I’m currently training for a half marathon on Memorial Day. This involves more running than I’ve ever done before, and that running has given me a lot of time to reflect on how I became a runner in the first place.
When I talk about running and fitness with people who have only known me for a short time, they often assume that I’ve always been into fitness. They think I probably played sports in Jr. high and high school, perhaps ran cross country or track and field. This could not be further from the truth. I hated sports, running and anything athletic all through school. I was slow, I had no endurance, and I was uncoordinated. Phy ed was the only class I struggled with, usually only getting a B or C, based solely on effort. I knew I was bad at sports, and I also believed that it was because I was inherently weak and physically slow. Neither my parents nor my gym teachers made any effort to change that belief.
Fast forward to college. I had good friends in college who had been physically active in high school and wanted to get back into an active lifestyle for their health. I also had a free membership to the local rec center through the college. I started going to the gym with these friends four days a week, and I would do 10 – 20 minutes of cardio, followed by 20 minutes of weight lifting. Unfortunately I didn’t know what I was doing, and didn’t really track my workouts, so I didn’t make much progress. I definitely felt better, and slept better, but I didn’t get appreciably stronger or faster over the course of the year. This only strengthened my belief that I was inherently not an athletic person.
After that year in college, I got a job, and between working and being a full time student, I didn’t have/make time to exercise, and I fell back into being a couch potato. That trend continued for over 5 years. In that time I actually made a couple of really pitiful attempts to start running, but both times I had no plan, did no Internet research first, and gave up after a couple of “runs” that left me feeling like I might die.
In 2008 I made the first real step toward being a healthier, active person, and I started doing yoga once a week. When I first started, it was exhausting, and I would be sore for days, but I always felt really good about going, and kept it up.
In Spring of 2010, I decided I was healthy enough to join a gym (I know that sounds sort of crazy, but I know a lot of other people feel the same way, or that they’re not healthy enough to join a gym, so it’s worth mentioning). I went sporadically, didn’t know what I was doing, and then, after a long hiatus of workouts, I decided to get a personal trainer. It was an expensive decision, but ultimately, I think it’s the best choice I’ve made for my physical fitness in my entire life. Because I was paying for the sessions, I went every week, and started making progress.
Very quickly, I realized that I was spending the first 5 – 10 minutes of my precious, expensive hour warming up for the session. This seemed like a waste of money to me, so I started arriving early, and running around the track at the gym, so that I’d be able to start “real” training as soon as my session began. Initially I could only run two laps around the 1/8 mile track before I had to stop and walk. I would run as long as I could (not very long at all) and then alternately walk and run laps until my session started. Very slowly, I got up to being able to run a half mile before stopping.
After training for several months, I decided I needed a goal, and around that time, some people at work mentioned the Tough Mudder. It seemed really crazy, like something that might kill me, but I figured it would be good to set a really challenging goal, so that I felt like I absolutely had to make progress in my training, and would push myself. It worked.
While training for my first Mudder, which was in Baraboo, WI on July 23rd of 2011, I started running outside. I knew that the course was over 10 miles, and I would need to get used to putting a lot of miles on my feet. I kept up with the same training style, which was to run as far as possible, and then alternately run and walk for the rest of the distance, but I changed it a little bit. I got an interval timer, so that I was always running and walking for set times. I scheduled a couple short runs (up to 3 miles) and one long run every week. I slowly added distance to the long run every week until we got up to about 8 miles. By that time, I could only run approximately 1 mile to start off, before switching to intervals.
I continued to run and train over the next year, but in the winter I ran indoors on a track, and come springtime, I lost a lot of distance. In the Spring of 2012, I decided that in addition to the two Tough Mudders I was signed up for (Minnesota and Washington), I also wanted to be able to run a continuous 5K.
My 5K training was going slowly, and I was making dishearteningly slow progress. I told my friend Hannah, who has much more running experience than I do, and she suggested we go running together. She also suggested I slow my running pace down, a lot. At the time, I was running between 9:00 and 9:30 per mile, but I had to do a lot of walking. She suggested we slow down to about 11 minutes per mile, and suddenly, I could run almost twice as far! After that, I began adding distance by leaps and bounds, and within a few short weeks, I went from not being able to run more than a mile and a half to being able to cover a full 3.2 miles. That also made my long runs much easier, because instead of running for a mile or so, and then doing intervals for many miles after, I could run a substantial part of the distance, and only do intervals for the second half, and eventually with no walking at all.
All it took was the advice of one person, “try slowing down,” to get me from a person who struggled with every run to someone who really, truly enjoys running. That’s all it took to turn me into someone who calls herself a runner.
My advice to anyone who thinks that they can’t run, or can’t overcome any physical challenge, is to ask advice from people who’ve been there. When it comes to physical fitness, progress is the best motivation you can ask for, and there are plenty of people out there who are happy to share their advice with you on how to make progress.
P.S. Thank you Hannah for giving me the advice I needed. You’ve helped me accomplish things I never thought were possible. And also thank you to Ethan, for supporting me and running with me. You kept me going.