The sun is a glowing ball of fire in the sky and every pore of my body is sweating. I’m on mile three of the morning run, jogging along manicured lawns in an upscale neighborhood outside of Bangkok. The smell of the morning air is a mix of dampness, jasmine, car exhaust and tropical decay. The Thai sunrise looks different to me, seeing it from the other side of the world from my home. That ball of fire in the sky glows a different orange-pink, not a typical yellow, which I learn later might be air pollution.
A few weeks after the US election last year I decided I didn’t need to keep delaying my craziest dreams. Reality was upside down, so why keep waiting to see the world? I booked a ticket to go with my Muay Thai boxing gym for a two-week fight camp in Thailand. I’ve traveled internationally maybe four times.
I came to martial arts two years ago, after recovering from some chronic health issues. I wanted to celebrate beating the odds by choosing the most aggressive hobby available, and found my way to martial arts. I was partly inspired by a childhood fantasy to become a real warrior woman; raised on a steady diet of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and re-enacting fights scenes inspired by the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling.
But running under the hot Thai sun has a way of putting reality back into focus. I fancied myself Xena, Warrior Princess, but reality looked more like the sweaty engine that barely could move. Mile 3 is generally where I regret this decision to chase the fantasy, to explore the world and my own physical limits.
At fight camp, we get up, jog four miles and then we train for another two hours. We have breakfast, take a nap and a break until the early afternoon, and then we do the same drill again – run 2 miles, train 3 hours, dinner, sleep, repeat. My lungs feel like they’re about to explode. I plod along.
I’m just a ride-along student and a tourist. Tessa Simpson, my coach and a professional mixed martial artist, is the real-deal. She’s training for a professional tournament happening later in the month. There are other women in the group as well, two other coaches and my friend Tina, also a student from the Austin gym. Angela and Sarah are two coaches from Iowa – quiet, focused and kind. They are also training to compete in a tournament at the end of the month in Thailand. As we get ready for the morning training session, they glisten and glow with namman muay ointment on their legs. It smells like wintergreen and menthol, a slippery mixture that heats up the muscles.
For the first couple of days, I doubt myself constantly (and verbally.) What the hell was I thinking? Tessa, Angela and Sarah are calm big sisters, constantly reassuring. You got this, they say. Just concentrate on the 1% improvement. Don’t listen to the negative voices. You are here for a reason, so just focus on your technique. You got this.
Reality was upside down, so why keep waiting to see the world?
Real women warriors and martial artists — women like Tessa, Angela and Sara — are extremely low key and grounded. The more I train with them, the more I appreciate that coaching others is an art and a gift. Not everyone can be encouraging in just the right way, or stoke motivation in a way that pushes someone beyond what they think they’re capable of.
Day by day, I feel tiny measures of improvement. A week in, I finally hit a new groove and a rhythm. I can get through four miles without feeling like I’m going to die. I’m glowing incandescent on the morning run. I greet grandmothers taking a morning stroll with a short Thai phrase – sa-wat-dee kaa. The interaction fills my lungs with air, buoyed by the glow of their surprised smile at I lumbering past them. They wei — hands pressed together with a slight bow — back at me, a crazy farang jogging through their neighborhood.
I’ve never felt stronger.
I get back to Austin, back where the glow of the sunrise is yellow. I keep training with Tessa and the gym, keep pushing the boundary of what my body is capable of. With great anticipation, I wait for the new Wonder Woman movie, the new G.L.O.W. series on Netflix. The things that inspired me as a kid are back in full force, The mounting excitement feels like waiting for Christmas morning or the Super Bowl, the glowing promise of watching something historic and inspiring, something I feel I have been waiting to see for most of my life.
The training scene in the first part of the movie leaves me speechless. Fat tears of longing and joy roll down my face as I watch Wonder Woman and her aunts and sisters throw around swords and shoot arrows from horses. How I wish this place was real – a paradise with ferociously strong women, all sizes and hues, bold and beautiful and unflinching in their physical power! Where women encourage one another to be aggressive and nakedly powerful.
And I realize, this isn’t fiction. I’ve been there, in Thailand and in Texas. My face glowing with tears, I realize the tears are coming because I can hear Tessa and Angela and Sarah’s voice in the echo of the movie dialogue. I can here them saying, you got this. Remember how strong you are. Keep going.
(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)