Once upon a time in my early thirties I took up running to humour a friend. We followed her plan, running for a few minutes, walking for a minute or two or three, and repeating this for thirty minutes. We did it a few times a week for over a year before making a radical change: We repeated the run/walk bits for forty minutes. Astonishing, I know.
Around that time, I was visiting my mother and came in from a challenging but successful forty minute run/walk, full of pride and adrenaline. Her neighbours, athletic types, were visiting and they joined in my joy before bursting my bubble by saying, “You’ll be running for a full hour soon.” They weren’t joking.
I got on my soapbox (well, the stone step by the fireplace) and ranted that people like them didn’t understand people like me. It had taken over a year to accomplish today’s forty minutes and there was no way my body was capable of anything more than that. It was a miracle that I was running at all, given my innate couch-potato-ness.
Properly chastened, they didn’t say much, until one murmured, “So, I guess forty-one minutes next week would be out of the question? No way you’d do forty-two the week after that?”
Well, the short version of the next twenty years is that I ended up running multiple marathons and celebrated my 50th birthday by doing a 50K trail run in Hell, Michigan (thanks JAM). I was even a sponsored athlete for a running store for a year (my mother still doesn’t believe me about that) and they’d introduce me by saying, “Karen is proof that anyone can be a runner: If she can do it, you can do it.”
How did this happen? I had never wanted or dreamt of being a runner. I remember crossing the finish line of my first half-marathon – I’d had no intention of running that far, I just thought running 10K would take me as long as most people take for the 21.1K of a half, so I signed up for that clinic. Turns out it doesn’t work that way, and there I was, less than a year after having my forty minute limit challenged, crossing the finish line of a half-marathon. I cried. Not from pride, but from terror at doing something I believed was impossible. If I could do this, what else was there? What other limits had I imposed on myself? My life completely opened up in that moment, and the blossoming continues to this day.
What other limits had I imposed on myself?
I don’t run anymore (well, there is a 5K Chocolate Run I do with the kids on Mother’s day – the aid stations have chocolate covered strawberries, and instead of a bagel and banana at the finish, you get chocolate croissants and a chocolate caramel coated apple and fudge and truffles and that’s my son in the green shirt on the race’s home page … I digress) but some of my most important life lessons I learned from running:
Build up gradually, with breaks and drop-backs
I did run 41 minutes the following week, and 42 the week after that. Then I went back to 40 for a week or two, then did 45. My first marathon was 5 hours 10 minutes, every step of it built up gradually. I use this for all sorts of skills now, my biggest struggle being the patience it takes because I can’t become a master overnight. But how mind-blowing is it that I can become a master at all?!
My happiest runs were always when I ‘stayed within myself’ and my most frustrating ones were when I tried to keep up with others or with a pace I thought I should be able to keep. Many runners like running with a group that is just slightly faster than them – I do not. I also hated doing speedwork, so if running faster is your thing, I am not the one to give you advice.
I do know that no good can come from comparing myself to others. Even the gradual build-up described above isn’t constant. There’s a lot to be said for balancing times of just being, celebrating yourself as you are, with times of striving to be more. Listen to your body and your intuition, they’ll tell you when to push and when to back off. You have no obligation to improve, but when you do crave a challenge, run with it.
When you do challenge yourself, run up steep hills
I remember standing at the foot of a short, steep hill my first evening with the training group and wondering what kind of gag it was when they suggested we actually run up it. Like building gradually though, it was a manageable bit to push through (okay, I only got halfway the first night) and the results were astounding. In so many areas of my life, I now choose to do something that’s really hard or scary – in a small dose – so I can grow stronger.
There’s a lot to be said for balancing times of just being, celebrating yourself as you are, with times of striving to be more.
Nature is a wellspring of physical and spiritual energy
Forest trails, quiet lakes, babbling brooks, and dramatic cliffs heal and invigorate. Always. Profoundly. Covering fifty kilometres of them in ten hours was, perhaps, a bit much. I’m thrilled that I did it, and have no interest in ever doing it again. No matter what is going on in my life, spending time outdoors is guaranteed to make it better. I’m lucky to have a half-hour walk to work each morning and evening. It’s in a city, but along quiet tree-lined streets, with a big sky to inspire me and charge my battery every single day.
Now, go do the impossible, gradually
What limits are you putting on yourself? If you think that people like me don’t understand what it’s like for people like you, you’re right, I’m not you. I do know that sometimes, you can do a little more tomorrow than you’re doing today, and that sometimes that little more will add up to a whole lot of magic.
May the wind always be at your back.