Channel your inner Sophia Petrillo and picture this: Lincoln, Nebraska, 1989. A bookish middle schooler, flat of chest and round of belly, spends her summer secretly devouring The Clan of the Cave Bear novels and trying desperately to manipulate the TV antenna into delivering grainy episodes of General Hospital.
Swimming? Only if someone offered a ride to the pool.
Biking? Just to the gas station for 25-cent Little Debbie zebra cakes.
Weepy anticipating of autumn, and school, and being picked last in gym class? Daily.
Twenty-five years later, I remain an unlikely spokesperson for running.
I should note that, mentally, I’m Flo-Jo. I fire off more emails before 9 a.m. than most people do all day, and as I feed my infant son intermittently throughout the night, my brain sprints around an invisible track, by turns solving global crises and menu planning for my family of picky eaters.
However, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, the rest of me “chooses not to run.” Chronically indolent since toddler-hood, I have settled comfortably into mid-life as a mother of two in the Beef State, where most evenings involve a box of Trader Joe-Joe’s and The Good Wife on Amazon Prime. I eschew unnecessary movement, buoyancy and perkiness. My favorite yoga pose is savasana.
In my neighborhood, there’s a certain rite of passage for women approaching middle age. When their kids hit Montessori school, these gals take up running in a big way. They’ve got the gear, they’ve got the lingo and packs of them hurtle down the trails like springboks in Ray-Bans. Cocktail in hand, I have frequently derided this trend.
So, I’m still not sure why — three months after giving birth to my second son — I signed up for a half marathon. Running. Barf. Maybe it was sleep deprivation or a weird desire to prove something to all of the mean girls from my past. There was the obvious tug of vanity and desire to lose weight. Part of me was curious: if I set a somewhat arbitrary physical goal for myself, could I accomplish it?
Over the next four months, I stumbled (seriously, stumbled) upon three truisms: Apparently almost anyone can run a half marathon; energy breeds energy; and positive energy should be recycled, upcycled and given out as freely as Gu energy packets. I also discovered these five invaluable basics, which I offer up to any new runner.
1. Begin incrementally. I started out running a minute, walking a minute. It sounded easy. After 10 minutes of these intervals on a steamy June evening, I felt that I might perish in a patch of ornamental boxwood. The next morning my quads were so sore I couldn’t lower myself onto the toilet. It gets better… eventually.
2. Find a Couch-to-5K Training Plan and master it. Run a 5K. Get the T-shirt. Post a victory photo on Facebook. Celebrate. Then keep going.
3. Make a inspiring playlist. Include Eye of the Tiger and everything ever recorded by P!nk.
4. Adopt a dog. Preferably one that will drive you crazy unless it gets nearly unattainable amounts of exercise. Take it running. If your dog is like mine, those runs become cross-training sessions thanks to the endless leash yanking and redirecting you’re doing with your biceps.
5. Don’t stop. Those early-morning runs are tough. As July days of red-cheeked overexertion gave way to 30-degree autumn mornings, it took a lot of internal sweet-talking — not to mention sartorial physics — to squeeze myself into Athleta tights and head out the door. Don’t depend on magical fairy dust willpower for motivation. Use whatever it takes. I didn’t want to waste the $90 race entry fee. I didn’t want my restless dog to channel his unspent pep into throw pillow destruction. Rarely did I want to run when I started a run. I did it anyway.
What happened next? I discovered the unlikely psychological alchemy of energy created by energy expenditure. The more I ran, the more energy I had for running. I still didn’t prance enthusiastically down my driveway each morning, but I looked forward to my workouts and, better yet, to the pleasant combination of fatigue and adrenaline that coursed through me when I finished. It wasn’t exactly the oft-touted runner’s high, but I did feel something akin to a runner’s buzz.
Energy and enthusiasm are also side effects of taking on a challenging project. I liked the looks of surprise I garnered when I casually mentioned I’d run 10 miles over the weekend. I discovered smugness in my soreness. I drove my husband crazy with my constant demands that he praise my bulging calf muscles. At least once a week, I asked myself, “Holy shit, did I really do that?”
Finally, when I climbed out of my own head and took off my earbuds, I realized that my local running community was ridiculously welcoming of newbies like me. There were classes, online support groups and fun runs. Even when I trained solo, veteran marathoners who loped past me would offer high-fives and shouts of encouragement. One Saturday as I woefully untangled my jogging stroller from my dog’s retractable leash, a lean and lightning-fast woman slowed down to say, “Keep it up, I was you ten years ago.” I realized how powerful a few positive words could be, and made it my goal on each run to offer up a few of my own.
On race day, my dad joined me at the starting line. So did my favorite colleague. My family and friends lined the route honking vuvuzelas and offering mini-Snickers bars. A random stranger won my heart with a sign that read, “You are burning enough calories to drink 11 glasses of wine tonight!” The sun shined and my chafing was minimal. No one would accuse me of burning up the streets, but that was never my goal. My goal was to summon the energy to try, and for me, trying was its own reward, more exhilarating than an eight-minute mile, more satisfying than an ocean of Gatorade.
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