People sometimes ask me why I run, especially if they’ve seen me slogging through wet streets on a 30 degree day or dragging down the block during weather that is hotter than a welder’s belly button. Heck, sometimes I ask MYSELF why I do it. To put it simply, I run because I can. It fulfills a need in my life, even if I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the sport. In a twisted, grueling way it makes me better. Even when it’s 100 degrees outside and I feel as if my skin is melting off my body and I can think of much easier ways to spend my lunch hour than mangling my feet.
I like to joke that I’m really more of a trotter than a runner since I’m so slow, but I call myself a runner because I fully believe that to become something you have to first declare it so in order to believe you can do it. Then you have to make a plan and follow through. Sometimes it takes a while to get where you want to be. I appear to be on the ten year plan for making a mediocre runner.
I have been running for three and a half years. I started one winter when I looked up and decided that middle age was biting me in the butt. I needed to drop about five pounds that had crept up on me and was likely to attract their friends, ten pounds and fifteen pounds, in the years to come, leaving me with more friends on my hips than I could easily shed. More importantly, I needed to keep my blood pressure and other vitals under control and maintain as much muscle as possible. It’s amazing how quickly the body can start to slide downhill after age forty if you’re not vigilant. High blood pressure, stroke and diabetes run in mama’s and daddy’s families, so it seemed really important to keep things in check. I’m not obsessive about weight and nutrition, but I do think it’s important to be disciplined in those things throughout your life in order to live a long healthy life. It’s also easier to love five pounds here or there than to drop thirty pounds at a time.
A few years ago, I realized I had let work and motherhood take over my life to the point that I had no time for taking care of myself. Stress had left me tired, achy and lethargic. Something had to give. My first move was to change jobs, and as soon as I had settled into the new job, I decided to clean up my diet and exercise. While I’ve never struggled with my weight, I have had more than my share of convenience store burritos and red velvet cake cross these lips, and with a genetic inclination toward heart disease, I probably have more gunk in my arteries than I’d like. And let’s face it, if you don’t get your arse moving, your heart just sits there and gums up. And THEN, I got an invitation to a class reunion, and let’s face it, nothing is more motivating than a class reunion. I looked at my daily schedule, decided I could use my lunch hour for exercise time and started moving.
I started out by walking, but that was soon boring, and I found myself wanting to move faster. I started adding spurts of jogging into my walks and before I knew it I was running the entire stretch. I was hooked. I started feeling better, I had more energy and when I went to the doctor for my annual checkup, my blood pressure was 119/78. Score. Never one to be satisfied for long, I decided to try a 5k, showed up at the local park one Saturday morning and surprised myself by running the entire race without having to walk any of it (despite the fact that I pulled a beginners boo boo and started off way too fast). I worked harder, got a little faster and found a great deal of satisfaction in each new goal I reached.
Some days are good, some not so good. I can run six miles on one day and feel great and then struggle to get through three the next. A lot of it has to do with hydration, nutrition and rest, but even on my worst running days, I feel good that I’ve gotten out there and tried really hard to slap middle age around a little. Now, here’s the thing; I am not fast. As daddy says, I am as slow as an eight day itch. I have never been particularly athletic and probably never will be. I don’t think I’ll ever be very fast either. Without getting too scientific let’s just say my body just doesn’t seem to be naturally acclimated to athletic excellence. At a 5k I usually fall somewhere in the middle of my age category. Once in a blue moon, I’ll win a second or third place medal in my age division, and that’s usually when the crowd is a little thin. I’ve been at the back of the pack in the two half marathons that I’ve done, and the competitive part of me gets very frustrated that I’m not faster. VERY frustrated. The day the seventy year old man with the six pack abs and legs of steel went flying by me at a race made me want to bang my head into the closest tree (right after banging HIS head into the closest tree out of jealousy). I know that if I did some speed work and got a running partner I could probably up my pace, but that requires a bigger commitment than I am willing to make right now, so I will continue to do my best and live with the results that I earn. I am okay with being somewhere in the middle because my health is very good for someone my age, and that’s the big reason I’m out there pounding the pavement.
Also, I find a great deal of inspiration in being where I’m at when running a race. I’m sure it’s great to be chasing the lead, but where I’m at I’m surrounded by people who are like me. They aren’t racing anyone but themselves. They are middle aged mothers who are new to racing, overweight folks trying to get healthy, senior citizens shuffling on bad feet and knees and many others who are just trying to DO IT. They are trying to prove to themselves that they CAN. They can cross the finish line and do what 95% of the people in American don’t do, and that’s to push their body past its current limitations, despite the discomfort, and meet a goal. At the half marathon this past weekend, the last racer running through the chute was a woman who finished a good thirty minutes after everyone else in the middle of a storm. The conditions were horrible during her last couple of miles, but she didn’t quit. It’s folks like her who inspire me, and there are a lot of them at each race.
And the really cool thing? The people who finish first are excited to see the folks who finish last. That’s the thing about running and racing. The people involved, no matter how fast, understand that everyone in that particular sport is reaching for a personal goal. It can be as difficult as setting a new personal record or as simple as crossing the finish line without passing out. Everyone on that course knows the mental strength and courage it takes to stand at that starting line with the crowd and push yourself to the finish line. We’ve all had days when we had a bad performance and fought the urge to puke. Runners are supportive of each other and encouraging. Many times, someone far faster than me has urged me on as I shuffled down the street. That’s why one of my favorite things to do is to run back up the course after I’ve finished and to run the last block or so with a newbie who is struggling to get to the line and needs that last bit of encouragement. (It helps you to forget how miserable you feel if someone is hollering encouraging words next to you.) It’s just great to watch someone’s face as he crosses that finish line for the very first time.
When it comes to running, I’m neither good nor swift. I AM persistent. I plan to do it as long as I enjoy it and I am physically able. I’m not particularly good at it, but it makes me feel good, both physically and spiritually, and that my friends, is worth sweating in the heat and wiping a runny nose in the cold. Flaws and all, I am a runner. I run because I can.
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