I've never wanted to quit anything as much as I wanted to quit every step of the third mile. It was, I realized, not so much painful as relentlessly uncomfortable. In the way that being wrapped in a wet blanket and stuffed in a 55 gallon drum and left out in the miserable summer sun would seem relentlessly uncomfortable after twenty minutes -- every bit of me wanted to be doing something else. I wanted to stop, and every footfall was a mantra "You can stop this, you're an adult, nobody's watching. You can stop this, now." But I was almost there and some mixture of my OCD and a grim determination wouldn't let me quit until the numbers rolled from 4.99 kilometers to 5.0.
When it was over I leapt up onto the curb of the tread mobile, gasping like a net caught fish. I felt triumphant -- that was the real reward, saying I'd done it. I texted Trillian my time, 33:51. It was November 23rd, and I'd knocked three minutes and nine seconds off of my previous 5k speed and nearly ten minutes off of my first 5k time.
Up until this point, I could never run. I had to run a mile in high school in order to graduate. I did it in 15 minutes and it involved a lot of side holding and collapsing up against hedges while the gym coach yelled what he probably thought were words of encouragement but in reality they were just words that proved to me that my body and I would never be happy together. I wasn't the last one across the finish line. There were two girls behind me who refused to even try and walked the whole way. At the time I admired them for their willingness to fail rather than go through the embarrassing torment; they were at least defiant.
Running was always something that other people did and in my mind it turned into some mythical elite status. People who ran were different from the rest of us. When I started working out in October I'd done well the first few weeks and lost a good bit of weight. I thought I might try jogging to the gym. My thought was if I could jog to and from the gym I'd save all that locker room time. I put on my gym clothes and dashed out the door. I didn't make it a block. All this served to reinforce my thought that other people ran and that I would never be able to do it.
By mid November I was biking a lot more and at higher resistance, I'd gone through seasons 1, 2, and 3 of Magnum pi while toiling away. Then something happened. Trillian wanted to go to Chicago to see a play in January. There was a number, and a place, both far away in the future and I thought maybe I could hang a goal there. I emailed Peter Sagal (who most of you probably know as the host of NPR's Wait! Wait! Don't Tell me!, but he's also a columnist for Runner's World and, since earlier this year in something that I really should blog about, a friend.) and said "Trillian and I are going to be in Chicago in January. If I can run 5k by January 25th, would you race me when I get there?" He emailed back and said he would. And now my OCD, and my highly competitive lizard brain had a goal. To be able to run 5k by January 25, 2013.
I hit the treadmill and it was grueling.
The first time I ran a whole 5k (which is 3.1 miles) it was one of the greatest accomplishments I can remember, because a month before I hadn't been able to run a city block, but it was also agonizing.
I was insufferable at home. "I ran 5k," I told Trillian Stars, "that's a race, like a marathon!" I told her that at least four times that night.
I started to get faster and it … was awful. The first mile got ok, then easy even. The second mile was … a challenge … and the third mile was like being beaten by a biker gang.
But I could run 5k, and now I started thinking of a new goal, I wanted to be able to run 5k in 30 minutes, so I started speeding up, a little bit each day.
I tweeted "There's nothing I want to do more than quit every step of that last mile."
Peter tweeted back "it gets better, I promise."
And that kept me going. Runners, you know, those people who were watching on Facebook or twitter said "you really have to run outside", but I wasn't ready to do that -- when I first started someone at the gym had told me running outside was a lot harder because with the treadmill, all you had do do was lift your feet, the ground moved under you, outside you actually had to push yourself along. How debilitating, I thought. I lived under the dread that my 5k in the gym might mean 2k outside, or maybe worse. I didn't want to go outside and find I couldn't run a mile. You can't give me something like that and take it back. So I decided I'd try and run 6k on the treadmill first. I ran 6k, twice, and it was like being prodded by a daemon with a pitchfork, except the daemon was me going "YOU CAN'T QUIT, YOU LOSER" like a drill instructor. It was completely awful. Every time I saw the numbers on the treadmill cross the finish line I'd leap off the track, gasping and barely able to function. I ran at least 5k nearly ever single day for a month. Sometimes it was less awful than others.
My sister, who's a long distance runner and has been all her life advised me that walking has all the benefits of running but you don't run the risk of injuring your knees or ankles. "Maybe you should consider walking," she suggested. "No," I said, "I feel that I earned running." I worked hard, I wanted to be one of those people, the people who ran.
I decided I was going to try running outside the weekend before Christmas.
I got a track suit from Forman Mills, like one Kim Jong Il would have been happy to wear, downloaded the "Map My Run" onto my iPhone, made a playlist of music, plotted a point 1.5 miles away to run to and back, walked out my front door and when the computer voice on the app said "Begin Workout" I knew I had no excuse to procrastinate any longer.
I started running.
A few minutes later (I was listening to "Fast Girls" by Sarge) the voice popped back on and told me that I'd run one mile in 9:12 -- but something crazy had happened, I didn't feel tired at all, in fact, I felt I had more energy than when I'd walked out the door, this had never happened before. I kept running. I got to the 1.5 mile mark and turned around, still feeling inexplicably good -- despite the fact that I was running up and down hills big ones too. When crested the final hill and saw my front door I felt better than at any point ever on the treadmill, I had energy blasting out of me, wings of angels lifting me up or something -- I had no rational explanation for it but I wasn't going to let it go to waste -- I tagged my door knob, turned around and did the whole three mile loop again. By the time I ran back up my steps like Rocky, I'd run six miles in sixty minutes, farther than I'd ever run, and faster. Plus, I felt great. I bounced around the house, euphoric. The treadmill wasn't making it easier, it had been holding me back -- maybe because it was boring, maybe because it was relentless in it's plodding pace and didn't allow you to quickly run slower or faster, or entertain your brain the the millions of little decisions about jumping over pot holes or accelerating around pedestrians. I don't know. My workout calculator said I'd burned 1150 calories
I ran six miles again the next day, and the next. The day after that I posted to Twitter and two running companions showed up -- we ran 6.35 miles in an hour and three minutes and I was still wanting to do more. It was the exact opposite of the treadmill. After two or three miles I started to feel like I had wings -- like I could just point in some direction and I'd float there, fast -- like in a dream. My brain started planning to train for a ten mile run.
I can't explain it, I'm baffled, but I'm not going to complain.
I started working out because I wasn't happy with the body I was living in. It's been three months and I really like the one I'm making now. Sure, parts of it still jiggle when I run but changing that suddenly doesn't seem like work anymore, it's the thing I want to do because I like doing it.
And at the end of January, I'll be in Chicago and I'll run 5k and Peter will kick my ass because he runs seven minute miles at the end of marathons, but I'll run 5k, maybe by then I'll run nine minute miles, and physically it won't seem like a big deal at all, but mentally it'll be the most important finish line because I realize I wrote a goal in the air and stuck with it and did something that would have been impossible if I hadn't said "I will do what it takes to make this happen," and after that, I realize all other goals in life are exactly the same.
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