I wasn’t in what I would consider even moderately good shape until sometime in college. To be more specific, I was that chubby kid whose shoe would magically come untied when we had to run the mile in gym class. Yes, I untied my own shoe. Sometimes twice. I just needed a second to rest. Don’t judge.
My point is that I haven’t always been a runner. And actually, I still struggle to call myself a “runner,” even though I do technically run. I’m slow and inconsistent, but I do it.
I was probably about 15 when I first considered the possibility of running. There were many times throughout high school when I would see other people running and decide to give it a try. I wanted to lose weight, I wanted to not be out of breath all the time, and, of course, I wanted to look like all the other girls looked, or at least how I felt they looked.
However, I was so self-conscious about people seeing me run that I would stop to walk every time a car would pass by (luckily I lived in the middle of nowhere so that didn’t happen all that often). Needless to say, I gave up pretty quickly.
It was during my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh when I finally started seriously thinking about running. Each student had to take a kinesiology class. I guess it was somebody’s bright theory that a mandatory two-credit class that no one took seriously would solve America’s obesity problem. Anyway, we had to set a health or fitness goal as part of the class. Most people blew it off as the joke of an assignment that it was. But I, being the goody two-shoes student I always have been, took it seriously.
My goal was to run one mile without stopping, something that never seemed to be a problem for anyone else my age. There was an indoor track at the fitness center on campus, and I decided to use it, even though there were always other people there who could actually see me running. It was terrifying. I would just lock my eyes straight ahead and try to block out all the people who I thought must be staring in horror at this girl who clearly had no business being there. That probably didn’t happen, but I don’t remember ever looking around to check.
What I do remember though is feeling really proud when I was able to run nine laps around the track (each lap was one tenth of a mile). In my head I had reached my goal. I don’t actually remember running my first full mile because for some reason I was irrationally excited about those first nine tenths. It felt like a huge achievement. Apparently fractions aren’t my thing, but I guess that’s why I majored in journalism.
My endurance slowly improved, and early the next spring I signed up for my first 5K (yes, it took me about a year of running on my own before I signed up for my first race). Although I previously had run more than 3.1 miles consecutively, I was actually nervous. But it’s that fun kind of nervous. The kind that leads to the type of post-race adrenaline that makes you sign up for longer races. The kind that led to a 10K later that summer, and then a half marathon in the fall.
I don’t think I realized what I was getting into when I signed up for the Fox Cities Half Marathon in 2011. I found a beginners’ training plan online and just decided to go for it. My last long run before race day was supposed to be 10 miles. I planned out a course near my house that should have been about that length. It ended up being closer to 11. Since I wasn’t all that experienced with running, I didn’t think twice about going in the middle of the day when it was unusually hot outside. I didn’t bring enough water, and by mile 6 I was dying and ended up walking most of the last few miles. It was not an encouraging way to finish my training.
Then it was race day. Thankfully, it was much cooler than during my final training run. The weather was perfect, the energy at the start line was amazing, and suddenly I was at mile 10 before I realized what was happening. I remember somebody making a joke about having only a 5K left to run, which made the rest of the race seem strangely doable. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but the running community is just supportive like that. You don’t have to know anyone, but if you’re running the same race it’s like you’re old friends, at least for those 13.1 miles.
Then I saw the marker for the last mile. I felt that same sense of premature accomplishment as when I first started running a few years earlier. I passed that sign and thought the race was done. It wasn’t, and that last mile dragged on. And on. It took 2 hours and 20 minutes (which was 10 minutes under my goal time, by the way), but I finished.
My mom and stepdad were there to cheer me on. It felt like I was actually a real athlete, which is something I never tried in high school, unless marching band counts.
The feeling at the finish line of a race is almost indescribable. Everyone’s congratulating you and trying to hand you medals, t-shirts and water when all you really want to do is lay down or die. But the energy is so positive that you can’t even imagine turning any of the smiles or compliments away.
Between the chocolate milk, bagels, medals, and adrenaline rush, I was hooked. I signed up for another race about six months later, and I completed my seventh half marathon this past fall, where I finally met my goal of finishing in less than two hours.
However, even after discovering that I actually do enjoy running and the highs that go with it, it’s sometimes still a daily struggle to remind myself of that. Sometimes it’s too cold, or it’s too hot. Or it’s too rainy, sunny, windy, not windy enough, or too anything else that I can think of to justify not running that day. If those sound like excuses, it’s because they are. I’m way better at making excuses than I am at running.
But I still do it. Because at the end of the day I get to call myself a runner. Because I run. And that’s really all it takes. I even do it now without the fake “shoe tying” breaks, so nothing is unattainable.