I vividly remember the exact moment, in fourth grade, when I looked at my classmate, Lori Garrison, and realized: I am deeply flawed and inadequate. She was a beautiful girl and an amazing volleyball player. Medium height, blonde, pretty, and coordinated, she was the Gwyneth Paltrow of nine-year-olds. However, watching me try to play volleyball would make your eyes bleed.
I come from a long line of athletic underachievers. Nothing athletic could come from my parents’ combined gene pool, as it was the same German and English gene pool that resulted in WWII. It was also a battle of the recessive genes in which, sadly, I lost. My acupuncturist once told me that the amount of chi (life force energy) that you get in your life depends on the combined chi of your parents at the moment of conception: I was SO screwed. Since my father’s idea of exercise was getting up to change the channel (yes, we used to do that) and my mother broke a sweat only when sunbathing, I didn’t have much in the way of role models in the Exercise Department.
In high school, my school organized a ski trip up to a new ski area called “Park City, Utah,” which only had one hotel and one set of condos at that time (circa 1971). My sedentary father decided that I needed to get in shape for skiing, so he threw me out of the house every afternoon to ride my bike for a carefully-monitored period of time. Instead, I would ride a short distance, out of his critical gaze, to my best friend Brooke’s house, just around the corner. Then, we usually just hung out in her mom’s ’64 Impala, trying to smoke the ends of her lipstick-stained cigarettes out of the ashtray. I clearly wasn’t taking this exercise thing too seriously. But it probably explains why I smoked in my 20s.
Growing up in Phoenix, the Land of Countless Swimming Pools, I eventually found an outlet for my tall, klutzy, and too-skinny physique: Swimming. As a high school sophomore, I peaked in one swim meet, when I actually beat my super-popular nemesis in the 100M backstroke. But as I did so, the lower half of my bikini slipped off my hips. This is when I learned that success in athletics causes misery.
I traded doing laps in the pool for drinking and partying in the pool in college. I’d pick up swimming laps again from time to time in my 20s, but once we moved to Idaho, swimming was pretty much a thing of the past. I think there are four swimming pools in the entire state; about as many pools as there are Democrats.
In my married life, I always had big hopes, big plans, big dreams, like a lot of us do. Every January 1, I’d jump in wholeheartedly, work out too hard, and then live on a diet of Advil and red wine for a week to recover. And then quit. I guess I won’t be hiking the Grand Canyon after all.
Let’s face it: I’m basically a wimp.
I bought a lot of exercise books and even read a couple of them, only to realize that, just like with cookbooks, I’m not good at following directions. Ask anyone.
I tried skiing many times as an adult, I really did. I love the beauty of winter in the mountains and the spectacular snow, especially on a sunny, bluebird day. However I have two basic problems with skiing: I don’t like heights and I hate the cold. But I have a lovely one-piece ski suit, skis, helmet, boots, and poles, in case you are interested. I’m much better suited to be a ski bunny, sad to say. I gotta go with my strengths.
So other than the occasional hike or backpacking trip, I mostly ignored exercise in my adult life. But when I was 50, I got tired of wearing matronly, super-stretch jeans and long, over-printed tunics with matching earrings. No offense, but I just wasn’t ready for Chico’s. In a rare moment of desperation and clarity, I decided to ignore my dip in the WWII gene pool and take up run/walking, à la Jeff Galloway.
It hurt. A lot. For a year. And then it got better. But I’m not strong, I’m not fast, and I do just enough miles to run the next race. I never do more. Cross-training? Are you kidding me?
No one who has ever watched me run has said to themselves: “Wow! She really looks like a runner!” I may own the clothes, do the miles, and occasionally sign up for a race, but I will never, ever look like a runner. I have a lot of proof of this from the videos that Gary has shot of me; they are as painful to watch as when John Wayne played Genghis Khan.
I still sigh a little when a racewalker blows by me or when someone who is 75 pounds overweight beats me. But, really…that’s very superficial of me. In reality, I’m as impressed as hell that they are also out there, doing their best. And that’s what this crazy sport is all about: Doing the best you can with what you’ve got.
But I’m still a little teeny bit proud of myself, I have to admit. Because of running, I’ve done things I had never thought I could. For example, I didn’t know I could run 13.1 miles. And I’ve done it about a dozen times now. And I didn’t know I could run at 1:45 a.m. in a relay race.
My legs are still skinny and most of the rest of me isn’t; I’m kind of OK with that. I know more about prescription anti-inflammatories than I ever thought I’d need to know. Like they shouldn’t be eaten like Tic Tacs, no matter what. I’ve learned to spit to either side and run with a full bladder. And I’ve learned that it’s okay to spend the coin on two running bras and two pairs of running shoes. My next goal is to figure out how to pee standing up.
Since Day One, the joy of running is how great it’s going to feel when I stop. So, the longer I run, the more joyous it is to finally stop. Stand in the hot shower with a cold beer for a half-hour. Collapse on the deck and cool down with Henry. All good.
But turning 60 has forced me to face the reality that if there’s something truly athletic that I want to do in my life, for once, that scares the hell out of me and seems impossible, I need to do it sooner, rather than later. If not now, when, right?
Every month, in Runners World, I read about people who have just recovered from a deadly disease to start running when they’re 70, then run marathons every month, and walk on water when not running. These people are from a much deeper part of the gene pool than I am; bless them all. But I am not one of them. I’d better get out there while I still can.
I have much younger friends who are on track to complete 50 half-marathons by the time they turn 50. What a cool idea; I wish I had thought of it twenty years ago. Oh wait, I wasn’t running twenty years ago.
And then I remember: Have you seen me stumble across the finish line of a half-marathon? It’s pathetic, really. And the only thought in my head at that moment is:
I am completely sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I should never, ever, EVER, attempt to run a marathon.
Even after the pain subsides the next day, I’m still sure that there is really no earthly reason why I should even consider running a marathon. I’ve owned cars that couldn’t cover that distance at one time. Plus, my running mojo took a serious nosedive last year, due to work demands, minor stress fractures, and other distractions. Who am I kidding?
But I signed up anyway: October 30, 2016. 264 days from today, at high noon, I’ll start my old Garmin watch, obsessively adjust my shoelaces, and start my slow slog to the finish line.
I’ll be running in the inaugural Onward Shay! Boise Marathon, which is going to be a fantastic event:
The marathon commemorates Shay Hirsch, a well-known Boise marathoner who died of cancer a few years ago. Her path crossed many running greats over the years, and a number of them are on the advisory board and I hope will be able to attend: Bill Rogers, Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway, Amby Burfoot, Bart Yasso, and Joan Samuelson, to name just a few. Is that amazing, or what?!
I liked what the race organizers said about Shay:
“She taught a valuable lesson – events in life can bring us to our knees, but we need the willpower and mindset to continue and rise to face tomorrow, always moving onward.”
Once in a while, it’s fun to pretend to be someone else: Someone who is strong, focused, coordinated, and dedicated. Someone not like me at all. But it’s about time to try anyway.
I look over at my original canine running partner, Henry, who was with me on my very first run, 9-1/2 years ago. He is now 13, pretty gray in the muzzle, but can still manage to get very excited about running 2 or 3 miles. My newer running partner and border collie, Claire, is about my age in dog-years and, knowing her, will run as far and as long as I can, come hell or high water. She shakes with excitement and squeals when I tell her we are going for a run, like a two-year-old after her first brownie. She’s pretty excited about this marathon idea, needless to say. So, I’ll be in good company.
I’ll let John Bingham, the patron saint of aging runners, define success in this first marathon for me:
“Finish the same day I start, upright, and wanting to do it again.”
That’s all I ask. Every week, I hope to figure out how to do the maximum instead of the minimum, to get ready for this race. Fifteen pounds need to be lost, hips and knees need to be strengthened, and I’d better buy a new bag of peas to ice my foot after every run, whether it needs it or not. And I’d better lace up those gorgeous new Sauconys. Oh, and maybe a little cross-training. Ya think?
I cracked open a couple of running books and put together a reasonable running schedule. As I leafed through them, hoping the enthusiasm would be infectious and remove the massive doubt that hangs over my head like a bad toupee, I ran into these two quotes which I’m sure are true and I can’t wait to experience them too:
“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”
– Emil Zatopek
“The marathon can humble you.”
– Bill Rogers
Oh, just shut up and do it…
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.