I am a runner

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It is the last half mile of my second half-marathon. I am on track for a 2:30 finish. I let myself slow down, just a little. The 2:30 pace bunny passes me on one side, a lime green clad volunteer on the other. “Come on, Jessica!” she yells. “You can catch the pace bunny!” Yeah, I probably can. I don’t even really think about it; I just pick up my pace, and within seconds, I’ve done it. 0.45 miles to go now. Maybe I can keep this speed up. It’s been 20.57 km, and, amazingly, there is still some left in me. I push on, hitting a faster pace than I’ve hit all race, my feet slapping the pavement, each breath rasping in my lungs, and there it is, the finish line, and then, there it is, behind me, and I’m done. Someone loops a blue-banded medal over my head, someone else thrusts a bag of snacks into my hand, and that’s it. Months of work, and I am done.

I am a runner, you see. Maybe I have always been, but I’m not sure. Do you remember the fitness tests they used to do, in junior high and high school? They ran you through your paces on a bunch of different exercises, and then they’d make you run for a while, I can’t remember how long, but you just ran and ran and ran, for as long as you were able. I remember one of the tall, lithe, athletic boys springing around those pylons like it was his job, no, like it was his passion, making it look so damned easy. And there I was, dragging my ass after only a few pathetic rounds. But still, I was running, even if it wasn’t very quick, even if it could barely be called running. Maybe it started then.

For a while, before I discovered my competitive streak, I was that girl in gym class who stood off to the side with my best friend, talking and giggling and giving the soccer ball dirty looks if it came anywhere near us. I’d always been a somewhat chubby youngster. Not necessarily overweight, but not a pixie, either. At some point, I transitioned from using my body in every way possible without a second thought, with real and unfettered joy, to thinking that I wasn’t athletic, I was out of shape, I jiggled in all the wrong places and therefore I shouldn’t really try, I shouldn’t embarrass myself by pretending that I could do things like run a mile without collapsing and probably dying on the gym floor. So I didn’t.

At the end of my high school career, I rediscovered running, but it didn’t awaken anything in me. It was something that I did because I wanted to be fit, I wanted to lose weight. I did it only occasionally, when it occurred to me, or when my outer body was feeling particularly out of proportion to how I wanted it to be. I slogged my way through joyless runs with the sun beating down on the back of my neck, wondering what the hell I was doing.

Running and I continued this way for several years, until, one day about four years ago, something clicked, and suddenly, running felt like joy. I started working on the Couch to 5K program, and I loved watching my distances increase. I loved plugging my headphones in and setting out from our apartment building at a brisk clip before picking up the pace and darting through the river valley. (Though “darting” might be overstating it; I’ve always been a bit on the slow side.) I tentatively ran the Run for the Cure instead of walking it like I usually did.

Then two words changed the trajectory of my running career forever: Mud Hero. I found myself registered for a 6k race replete with obstacles alongside my best friend. I looked towards that day with equal parts exhilaration and trepidation. I had never done anything like it. I didn’t know how it was going to go. Would I collapse halfway through and beg for mercy, having to be carted off the course by grim-faced first aiders while everyone turned their faces away so as not to witness my shame? Would I fall on my face while scrambling across the hoods of abandoned cars, soaked in mud, resulting in the same fate? None of those things happened, of course. What happened was this: Bri and I ran those 6k together, easily conquering each obstacle as it came to us (except the one where we had to use a rope to climb up the sheer face of a black diamond ski hill; my ass hurt for the next four days because of that one). I had to stop for a few walk breaks, but I easily crossed the finish line, and I was amazed with myself for what I had accomplished. My younger self would be astonished.

Maybe I was a runner after all.

So I started looking for bigger challenges. Last year, I ran my first half-marathon. It wasn’t a resounding success; I finished in 2:57:30. But it wasn’t a failure either; I finished. This year, I was determined to be faster. I was determined not to flake on my training for the month before the race like I did last time (I have really brilliant ideas sometimes). I was going to focus on getting stronger. I was going to push myself. I was going to do those 21.1k in less than 2:45.

Then, five weeks out from the race, halfway through an easy four mile run, I was in so much pain that I had to stop. I limped home, blinking back tears, frustrated with the pain in my right shin that had been growing worse and worse over the last few weeks. My doctor referred me to a physiotherapist. After my first visit, handsome and British, he told me I wasn’t, under any circumstances, allowed to run for the next week. I accepted his recommendation with the air of someone being handed an execution sentence. My race was five weeks away! I needed to be running!

wpid-img_20150531_103556.jpgBut I didn’t. I got on a stationary bike several times a week instead. I lifted weights. I tried to make sure that, even though I couldn’t run, my overall fitness wasn’t going anywhere. I went to physio twice a week, doing stretches and massages and ultrasounds to break up tissue. I changed from my beloved barefoot running shoes to the lowest profile sneakers I could find. Eventually, I went on no more than two runs a week, no more than six miles at a time. By the time race day came around, I hadn’t run more than eight miles straight since last summer.

As soon as I started running, though, I remembered it. The rhythm of my legs, the thudding of my heart, the feel of the early morning air rasping in my throat. I remembered the amazing feel of blood rushing through my veins, of pavement bleeding away beneath my feet, of sweat sliding down my nose and beading on my hairline. I remembered the times that running woke me up again, reminded me that I am a living, breathing, warm-blooded human being. I remembered that to run is to feel truly alive.

And I realized, finally, fully, that I am a runner after all. Maybe even an athlete.

 

I am a runner

Lessons from a Half-Marathon

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This past weekend, I did one of the hardest things that I have ever done: ran 21.1 straight kilometres. As my feet pounded the pavement over and over, and I continually wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into, I had a lot of time to think, about anything and everything, including the road that brought me to the half-marathon that chilly Sunday morning.

I have never considered myself an athletic person. I have always considered myself a “chubby, non-athletic” kind of girl, who no one expected to be good at sports. I always preferred more solo activities over team endeavours: I did gymnastics for 12 years (yet somehow didn’t consider myself athletic?), did kickboxing, bellydancing, and numerous other things where I could be around people but not have to work with them. (I don’t play well with others, apparently.) So it seems inevitable that I would eventually find my way to running. I started up in high school, casually and sporadically, with zero commitment, determination, or schedule. I still approached physical fitness with consternation and the conviction that I would inevitably fail at it.

In my fifth year of university, one of my best friends introduced me to Shaun T and the Insanity workout. Those 60 days changed how I viewed myself and my physical ability. I learned that I was capable of far more than I had ever given myself credit for, and that my body would do a lot of things for me, if only I would ask it to. I started getting into fitness in a more real way, trying out yoga (which I love), and getting deeper into running, actually participating in a few organized races. This year, I decided to commit even more, and do something that I never thought I would be capable of doing: run a half-marathon. And I did. So here are some lessons that I learned along the way.

1. My body is stronger than I think it is.

While doing the Insanity workout, there were many times that I wanted to quit. Many times that I was dripping sweat onto the floor and thinking, “There is absolutely no way that I could ever possibly do another one of these.” But then I did. And then I did another. And maybe sometimes – okay, often – it wasn’t as many as they were doing on screen, but it was more than I had thought I could do. That taught me that I can push myself past the point where I want to stop, and that has come in incredibly handy while training for distance running. There is a difference between needing to stop because you are in pain and wanting to stop because you are uncomfortable. As Hayley likes to say, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” It will happen a lot as you are pushing yourself to new heights.

2. My brain is the one that wants to quit.

Distance running is a mental game for me. My brain starts saying, “Okay, I’m done,” a lot sooner than my body does. While I was running on Sunday, I was breathing fine, and my heart rate was good, my legs were feeling strong, and yet, my brain kept saying, “I’d like to stop please. I’d like to stop please. I’d like to stop please.” It’s exhausting to keep saying no to yourself that way, and so there were a few times when I gave in. I was not as mentally prepared for the race as I could have been, in large part because I fell off the training wagon for the three weeks leading up to it (due to our Portland trip and a nasty throat infection). Even so, knowing that my brain was being a big wuss helped me get through the last 5 km without taking nearly as many breaks as I wanted to (though there were still a lot, trust me).

3. Even though you might be running in what you usually run in, they might betray you over 21.1 km.

For the race, I ran in the clothes that I always run in: my Under Armour compression pants, a lulu lemon sports bra and running top, an exercise sweater, and my Vibrams. I have done all of my runs in all of these clothes save the sweater which only comes out when it is chilly, and yet, around the 10 km mark, I found that there was an unbelievable amount of chafing going on, all over my body. In retrospect, I would not have worn the sweater even though it was chilly to begin with; I warmed up quite quickly (duh) and ended up having to struggle to take it off while running. As well, it chafed my arm and caused me to sweat far more than I should have, losing more water than was necessary. On top of that, while I love my Vibrams dearly and have done all of my runs in them, I am not sure that it was the smartest move for me to wear them during the race. By the last 5 km, my legs and feet were so sore and tired that every step was torture. And that’s the last 25% of the race! So consider your running gear SUPER carefully. It can mean the difference between a challenging but manageable race, and a torturefest.

4. Crossing that finish line is amazing.

There was no rush of euphoria or anything like that, but crossing that finish line – and finding Bryan standing right there, ready to take a picture and give me a high five – was quietly incredible. My body slowly realized that it could stop running, and my brain quickly caught on that this was it: I had done it. I had run for 3 hours straight (my time was 2:57:29 to be exact), over 21.1 km, and come out alive on the other side, with just a few blisters, chafes, and pains to show for it. I set a goal that I secretly thought was a little absurd, and I made it happen. I sat down at my computer one day back in February and said, “I am going to do this.” And I did. So there is no reason to think that I can’t reach my other goals. That I can’t cross those finish lines too.

5. Some forms of torture are addictive.

Like tattoos. And distance running. I’m already planning on running the half-marathon next year with my little sister. (All while my knee and quads are still yelling, loudly, at me for yesterday!)

 

What is the biggest goal that you have achieved that you previously thought was unachievable, even laughable? Tell me about it in the comments!

Lessons from a Half-Marathon