Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Evolution of a Runner

"I can't do it."

Her voice is loud and insistent, and I recognize it immediately. She may be a child, but she knows how to get her point across, so I do everything I can to drown her out. Headphones in, music blaring. Come on, Adam Levine- don't fail me now. But no matter how high I crank the tunes and how much inner ear damage I do, I can still hear her. 

"I can't do it."

So I choose to ignore her and go about the business at hand. I make my way to the starting line, check that the number is securely pinned to my shirt and give one last tug at the shoelaces. One final hamstring stretch, set the stopwatch, and take my position at the back of the pack. The gun goes off and though her voice is blaring and my legs are shaking, I'm carried forward by the momentum of the group. 

"I can't do it!"

 She yells this time, and as the faster runners zoom past it's almost enough to bring me to a halt. But I keep going because I know that voice all too well, and I know that eventually, she'll stop. I know that it's just a matter of pushing her aside, of pushing forward, of pushing through. I know that because she's me. 

She's me at 8 years old, an awkward, uncoordinated, overweight elementary schooler in gym class, trying to negotiate a way out of the Presidential Fitness Test. You remember the annual ritual: how many situps can you do in one minute? How long can you hang from this bar? How many pull-ups can you do? How far can you jump? How fast can you run one mile? Top finishers got certificates, medals, and bragging rights on the playground. Those who came in last... didn't. 

As a consolation prize, I got a lifetime of negative self talk. I'm not blaming the Presidential Fitness Test or whichever founding father created it- it was simply the annual showcase of my fitness-o-phobia. Gym class became the elementary school equivalent of waterboarding, and that week of testing in particular was to be avoided at all costs. Ear infection, stomachache, sore ankle- you name it. Anything to stop the voice which grew louder each year: "I can't do it." 

A few decades later, I decided to makeover myself and become a runner. It was a move sparked mainly out of frustration- I had accomplished many things on many levels, but fitness still eluded me. Overweight, overworked, and underpaid, running seemed to be the cheapest option for a grad student. I grabbed my shoes and hit the path near my apartment, hoping no one would see me and call my bluff. "I can't do it," she'd say as we started to jog. But I thought as long as no one was looking, or timing, or keeping score, maybe I could try. 

For months I ran nearly every day, not very far, and slowly at first... oh who am I kidding, slowly at the end, too... stopping to walk each time a "real" runner came by so as not to insult him/her with my inferior efforts. I thought about subscribing to Runner's World magazine, but feared I might be arrested for mail fraud. So instead I'd discretely grab a copy from the grocery store checkout lane and stuff it under my cereal box on the conveyor belt. 

I entered my first 5K in 1998 in scenic Big Sur, California. I had never run with a watch and had no concept of whether it would take me an hour or a day to traverse 3.1 miles. Turned out it took about 35 minutes. And for every one of those, until the very moment my feet crossed the finish line, I heard that voice inside my head yelling "I can't do it!" But I did. 

Since then I've logged tens of thousands of miles, lost dozens of pounds, gained plenty of muscle, and crossed finish lines of every variety from 5K to marathons, but I still hesitate to call myself a "real" runner. Oh, I just like to go out jogging, I'll say in that self deprecating way so many women have of downplaying their own accomplishments. No, I'm not a "real" writer, I just have a little blog about family life. 

And every time I show up for a race I find I am not alone- that voice is right there with me, telling me that I can't do it. As the faster runners leave me in the dust, she yells. As the woman pushing the double jogging stroller passes me, she yells louder. As the local sensation in his 70s who runs while juggling three basketballs passes me, for a second I start to believe her.

Then something happens. At some point I settle into my own breath, I settle into myself, and the voice begins to fade. The pounding of shoes on pavement begins to take on a familiar and comfortable rhythm. I might even pass one or two of the early sprinters (Team Tortoise in the house!) but I barely notice. I just know that it has finally gotten quiet in my mind and the relief is palpable. 

So why do I do it? 

I do it because I need to prove that girl wrong. 

I do it for my own little girl who needs to know that she can do it. For all my kids who need to know that success doesn't always mean being the best, the fastest, or the strongest. That there is value in competing even when you don't stand a chance of coming in first. That sometimes to lose, really is to win. 

I do it because I work hard every day to train and live a healthy life, and crossing the finish line is a celebration of that effort. 

I do it because it is incredibly humbling for a type-A overachiever to work so hard at something and still not rise to the top.  

I do it because I really AM a runner.

I do it because this is my life... and I will run my own race. 
Chicago, Oct. 1999: My first marathon


  1. Kimberly HamptonJune 18, 2013 at 6:50 PM

    Awesome!!!! Thanks for sharing this! I loved it!!!

  2. I am Judy learning to run. I cried the first time. A year and a half ago when I could only run one minuet. I cried again today when in 91 degree weather my camel pack on my back. I ran a 5k my 10th in 12 days I am not fast I WO t be winning any races but every day I choose to lace up my shoes. I win! That k you for sharing this was a great read.