Growing up, my family called me “bubble boy.” I was always sick, suffering from frequent bouts of bronchitis and ear infections. My asthma meant that exercise was difficult.
My health was especially poor during the spring, when severe pollen allergies and asthma combined to keep me from leaving the house for months at a time. I wore a mask and goggles even to walk to the car. While the other kids played outside during recess, I would stay inside every day breathing respirator vapor.
Over time, I became depressed. I stopped exercising completely, becoming fat and weak. My memories from middle school, when my body was at its weakest, are of being picked last in gym class, of being jumped in the hallways and the locker room. I grew to hate my body and my lungs and thought that anything athletic was far beyond my capabilities.
It wasn’t until an unexpected friendship with my school’s math teacher (and cross county coach) that things began to change. He convinced me to join the cross country team, even though I was overweight, asthmatic and unathletic.
This transition wasn’t easy. When I first started running, I could barely go 20 yards without stopping to rest. I was completely reliant on my inhaler. My jiggling chest and belly were the objects of much laughter on the team. Still, I ran and I ran and I ran every day.
I did not get “good,” this year, but by the end I was able to complete a 5k race, even if I had to stop frequently to control my breathing.
The next step was preparing for Philmont Scout Ranch with my Boy Scout troop. Truthfully, I did not want to participate. Even after I had gotten in decent shape with cross country, backpacking in the Rockies — 80 miles in 10 days! — seemed impossible for a group of 14-year-olds, especially me. Nevertheless, my father insisted that I go. The one condition was I would not go alone that summer: he would hike with me.
One afternoon in May of my eighth-grade year, I saw my father’s body on an ICU bed, broken and bruised and laced with surgical scars.
Hit by a pickup truck while he was riding his moped a mere two months before our trek, my father’s body, once so strong, served as a testament to all of our inherent fragility.
I could barely recognize this man whose oxygen mask-assisted breathing sounded so much like Darth Vader. The X-rays of his bones did not show clean breaks but rather images of shattered glass.
Philmont loomed. I was afraid. No one would have blamed me if I had decided to not go. I could have easily quit, using the trauma my family had gone through as an excuse. But now that my father could not accompany me, I had to go.
My scout troop hiked, each of us carrying packs that ranged between 30 and 40 pounds. The trails were much steeper than what we had grown accustomed to on the Appalachian Trail.
At the beginning, I was in the worst shape by far. There were many times during that week and a half that my blistered feet, asthmatic lungs and (rapidly disappearing) belly fat made me feel like I could not go on. But I finished, with the support of my troop members and my own stubborn will, but not the presence of my father.
One afternoon late in the trip, I stood on the summit of Mount Phillips. At 11,742 feet, the highest mountain in the ranch, I felt an explosion of emotions while staring out over the valley floor. Our troop, after much hardship, had gotten to the top.
Determined to finish the trek as much for my father as for me, by the end of the 10 days I went from being the undisputed slowest hiker in the group to leaping down trails with a full pack on. After this trek, my lifelong distaste for physical activity turned into a newfound confidence in what I could do, if I kept working through the pain and the doubt.
Four years later, I was running varsity cross country at GHS and hiking every month. Now, I still frequently run and hike. Soon, kung fu training starts.
Many people wonder how to escape the pitfalls of negativity that we all fall into. For me, time and time again the answer has been getting outdoors and exercising. I’ve never been a particularly noteworthy athlete by Gainesville standards (a high bar), but exercise still helped me become who I am. When nearly everything in this crazy world seems outside of my power, controlling my body and my breathing has given me a sense of ownership that few other activities provide. With all the stimulation provided to us by smartphones, virtual reality games and endless news, it turns out that sometimes what we need is a good sweat and elevated perspective to clear our minds.
The weather is nice now, finally. I hope some of y’all will get outside to enjoy it. I know I will.
Will Morris IV is a graduate of Gainesville High School and recent graduate of Harvard University, where he studied history, East Asian studies and government.