Tomorrow is my 35th birthday, and as it’s a bit of a milestone – no longer able to make those “35 under 35” lists, definitely no longer a wunderkind – I’ve been doing a lot of the kind of thinking that I guess you could describe as contemplative. I think it’s always good to periodically take stock of where you’ve been and what that’s meant and how you might proceed going forward, don’t you?
Anyway, I’ve been wanting to write about this photo for a while, and I figured today would be a good day for that. The photo shows me just before I’m about to cross the finish line of my very first 5K, in Tampa back in May 2007. Prior to this race, I hadn’t managed to run more than two miles nonstop, and yet somehow on this particular morning – most likely due to Brian’s encouragement – I had run without stopping.
I think at this point, I was seeing an arch of balloons over the race course, which I thought was the finish line, and I had a huge smile on my face because I just could not believe I had run more than three miles without stopping to walk a single step. I remember finally reaching that arch and slowing down, only to hear Brian and some spectators tell me to keep going! The finish line is up ahead! I briefly cursed out the awkward placement of the arch, but kept running until I crossed the actual finish line, about 50 yards later.
The day was hot and humid. I was wearing cotton shorts, cross-trainers that were too small and a spandex top that was not even the slightest bit breathable. I spent the last mile of the race feeling like I was going to puke all over everything. And proper running form? What the hell was that? As far as I was concerned, the best running form was the one that got you from point A to point B without dying.
Brian and I collected our post-race treats, and we sat on some concrete stairs and watched as the age group awards were handed out. When the women from my age group – at the time that was 25-29 – went up to collect their awards, I remember saying to Brian that I hoped one day I’d be able to run a 25-minute 5K. He said, “I’m sure you could do it, but…” He got kind of quiet. “I bet none of those women smoke, not even occasionally.”
I was still smoking at the time, both cigarettes and…other things. I had cut back but I hadn’t been able to quit entirely. I also knew he was right. And in the next few months, as my runs became longer and longer, I realized I had to make a choice. I could be a smoker or I could be a runner. I couldn’t do both.
I chose running. I have never looked back, not even once.
When I made that choice, it never occurred to me that the sub-25:00 5K would be mine, and then some. I never thought I’d be capable of running 10Ks, half-marathons, marathons. I didn’t even know what the fuck an ultramarathon was, let alone that I’d ever actually complete two of them.
And triathlon? That sport that involves swimming? In the ocean? Please. I couldn’t even walk in water that went past my knees. Like I was ever going to swim an entire quarter of a mile in the ocean. The idea of doing a half-Ironman – which I just did last month – never once entered my mind.
I had no clue how far I would take any of this, but there was something about the sport that hooked its claws in me and refused to let go. It wasn’t like I fell in love with the actual act of running right away. On the contrary, for the first couple of years, running was not easy for me. I was not particularly fit, plus I had spent quite a few years inflicting considerable damage on my body. I had a glimmer of ability but it was all hidden under damaged lung tissue and an overtaxed heart.
What I did fall in love with was the sense of well-being that engulfed me after I finished running, and the feeling of pride that came when I completed a race. I noticed that I was making healthier choices in my day-to-day life, that I slept better at night, that I was calmer and more disciplined, that I actually had a work ethic and that my chronic underachievement wasn’t just who I was but a symptom of certain choices I had made (or smoked, rather).
And yeah, I did get the runner’s high a couple of times, which was admittedly pretty spectacular, but that wasn’t what kept me coming back for more. What ultimately did it for me was the effect that running – and later, strength training and triathlon – had on the rest of my life.
Perhaps the most important thing I took away from this was the understanding that who I was – who I am – is not fixed and unchanging, and that I can play some role in deciding what kind of person I want to be. I don’t mean that I woke up one day and was all, “I’m going to have discipline! I’m going to be capable of working hard! I will have confidence, dammit!” Rather, it was a series of small choices tallied up over the course of several years, and then suddenly one day I realized I had turned into the kind of woman I had secretly dreamed of being but never thought was actually possible.
(Before I forget, you should go read Tracy’s post at Fit is a Feminist Issue, which covers similar territory as this post. It’ll make you think about your own “impossible,” and how you’ve worked to make it possible.)