So I wasn’t entirely truthful in my last post. Yes, reading is important to me, probably THE most important thing when it comes to my mental health and well-being. But it’s not the ONLY thing. There’s something else that has become utterly vital to keeping me centered and grounded. I’m also a runner.
It’s taken me a very long time to be able to say that. Not because it’s not true, but because I have such a hard time believing it. I wasn’t an UNathletic kid but I certainly wasn’t an athlete. I danced throughout my childhood until I was in high school – ballet, tap and jazz – and once I got to high school, I swapped dancing for horseback riding. And I was pretty good at both of them. But those are different disciplines than the ones that get all the attention when you’re in high school. I didn’t play soccer or field hockey or run track (although one of my gym teachers invited me to try out for the team during my freshman year because, according to her, I was built like a runner. I scoffed at her, but I wonder now where I’d be today if I had taken her up on that…). I HATED running. It didn’t come easily to me like it did to other kids. So, to my mind, I couldn’t be called an athlete.
Fast forward about eight years. I was newly married and had just landed my first full-time job, one that required sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day. I’d stopped riding once I graduated college (I was never cut out to be a horse chick anyway) which meant that I stopped exercising entirely. I’d never managed to lose the “Freshman 15” from college, but had at least managed to maintain that weight…until this point. You can figure out what happened from the combination of a sedentary job, total inactivity outside work, and thinking I was being a good wife by cooking a huge meal every night: my weight reached epic proportions. I’m not a very big person – five feet tall with a pretty small frame – and at my heaviest, I tipped the scales at 148 pounds. That is a LOT of weight for someone my size to be toting around. And I was desperately unhappy about it. My own body was alien to me. It bore no resemblance to what I knew. I can’t remember what spurred it, but one day I decided I’d had enough. I decided to do something about it.
Even though I loathed running, I knew that it was the best way to get in shape and torch calories (read: get skinny). So after several false starts, I started following a walk/jog plan, using a treadmill at my gym. And I hated it. Fucking hated it. It hurt so goddamned much and was so hard. Lungs on fire, legs that wanted to collapse under me, the sweat that ran in streams down my face and back and chest. There was nothing at all fun about learning to run. But at this point, the gym announced plans to form a group to participate in a local breast cancer 5k a few months down the road, and I figured that was as good a goal as any. I was going to run a 5k. Someone who couldn’t run the mile in high school, and who was now forty pounds heavier and ten years older, was going to attempt to run three.
It was grueling, that first race. I don’t remember it in its entirety, just flashes, certain moments. I hadn’t progressed beyond running more than two miles at a time, but I remember, even though I anticipated it, how disheartened I was when I had to walk at that point (although I also remember a monstrous uphill stretch which couldn’t have helped). I remember struggling through that last mile and how the spectators and other runners urged me on. I remember crossing the finish line, the clock reading 37:32, and bursting into tears…because I’d done it. It wasn’t pretty and it was probably the most physically taxing thing I’d ever done. I was tired and sore. But still I’d done it. And I was already thinking of how I was going to do better next time.
Thus began my transformation into a runner, although it would be a long time until I thought I was worthy of that title. What I found the most addictive was the constant drive to better myself. Every time I ran, every race I participated in, I strove to do better than the one before. And, very gradually, I found myself getting faster. It wasn’t a coincidence that my faster times corresponded with my weight loss. Let that be a lesson, kids – running is NOT a miracle cure for weight loss. If you’re trying to shed a few pounds, diet is of paramount importance. ‘Cause I can guarantee that if you’re still trying to out-eat your husband, jogging a few miles isn’t going to negate that. It took another few years for me to figure that out but once I did (I ultimately lost fifty pounds. Fifty!), my times dropped drastically. I went from hoping to finish a 5k in under 30 minutes to thinking maybe 28 minutes wasn’t so far-fetched. Once I hit 28, 25 started to look pretty reasonable. Now, almost nine years after crossing my first finish line, my 5k personal record is 23:38 (which I managed to do twice) and my half-marathon PR is a shade under two hours. Not only that, but on a small, local level, I’m competitive. I’ve won my age group three times and have come in second or third three times (and, in one unofficial instance, was first female and sixth overall).
After all these years, running is ingrained in me. But that doesn’t mean I always love it. I’m going through a rough patch with it these days. None of my runs are the quality I’ve become accustomed to. I’m slow, I need to rest far too much, I can’t seem to finish strong in any of my runs, short, middle-distance or long. Earlier in the year, I registered to run my first marathon with my best friend this fall and I have to be honest, I was seriously thinking of pulling the plug on that. I may have come to enjoy and rely on running, but I have never and will never like running long distances. I signed up because I wanted to be able to say I’d done it, to scratch that off my to-do list. Thinking of how much ground I have to cover in five months started to get pretty overwhelming though, and I was looking up the deferral/cancellation policy on that marathon’s website yesterday when I realized the Boston Marathon was happening at that very moment. I found the live stream online and ended up watching, mesmerized as I always am by the strength and beauty and grit of those athletes. If there’s anything more inspiring than watching marathoners – both elites and mere mortals – I don’t know what it is. After a few minutes, I decided I didn’t need the refund information after all.
Running has become a catharsis for me. It doesn’t matter how bad of a day I’ve had or what kind of emotional turmoil I may be going through, if I hop on my treadmill, within minutes, those worries fade away. I’ve found no better stress reliever, nothing (not even reading) that clears my mind and calms me to this degree. So even when it seems insurmountably difficult, like it has these last few months, the thought of quitting doesn’t even cross my mind. I carry on and know that it’s just another bump in the road, another obstacle to overcome. And if there’s anything that running has taught me, it’s that I will overcome it.