Pretty much since college, I have been working out with some regularity. I went through phases when I would be more active, and then my workout schedule would wax and wane. I finally got myself into a set routine where I was doing fitness DVDs for about 20-30 minutes each morning before work, about a year after I finished graduate school. I quickly began to see results in the form of a smaller waistline, and more slowly began to see results in the form of being in better shape. When I was passing my (now) husband (then boyfriend) climbing up a large hill while on vacation and not feeling nearly as winded as he looked at that moment, was when I realized that I was changing my body in more ways than dress size.
Even in high school, though I wasn’t a terribly fast cycler, I would bike a lot. It was a vehicle that gave me freedom, as I didn’t have a car. It might take me longer than it should to get from point A to point B, but I was out and I was moving. The same with rollerblading, which I did less frequently and less for transportation. I wasn’t terribly fast, but it was fun and it got me outside and active. Yet, despite the fact that I did get out and move, I was never an athlete. I was uncoordinated and not very flexible, and I felt so awkward in gym class. I was picked last for teams. My gym teachers’ opinions of me ranged from pity to disdain.
Not to diminish a serious illness, but the thought of running, as an adult, used to give me a little bit of PTSD. Someone would suggest I try running, knowing I enjoyed working out, and I would immediately think about 12-year-old Jen, falling over on the track at school, a horrible ache in my side, hardly able to breathe, because I pushed myself too hard on the Presidential Fitness Exam mile run. Even my peers who would normally make fun of me (read: pity and/or disdain) were worried about my well-being that day. My gym teacher, Mrs. Dennis*, was furious with me and berated me for my fitness level.
In hindsight, she was to blame for that, not me. How are kids expected to run a mile when they are not taught proper pacing and breathing? It takes some time to work up to that, even if you are already active. For 12 year olds, probably not more than 2 or 3 weeks, but it still takes training. I mean, Couch to 5K doesn’t even have you doing a full mile without walk breaks until week FIVE.
I’ve always been an overachiever, so not knowing the proper pacing, or how to train or prepare for a mile run, I just started off full steam and by the first lap felt absolutely horrible. And I felt even worse when the adult supervising me, supposedly encouraging me, did worse than stand by and do nothing. She berated me and gave me no tools or solutions to make this better.
With gym classes like that, it is no wonder we have a fitness crisis in the US. Who wants to work out with memories like these from childhood?
So, needless to say, running terrified me. That was why it took me so long to give it a fair shake. But, I finally bit the bullet and trained for my first 5K last year. Since taking this step, I’ve learned that fitness achievements are not necessarily about athletic aptitude. They are about hard work, drive, and motivation. Getting in shape on my own didn’t necessarily teach me that, but running did.
It all finally hit me after I ran a 5K trail race this past spring. We had a late March snowfall, and there was an icy layer of about 3-4 inches of snow still coating the trails. It was cold. It was slippery. Every time I thought I got my pace up to an acceptable level, I felt my footing slip. If I wasn’t on a packed, slippery surface, I was on an unpacked surface that was difficult to run through (more like a trudge). My Runkeeper app kept losing the GPS signal and therefore thought I had run (trudged?) much less than I actually had, which further discouraged me. I felt exhausted and defeated. It was my first really bad day running.
And yet. Instead of berating me for not thinking to bring my YakTrax, or even thinking I could complete this task in the first place, the course volunteers CHEERED ME ON. It felt empowering. At that moment, I realized that I did nothing wrong when I was 12. In fact the only thing I might have done wrong was not coming to this wonderful sport sooner. I finished that particular 5k (my third, and my first on a trail) in about 44 minutes. Runkeeper said I had run about 2.8 miles, so instead of the 15-16 min/mile I thought I was doing the whole time, it was actually more like a 14 minute mile. I was still a little shaken by my first “bad” run, but having the encouragement of the course volunteers and my friends (who also, obviously, did not have their best runs that day) got me back on the saddle (or, in this case, my running shoes) in no time flat.
Running isn’t scary anymore. It gives me a charge. On a bad day, the thought of meeting friends for a run, or going for a “run in the woods” (as I now affectionately call trail runs, which I have since grown to love) has gotten me through the day. If I am feeling weak, I slow down or walk a bit. I set more and more goals for myself, and I push myself, but I don’t punish myself if I don’t make it that day. At least, I try not to. 🙂
*Names changed to protect the … not so innocent. 🙂