I hate running.
Like a lot of things in this world, I am not very good at it. Whenever I run, my shins feel like they are on fire. Someone told me that was because I leaned forward too much. When I tried to run with a better posture, my back started hurting. Then it was my foot. Once I pinpointed the source of the pain, it would jump to a new spot.
Running is incredibly boring, especially as I live in a city, where my views are limited to houses and a freeway overpass. Not that I would notice a great view over the burning pain in my shins. Jumping on a treadmill would just make me feel like an oversized hamster.
Putting one foot in front of the other really quickly does not take much mental stamina, so my mind tends to wander wildly on runs. This by itself would not be so bad if I thought up some cool new story ideas, but instead my brain conjures up my most embarrassing moments and failures with shocking clarity.
Like the time I repeated an opinion I stole right back to the co-worker who originally expressed it. Completely horrifying.
I tried to follow a beginner’s program called Couch to 5K. (http://www.coolrunning.com/engine/2/2_3/181.shtml)
Alright, I thought to myself. This shit is going to be easy. It is designed for people that are morbidly obese and have a peg leg. I psyched myself up. I was unstoppable, I even got an app for it on my iPhone!
The program is supposed to ease my out-of-shape ass into running five kilometers within three months.
Here are the instructions for the Week 1, Day 1: Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes.
I read that and laughed. I could do that in my sleep, right?
About four minutes into my first workout I hated the world. I could not finish it that day. Or the next time I tried. In fact, I repeated Day 1 nine times before I was able to finish.
I felt like the punch-line of a yo momma joke. Yo momma so dumb, she took nine days to do Day 1.
The iPhone app gives me audio cues on when to jog and when to walk. At first I liked it because it made me feel like a boxer; go hard for a minute or so, then rest until the bell rings for the next round. Then I learned to hate it as it had no mercy and beeped to tell me to RUN NOW every two and a half minutes.
The typical run would start off well, but end horribly in pain and me giving up and not answering the app’s call to action. I kept repeating it because I thought that each time I would get a little better at it. I just needed to slowly get in shape right? I did slightly improve with each run, yet I feel I would have done Day 1 twenty more times if it was not for what happened on my eighth run.
The eighth run followed the pattern of the seven before it. I put on the app and walked outside.
I pretended to know how to stretch and started walking around my neighborhood. The sun was high in the sky and the weather was warming up. I steeled myself for the incoming pain.
I took off at a good pace. The first sixty seconds of running always felt great. No pain, everything was a breeze. Cognizant of the discomfort I would go through in just mere minutes, I forced myself to slow down.
I got through the first run phase easily. I could run for another minute, easily, I thought to myself. I did not want to walk. I looked around and briefly thought about how silly I looked to the homeowners who were watering their lawn or getting into their cars. When the next cue came I immediately took off.
Uh-oh. The first slivers of pain shot through my shins. Not today, I told myself. I stood upright and leaned my shoulders back. To my relief the pain gradually diminished. My running stance felt very awkward to me, but at least it was manageable. The first hints of fatigue clawed at my body. Thankfully, the walk period immediately followed.
I rapidly began to lose my focus. My breathing came in quick spurts, and the cold air gnawed at my nostrils. What the fuck? Have I not improved a single bit? Doubt began to creep in and began to have a voice. Can you really do this? You failed seven times, what makes me think this time it will be different?
Doubts chipped away my confidence and it soon spread to my non-physical failures. As my lungs and legs burned, my mind was assaulted by my past. What makes you so special? What have you done with your life? The physical pain actually forced me to having an existential crisis. I estimated the seconds until the next walk phase.
My ninety second rest periods no longer brought me solace. You should stop now. Your body is pointing out your limits. The voice made perfect sense. I began to agree that I should just walk the rest of the way. Rationalization is the devil. The app beeped, signaling the end of the walking phase.
It took a heroic effort on my part to pump my legs to action once again. My shins, back, and feet hurt, but that was nothing compared to beating on my psyche. You look ridiculous right now, huffing and puffing like an oversized cow. Self-doubt took a sinister turn and morphed in to self-loathing. You’re going to fail, just like you failed at so many other things in your life. Each breath was like inhaling fire. I turned the corner to a busy street with cars whizzing by. Finally, the beep came and I almost tripped over myself slowing down to a walk.
Quit now, the voice said. This will be just another thing you started and could not finish… My steps became heavy. I tried to muster up all of my courage for one last attempt at focused concentration. The app’s next beep shattered what little will I had.
HALFWAY. RUN NOW.
All that pain and anguish and I had yet to complete half of the workout. I threw in the towel and could not answer the bell. I walked on the sidewalk and imagined that everyone was laughing at me.
Told you that you couldn’t do it, the voice said smugly. I was too tired to get angry.
As I walked back to my apartment in defeat, I saw an old Mexican woman walking towards me with two very full plastic grocery bags. She kept shifting them around and looked uncomfortable holding them. When I was near her, I took one ear bud out and asked if she wanted some help. Her eyes gave a flicker of fear until she recognized my intent. I held out my hands and she decided to trust me with her groceries.
I did not look inside the bags, but judging by the heft, one had a huge chicken or turkey and the other contained a gallon of milk and some canned goods. Holy crap, I thought to myself. The nearest grocery store was seven blocks from here and she carried these bags all the way here.
In her limited English she tried to tell me that I could give her the bags back at the end of the corner. I told her not to worry; I had some time and could help her all the way home. I did not tell her that I stopped to help her because I felt like a piece of shit for failing in my run.
Oh my, the voice returned. Even your good deeds have some kind of angle to them.
She quietly guided me to her block, where it was full of people in their yards. The old lady greeted every single person by name. They smiled at her, and scowled at me. A car drove by and the driver honked in a friendly greeting.
“Wow, you know everyone here, huh?” I said as I adjusted the plastic bags in my hands.
“Oh yes,” she said, smiling. “I see you too.”
“Me? When have you seen me?”
“You run. Every day I see. You never look,” she said, gesturing side to side.
“I never look around,” I stated, understanding.
“Yes. Yes. Like a gun,” the old lady laughed as shot an imaginary bullet. “No good. You should be like this,”—she moved her hand wildly in an arc.
“Like an arrow?” I tried to fill in the blank. She nodded furiously and smiled.
We arrived at her house and the first thing I saw was a shiny new SUV parked in the driveway. I imagined several different scenarios on why the vehicle had not been taken to the grocery store, and each made me feel bad for the old woman. She thanked me and I turned to walk back home.
WORKOUT COMPLETE, my app blared.
Be an arrow. The words stuck with me. The elderly woman was certainly not talking about my life, but that was how I framed it.
I had been going through life as a bullet; scrambling to hit my goals only to be disappointed if I fell short or missed. Whenever I had a new target I would shoot straight for it, always starting with a very high intensity. That pace can not be maintained for long. I have lost track of how many times I have started a new story, hobby, or regimen, only to burn out within a few weeks.
Inspiration invariably fades.
Following the arc of an arrow will undoubtedly take longer to reach a goal, but the progression is much more natural. In the beginning, progress is a very tough, but steady climb. After much struggling, things finally begin to come together. The rest is an easy downward slope towards the goal.
I had been incredibly hard on myself by expecting instant results, and that applied to things in my life besides running. Now, I only give myself two rules to any new endeavors:
1) Improve every day. My pace may be slower than others, but I am still lapping everyone on the couch. Another chapter finished, another level gained.
2) I have permission to fail as many times as I need. I allow myself to fail. In fact, I expect to fail many times, especially when first starting out.
I try not to compare myself to others, and instead solely judge myself based on the past. Am I better than I was a day ago? Can I run farther and longer than I did yesterday? Is this story better than it was yesterday? If I find myself saying no, I fix it or start over.
The old Mexican lady will never know the unintentional effects of her words on me. Perhaps she will suspect something as she sees me running around the neighborhood stuck on Month 6 of a nine-week program.