I graduated…from Couch to 5K!
Or, how I became a runner at age 38. (Okay fine, I’m 39 but I started before my birthday in July.)
So, if anyone is still reading this blog and has gone through some past posts, you’ll know that I’ve experienced some of my most fulfilling and busy months - well, years - yet. So busy that for over a year I stopped exercising aside from walking my dogs, taking the stairs, and trying to be active without actually being…active.
How did that work out for me?
Well, it freed up time to get to everything else I needed to attend to - teaching, committee work, speaking, marketing, and writing. Initially I felt okay physically; I have a long history of being active and my metabolism is generally speedy. I certainly was expending energy, just not via sweat and spin classes. But over time I started to notice my body adjusting in ways I wasn’t happy with. I gained some weight, and although it wasn’t much, and I have learned as an adult not to freak out over numbers on the scale, I knew that the weight wasn’t healthy muscle. I’m naturally a pretty energetic person, provided I have some time to wind down and recharge. Yet I found myself losing more energy, and my eating was gradually worsening.
By most standards still I was a very healthy person: then and now I don’t smoke, I rarely drink alcohol, I don’t eat fast food, I am not sedentary all day long (teaching can be surprisingly active, minus the time spent grading). However, I found myself eating more emotionally or perhaps not eating enough, then slamming something weird, like chocolate milk, or eating fancy slices of bread with proscuitto and triple cream cheese. Delicious, real food which in and of itself is not bad for you, but not a well-rounded meal.
And then last spring I started having strange, never-felt-before urges. I wanted to… run.
If you know me personally, you know this is weird for me. I have always said I hated running. I tried it for about 30 minutes in high school (literally - a half hour and I thought I was DYING), and did a little in college for a PE class. But it was on a treadmill, with many walking breaks, and as soon as that class was over, so was my running. Since that time I sometimes would run for five minutes and then walk ten - I spent a pretty great summer exploring the trails in Eugene during grad school - but those five minutes running were filled with counting down the minutes and no matter what, I always ended up saying nope, not for me. Running just felt too difficult, something my body couldn’t do.
Eventually I moved on to a gym membership and group fitness: give me a cardio pump class any day, please. What’s more, I do NOT have a good history with anything athletic. Fitness, yes. But athletic? HA! I was the kid most scared of the ball. When I played basketball for my tiny elementary/middle school - from 5th to 8th grade - I scored seven points. Total. In all four years. I loathed playing organized sports but if I didn’t our school wouldn’t have had a team most years, as it was a pretty tiny parochial school. When I got to high school, I said goodbye to that part of my life. Shoot, I don’t even like to throw around a frisbee as I feel self-conscious and clumsy. As a tall woman it was often assumed that I was athletic in certain areas, but I quickly quashed those notions. The funny thing? Over the years the activity most people assumed I was good at?
Yep, you guessed it: running.
It struck me as peculiar to say the least that I wanted to run. And I truly, legitimately wanted to. I just felt that it was time. Like something clicked over deep inside my brain and my body woke up one day and said: let’s run. I talked about it so much that my husband finally just took me to Ross, walked me to the shoe rack, and had me try on a few clearance pairs of running shoes. In hindsight, this is not the best way to buy running kicks, but I ended up with a pair that are actually right for my feet (Adidas Supernova Glides). Still, I told myself I was too busy to start running until June, so in the meantime, I spent a half hour huffing and puffing and generally getting my tail kicked around the living room by Ms. Jillian Michaels. There is a line in the 30-Day Shred DVD where she admonishes the viewer that taking the stairs is “a false message of lethargy not doing you any favors”! This makes me laugh every time I hear it but it also made me work a little harder. I quickly got in better shape, starting losing some extra fluff, and most importantly, I quickly felt better. I had more energy and I was motivated to clean up my diet. I felt more in balance.
Then June 1 rolled around. I had already downloaded the 5k Runner app to my iPhone and I realized I had to actually do what I was talking about (the parallels to writing are not lost on me!). One morning I put on my new Adidas, my Wisconsin T-shirt, a pair of cotton black leggings, plugged in some old earbuds, and away I went. I walked two minutes, ran one, and repeated that until the app told me I was done. It was a lot easier than I thought, especially since there was five minutes of walking on either end of those intervals. Beyond that, though, I didn’t feel like I was dying. Jillian probably is largely to thank for that. And what’s more, it felt like what I hoped it would feel like: not just good, but right.
The first four weeks of the app are pretty easy, actually, but the fifth week kicks it into gear. I admit I was intimidated. Can I run ten minutes straight? Twelve? FIFTEEN? I truly was unsure if I could do that. Scanning the upcoming weeks I was astounded how quickly I would be asked to run 20 minutes straight. I thought to myself, there is no way that I can run 30 minutes. But after doing 20 minutes with no trouble, I realized, okay, I can do this. But it’s going to be hard.
The final week arrived, and then the final day: 35 minutes straight. I used another app to track my distance and on a beautiful sunny day in August, I did it. I ran 35 minutes straight. I was aware of the time and I was tired at the end, but I never stopped once. What’s more, I covered 4.1 miles! A mile past 5k. I was so shocked when my phone revealed my results that I said something to the tune of “Holy *&#W($!” right then and there, on the sidewalk next to the gas station on Hwy 228.
After that graduation day, I kept going. I signed up for my first 5k and as I ran for a minute longer, three minutes longer, adding incrementally, I loved it more and more. I looked forward to my runs. I would sometimes have trouble falling asleep, I looked forward to them so much. Isn’t that insane? I’m sure some might read that and think I am a nutjob, and I might not necessarily disagree. It fascinated me that I found myself so enamored with this activity that previously I had written off.
But I think I know why I grew to love it so much. I discovered the outdoors again, but this time, on my own. I love my dogs as if they are my own children, but it is wonderful to be outside exploring with nothing in my hands but the wind.
I am doing something incredibly simple. I have technology attached to me but otherwise I am not grading, reading, emailing, writing… I listen to my headphones and listen for cues but otherwise, I am just… running.
I am meditating. When I run, I don’t think about anything. Except running, actually. I think about my form, about the lyrics, about how far I have left, and the thoughts fill the time in ways that seem impossible. How did those last ten minutes pass?
For the first time I realized that I’m actually athletic. I am not destined to be an elite runner, but in a short amount of time I gained speed. I’ve always known I’m somewhat competitive, but I thought that related more to winning a rousing match of Word With Friends. Yet with running I started to pay attention to pace and time and mileage and every time I PR I feel a huge thrill. I proved to myself, to that awkward, leggy, skinny, gawky kid always picked last for team sports as a kid, that I could physically accomplish something.
I even ran two 5ks and ended up in second place for my age group both times! Neither races were big, and my first one was not an awesome time, but STILL. I hadn’t done anything competitive like that in decades. Truly, over twenty years had passed since I had been in that environment. It was and is exhilarating.
Right now, my IT band is bugging me, and I have some serious work to do to get my body mechanics in line to be a long-term runner (ever watched a video of yourself running? Egads). Many have suggested to me that at my age I should seek something lower impact.
But they are missing the point. In a few months I discovered another facet of myself. I discovered I love being outside even when it’s 40 degrees and my hands are freezing. I LOVE the feeling in my heart and my legs when it seems that I can just run forever. I love how my mind just empties and frees and 40 minutes pass without ever feeling a second, even when my body starts to slow and my heart is pounding. Who knew, after all this time?
I am a runner.