I hate running. I’m not good at running. In high school, when I was on the swim team, as soon as I was out of my coach’s sight, I walked. Only cheating myself, right? I joined the track team my senior year and threw the javelin, not well mind you, but that was what I was enlisted to do; poor track team. One night we had a run-a-thon. I hate to get too graphic, but it did unnatural and unhealthy things to my body.
What then, would motivate one such as me to run? From the time my dad was diagnosed with cancer to his death, I put on 20 lbs. From his death to January I added another 10. The only thing that distracted me from grieving was that rush of sugar found in a spoonful of chocolate frosting or the comfort of a stack of thick pancakes smothered in butter and syrup.**Spoiler alert** This isn’t one of those stories where I hit rock bottom and made a choice to never look back. The point of despair I reached is one I had been to many times before; I hated my body, hated how I felt, decided to do something about it, was motivated for awhile and eventually gave in and gave up to my natural tendencies. I think there were three variables that made a difference.
The first is my eating issues are not necessary limited to a being a physical issue. Someone close to me struggled with an eating disorder. I watched her as she worked/struggled through it. She had a strong support network, the chief support being her reliance on a higher power. I learned from that and as I knelt each morning and night, I begged for help.
He sent me a friend, a devoted friend, a friend who texted me each morning at 6:30 to remind me to get up and get moving, that the chill of winter and the darkness of that time of day was not an excuse to stay in a warm, comfortable bed, that there would not be a change unless I made changes. It didn’t make it an easier, but the accountability factor turns out to be highly motivating.
The other motivation is my work was initiating a health challenge that began the end of February and ended on Memorial Day in May. In order to earn the premium, participants had to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, sleep 6-8 hours a night, exercise 30 minutes a day or a weekly equivalent of it, and avoid foods with high amounts of sugar; muffins, cookies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc. (So long comfort food! When I’m stressed or sad or anxious or bored, I’ll just find comfort in the arms of some celery; there is no comfort in celery.) The premium was $200, which some might say isn’t worth it, but it was $200 and one more factor in moving forward.
So, 71 pounds overweight, I ran my first 1/8 mile. I was sick the rest of the day. I won’t bore you with all the details and ins and outs, just a few milestones. In May, I finally ran the required distance for a 5K. It was on a treadmill, with no incline and I had to consistently apply cool cloths to my face because I kept overheating, but I ran the distance, possibly for the first time ever. The 5K my mom had heard about never came to fruition, so I instead signed up for a sprint triathlon where the order of events was a 5K run, 10 mile bike, and 400 yard swim, the exact opposite of the traditional order.
Then I tried running 3.1 miles outside. Outside, the terrain isn’t flat, the ground doesn’t move for you, there is nothing to absorb impact, and the temperature is inconsistent. Shin splints became a huge obstacle. Aside from stretching, compression socks leftover from my first bout of blood clots seemed to help. The unfortunate aspect of the stockings is that I used them in a Raggedy Ann Halloween costume for my sister when I decided I’d never have another use for them. The finished pair was white, with spray painted red stripes. Finally, by the beginning of June, I ran the distance - once. The race was June 29.
After two weeks of vacation, I had a week to rein it all back in. I tried to work out while vacationing, but missed several consecutive days of exercise. Terror was the strongest emotion I felt two days before the race; not because of what I had signed up to do, but the logistics. How did I get my bike down to the race zone on time? Who would watch my children? Should I eat breakfast or not? Gatorade or water? What if I had to pee? What if someone stole my bike? When people gawked at my “fashionable” leg wear, would I shut down?
The night before I had a nightmare; there I was, at the start line. My number was pinned on and I was stretching out. Suddenly I realized my bike was back home in my garage and I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit. I began to panic, realizing the race began in 15 minutes. Acting quickly, I entered my former high school to look for my English class. I ran up to the second story, opened the door, and saw a room full of my current students. Running back down the stairs, the shin splints started to kick in, and I was no closer to finding my English class. I awoke with my heart racing, terrified of not getting back to the race on time. When I awoke fully, I realized it was Friday, not Saturday. I had 24 hours to get everything ready.
That night I went to the preregistration, where they showed me the transition area and re-identified the course map. Only then did I realize I had been training on the route going backwards so that all the uphills were now down and all the downhills were now up. On paper, it doesn’t seem a big deal; on a bike . . . a lot bigger deal. Stowing my bike at my cousin’s house, I went home.
Morning came and I woke two hours before the race. I dropped to my knees and prayed to finish. After consuming a small breakfast and washing it down with diluted Gatorade, I got into the shower and dressed; bathing suit, sports bra, t-shirt, striped compression stockings, shorts, sports socks and cross trainer shoes. I filled a backpack with more water, goggles, and my tracking chip. Then, suddenly I was there, the last minute details were spoken by the officials, and I was at the starting line, looking more like the human mutation of an okapi with candy cane legs than a triathlete.
The bell, buzzer, or horn sounded - I don’t recall which it was - and I set off at a steady pace. The temperature was forecast to rise to 100 degrees, so even at 7:00, it was uncomfortably warm. For awhile, there were many people around me, I even passed a few. At a mile and a half, I got my bottle of water, drank half of it and poured the rest over my head in an attempt to stave off the heatstroke. By the second mile, my limbs were not getting adequate oxygen to keep moving and my lungs struggled to inhale. I slowed to a walk. My brother-in-law, who had signed on to encourage my sister, kept me going. I kind of wanted to punch him, but without him, I might have settled for sauntering across the finish line. We set small goals and I finished the race running and with a little less than 9 minutes to spare for what I had set as my personal goal. In the transition area, he encouraged me by saying, “You use different muscles to bike than to run. You can do it.”
I thought, different muscles, same lungs, but didn’t say so because I was still working on breathing. Straddling my bike, I set off. As mentioned, the course was opposite of what I had anticipated and began with an uphill stretch followed by an even more uphill stretch. I forced my legs to pedal, turned the corner, and kept going. As I reached the seemingly insurmountable hill, I shifted to the lowest gear possible; it was all I could do to keep the tires going around; momentum was out of the question.
My consolation lay at the peak of the hill; it was all downhill from there until I began the second lap. Just keep peddling, keep peddling, I urged myself on. Occasionally another biker would pass me and say something like “You’re doing great! Keep it up.” And while he or she could have meant, “You’re doing great! Keep it up. Its people like you that make me look good,” I prefer to believe that each biker saw someone genuinely struggling and knew that his or her encouragement would carry me a few feet further up the hill.
As I reached the starting point to begin my second lap, I was getting tired and worried that the officials and officers controlling traffic might get bored and go home. Even so, I pressed forward. Nearing the hill once more, I rode through someone’s vomit; never a good omen. No one passed me now; they’d all finished or were finishing the second lap. At the base of the hill, I shifted down. Though I was exerting with everything I had in me, I barely had enough speed to keep the bike from tipping. Part way up the hill, I knew it was time to call out the big guns. In my head, I uttered a prayer. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the plea was something like this:
I cannot do any more than I am now doing. For the past six months of my life, I have worked toward this. I have eaten well. I have gotten up early to exercise. I have forced this body of mine to do that which it was not created to do. This is all I have . . . and it is not enough. Please, Heavenly Father. You have got to help me. And then, a gentle cooling breeze and a few more feet forward. A sip of water; a few more inches. Maybe my dad was watching from the other side; another foot. Slowly, I crept up the hill.
As I reached the summit, I was grateful that no one was around because what came out of me was as hideous a sound as can be imagined. I think we’ve all made it, but it’s not something we want witnessed. It’s that sound as you laugh at the same time you sob. A roadside marquis read “slow down, athletes on the road.”
There it was in print; electronic, orange flashing print, but print none-the-less. I WAS AN ATHLETE!!! From the top of the hill to the starting line it was nearly all downhill. Speeding forward I felt the wind rushing past me as I flew down the street. I was going to finish. Divine intervention was going to make up the difference for what I had been unable to do on my own.
Rounding the corner, I took the last stretch and barely noticed the incline. In the transition area, I stripped off my clothing, donned my goggles, and jumped into the pool. Surprisingly, my arms were tired even though I hadn’t really been using them. In nearly half the time I had allowed for myself as my personal goal, I finished my laps, climbed out of the pool, and crossed the finish line.
Looking behind me, I noticed the lane lines were being taken out of the pool and that there were only a handful of individuals finishing the last laps. One was a girl whose bike had broken, another a girl who had stopped to wait for someone who had also entered the race and fallen behind. Perhaps I should have felt discouraged by the fact that I nearly came in dead last. Maybe it’s humiliating to know that almost everyone who entered the race is better than you. But I didn’t feel any of that (okay, maybe a tiny bit). Mostly I felt a sense of accomplishment. Remember six months ago when I couldn’t finish the ¼ mile? Remember 30 lbs. ago when I hated to move?
I’m not saying my entire world has changed and that I’m suddenly a star athlete. I won’t be appearing on the next season of America’s Next Top Model (is that even on anymore?). What I’m saying is I see progress. What I’m saying is something that is seemingly so physical has turned very much spiritual. What I’m saying is this weakness that I have had and will continue to fight my entire life is slowly, with the Lord’s help, becoming stronger.
Will I do it again? I have a year to decide, a year to train, and a year to perhaps persuade the city to redo Main Street so that the grade near 400 South is a little less dramatic.