up new tags, I’d probably keep coming. I hope you will too.
And when I say you, I mean the kids who got picked last. The kids who were made to feel different. The kids who are different. Whether it’s your size, your gender identity, the color of your skin, the funky way your hair curls, the god you pray to or don’t pray to, the gear you’re rocking, the place you’re starting from that’s kept you away, I hope you see a piece of you in me and you start showing up. And if you’re here already, I hope you keep showing up. The hills are better when you’ve got a friend or fifty along.
I am you.
You are me.
And WE are, Minneapolis NP.
Now, let’s get a little bounce going.
Author’s note: I began writing this early in the week of the inauguration and while I found little joy that day, my heart felt great happiness and comfort in hearing Amanda Gorman speak and relating “The Hill We Climb” to the hill in my writing. “If only we’re brave enough to BE it.”
*we’re working on eliminating ableist language like this from our conversations, and like a lot of people it’s a slow process. My mom says, to be fair, she does think I need to have my brain checked when I do things like this. I, on occasion, agree with her but my therapist does not.
**I identify as non-binary but when I tell stories about when I was younger or from before I came out as non-binary, I will refer to myself as a girl because that is the label I held at the time. This is a personal preference and not the same for all non-binary or trans people. Using gendered language that does not match someone’s current gender identity can cause dysmorphia, a very real mental health disorder that can cause a person extreme distress and impair them from participating in otherwise normal activities. Please take an ask first approach if you don’t know a person’s preference and honor their answer. If you have questions on how to do this, my dms are open.
***Mom’s 7 Layer Taco Dip
8oz Philly Cream Cheese
1 cup sour cream (Sarah substitute: whole fat plain greek yogurt)
6 TBSP taco sauce
2 tsp cumin (Sarah substitute: more than that)
2 tsp garlic salt
Mix ingredients above with a hand mixer, spread in a 9x13in pan and chill in the fridge or outside if it’s cold enough. Then layer ingredients below on top.
Serve with taco chips to dip. (Sarah substitute: nacho cheese doritos)
Ope, that’s not 7 layers. When I followed up with mom she said that the original recipe called for olives and something else she didn’t like. She said to tell people to “Add whatever else you want, stop counting, and start eating.” We are definitely related.
****I originally used the term “cakewalk” here and one of my friends who helped me edit this piece took the time to educate me on the racist background of this term. I mention this because 1)I am grateful for friends who hold me accountable and normalize conversations like this in our everyday lives 2)let’s all learn together! Here’s a link for more information on the origins of this term: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/23/256566647/the-extraordinary-story-of-why-a-cakewalk-wasnt-always-easy
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