Digital art illustration of a pair of running shoes. A thought bubble coming from the left shoe shows a black and white illustration of a person running on a treadmill, surrounded by music notes. A thought bubble coming from the right shoe shows a colorful illustration of the same person running outside, surrounded by multicolored music notes.
Design by Hannah Willingham.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. 

At 5 a.m. on a given school day in 2019 or 2020, I was awake, running on four hours of sleep and my dissatisfaction with the reflection I saw when I shambled out of bed to turn off my alarm, turn sideways and lift my shirt to see my waistline in the mirror. Forty minutes later, I sat in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, half awake, while my twin sister drove. It was still dark out when she dropped me off at the gym on the way to her manufacturing technology class.

Since the previous night, dread had settled in my stomach. The first thing I did at the gym every day was run for 10 minutes — a mile and a quarter — on the treadmill. This is not a long time, but I had just started running and was neither in the best shape nor taking good care of myself, making these 10 minutes one of the things I’ve looked forward to least in my life. Hating it this much, of course, made it harder.

I allowed myself five minutes of procrastination in front of the locker room mirror and considered my playlist — would *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” make my treadmill experience move a millimeter away from “torture” and toward “fun” today? If Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (a workout music staple embedded in my life since my pre-middle school years as a gymnast) came on, would I be able to listen to the whole song or would I have to use all my non-premium skips on Spotify until “Beggin’ on Your Knees” from “Victorious” played? Sometimes, only that level of obnoxious self-confidence injected into my eardrums was able to keep my legs moving and shove aside my distress. 

The treadmill was a fight — with the machine that pulled my feet backward, with my hand that kept increasing the speed for some godforsaken reason, with my body that wasn’t strong enough to feel anything but pain and panic as I made it keep going. If I was only a few minutes into this fight, I could listen to most any song on the playlist. But by the end of 10 minutes, only a few deterred me from letting the black belt turning under my feet pull me down and throw my body against the wall opposite the mirrors like it seemed bent on doing. 

My treadmill playlist was called “i probably want to die but IT’S WORTH IT.” This is exemplary of my attitude toward exercise at the time. The fact that I saw this as a not-at-all-concerning, funny joke says almost as much as the name itself. I was embarrassed by my workout music. If anyone asked what I listened to when I worked out — or more likely, if I worked exercise into a conversation in search of validation for my pain — I said, “I listen to the most annoying music when I run. All that matters is that it has a good beat. I would never listen to it when I’m not on the treadmill.” Harsh criticism for the *NSYNC songs I absolutely did turn to top volume when driving anywhere alone, and to which I delivered what I thought were quite emotionally moving performances. Perhaps it is less harsh criticism for Selena Gomez’s “Who Says” or the “Lemonade Mouth” soundtrack.

In high school, I had no music taste. I tried to gauge what my friends were listening to and followed suit. These tended to be less upbeat songs, and the overwhelming majority were by male artists — Tame Impala, The Shins, The Strokes, Wallows.

The treadmill was the only place I felt like I could listen to the songs that didn’t fit into the music taste I was supposed to have. I listened to my happiest songs there. They weren’t what anyone wanted me to listen to or things the person I wanted to be — someone respectable who was impossible to shame — would listen to, but that didn’t matter because they propelled my body toward its own role in that respectability. If it wasn’t clear from the playlist’s title, I ran on the treadmill in high school because I wanted my body to change, to be just a little bit thinner, to be admired, to make up for all my uncertainties in who I was and who I should be and how I should appear to everyone around me. 

Most of the songs on the playlist follow the same quick rhythm, loud and prominent enough to cover the hammering of my feet. The lyrics tend to be vengeful — following themes of proving your superiority to someone who has wronged you. I heard Taylor Swift’s “Mean” — “All you are is mean / And a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life / And mean” (don’t you want to start sprinting?) — and knew that if I kept running faster, I would feel a twinge of pride, like I had discovered something — discipline? control? effort? — that other people didn’t have. I heard “It’s Gonna Be Me” and thought if I turned the pace up to 8 miles per hour instead of 7.5 then I would look like the person who anyone I wanted would want. I heard “She’s So Gone” (a “Lemonade Mouth” gem) and thought about anything I disliked about myself: any failures, any times I slept an extra hour instead of going to the gym in the morning, any times I ate something more than what I’d planned for dinner. I was convinced that I could sprint away from the version of myself afflicted with these lapses in self-defined perfection.

Of course, I could not outrun myself. And even if I could, I was running in place.

I hate treadmills. There was not a day I didn’t dread stepping onto the machine, when pressing the start button didn’t require reminders that if I didn’t run, I would have to face my own consequences: angry insults of my body and my lack of obedience, guilt for the next week, greater limitations to food that I no longer deserved or needed. There were rare moments — matters of seconds — when I started running and the right song came on, and I felt the surreal joy of having ascended out of my present life and body. But then that body reminded me it was not superhuman and could not be escaped. Besides, it was starved of food and sleep, and I could do what I liked with it, but not without it making the work as difficult as possible. 

If you like the treadmill, fine. If you hate it but run on it anyway for whatever reason you can justify, fine. I will personally never set foot on a treadmill again. I promised myself that in my freshman year of college. I don’t care that I actually enjoy running now, or that I can run 14 times as far, or that my average running pace now is faster than the fastest pace I set on the treadmill, which made me fear my limbs would rip off. 

The last time I ran on a treadmill was in the fall of 2020. I had started running outside and could comfortably run several miles, but on a treadmill in an overheating room in the CCRB, I hardly convinced myself to go a single mile. This discomfort was partly because treadmills are devices of monotony and despair, but it was also because running on this treadmill felt like running on the treadmill at the gym in my hometown.

I thought staying away from treadmills would prevent this feeling, but the songs, marred by association, are almost as bad. I listened to the workout playlist from start to finish while writing this. My first observation: Kelly Clarkson isn’t good. But many of the songs are. If I heard most of these for the first time now, I would make a mental note to add them to my running queue the next morning. 

But when I listen to G.R.L.’s “Ugly Heart,” the sandpapery sound of the treadmill is ingrained in the music itself. The beat is the sound of my feet hitting the belt. It feels like overheating and the inability to breathe. I remember my feet spinning endlessly. My brain panics and asks, “How long before I can hit that red stop button?” and I can’t convince myself that I’m hundreds of miles and multiple years away from that treadmill, sitting in a café in another town, with legs up on the chair across from me.

The song can’t be good anymore. The song is self-hatred. The song is the treadmill. Pavlov was onto something.

Somehow, these songs can’t just exist as songs now. They are imprinted by their circumstances, and playing one means playing one of those experiences too. I associate most songs with the first time I played them or the time in my life when I played them most excessively. I relate Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to 11 p.m. walks home from the bakery I worked at last year. I could listen to Lauv’s “Modern Loneliness” in the dead of an actually cold winter, and the song would melt down my emotions and re-bake them into the mold they fit in the summer of 2020. 

Sometimes, I worry that if I listen to a new song when I’m not having a good time, I’ll never be able to happily listen to that song again. I consider if I should postpone finding new music until I reach peak happiness so that all songs can be used as antidotes to sadness, worry and depression rather than harbingers of them. But the connections are rarely that strong, and even when they are, they aren’t often that bad. The treadmill songs are an exception.

It’s possible to carry songs with me and let their meanings change as I do. “Mean” and “You Belong With Me” have both escaped ruination despite being on the playlist. I think I’ve listened to Taylor Swift so frequently in the years before and after the treadmill that these songs elude entrapment in any given era of my life. But many hold on to their original context even if I try to change it. They are like perfumes, smelling strongly of a time, a version of myself, a mindset, a routine, a web of thoughts, worries, friendships and cares. Is it possible to bring a song back into my life and change its meaning, to wash it of the stains that have been soaked in for years?

A few months ago, I created a playlist called “treadmill song reclamation.” I can leave *NSYNC and Kelly Clarkson and Selena Gomez in my past, but I’m still a runner who needs good music, which many of those songs are. I recently tried running to “Ugly Heart,” but my mind stuttered when it came on. I got anxious and didn’t want to run anymore. When I skipped the song, I felt okay.

Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” seemed worthy of reclaiming. The first time I heard this song since high school was last semester. I was in fellow Arts writer Laine Brotherton’s apartment. She, Sarah Rahman and I were sitting on couches planning our platform to run for Managing Arts Editors. I had become good friends with Sarah and Laine in the process of making this platform. Sarah used my phone to queue music and played “Everytime We Touch.” Laine said it was a great song. I nodded. The song felt new there. It was hard to feel the panic of the treadmill when I was sitting with friends, comfortable and safe and witnessing them enjoy this song with none of the connotations it had for me.

I ran down Liberty Street a few days after this. The sun was just starting to rise, and I noted that 35 degrees is still too cold to run without gloves. In the spirit of immediately jolting me awake, “Everytime We Touch” was the first song on my queue. 

My first thought when the song played was of that moment spent listening to it with friends. The picture of myself listening to this song on the treadmill is still clear, but it’s not the only picture.

Songs collect memories like tape collects dust. If overused, they can’t collect any more. “Ugly Heart” may have picked up too many treadmill experiences; no others can stick, and I may have no choice but to abandon it. But there are some that may still have patches of adhesive.

Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at