I ran track and cross country in high school, but somehow I don’t ever count that as the beginning of my running story. I ran track because I liked to run fast. I did the 100 hurdles, the 100m dash, and occasionally the high jump. The 300m hurdles was my idea of long distance. I was that obnoxious sprinter who whines about having to run a mile. I ran cross country to hang out with my friends, and I swear that in the back of the pack we did far more chatting than running. At least, I remember the chatting, but not so much of the running. While I loved running fast (for me), distance running was harder for me. I had no endurance, and no desire to work at gaining endurance. I wonder sometimes if I’d had a Garmin or at least an iPod back in high school if running would have been different. I had no distractions when I ran alone, and I had no way to gauge progress. I’m a naturally competitive person, and I assume if I’d been timing my runs I would have tried to run them faster each time, but I never did.
My other sport was gymnastics, which requires a very different kind of strength and endurance than distance running. I did gymnastics off and on (and constantly in my backyard) since I was little, and I competed for my high school team all four years. I adored gymnastics, though I was never very good, but I lived for those moments that felt like flying. My favorite event was vault, and I never questioned the sanity behind running full speed at a solid object and expecting to fly over it. I still think that jumping and flipping on a trampoline is a pretty great way to spend an afternoon, and handstand is one of my favorite yoga poses. I also had some wonderful teammates from my high school team, and even now when I go home I try to meet up with one of my former teammates (Hi Alex!) though these days we’re talking yoga and running instead of gymnastics.
In college there was no option for gymnastics. After a random but truly fortuitous visit to the student activities fair as a freshman, I attended an information session and demo for the taekwondo club. I was quickly hooked. I dedicated myself to taekwondo, but I dreaded the running practices that we did to increase our endurance. I tried out for the competitive team my sophomore year, and barely squeaked under the (very generous) 10:00 minute limit on the timed mile. I practiced with the taekwondo club and our competitive team nearly every week night for all of college. My senior year I was both a black belt and our head instructor for the club, and I wouldn’t trade that year for anything. I loved teaching our students at all levels. Teaching white belts something that I loved and seeing them start to understand the technique and the motions was so rewarding. Teaching the intermediate and advanced students and getting to put them through their paces and push them to new levels was also amazing. Taekwondo colored my whole college experience, and while I loved the sport, it was the promise of seeing my teammates and friends that got me to practice early every night. Practice was just where I wanted to be, and my teammates were who I wanted to hang out with.
When I graduated from college and moved back to Boston, I checked out a couple of different taekwondo schools, but nothing captured what I had back at school. Students dropped into whatever classes they could fit around their schedule, and the sense of community just didn’t seem to exist. I realized that while I loved taekwondo and appreciated all the things I had learned, I missed the people and the unique environment of work really hard, then play really hard (and always together) that we’d created.
At this point in my life I had never exercised just for the sake of exercising. While I wouldn’t call myself an athletic kid, I had always participated in sports. Without that in my life, plus the combination of working at my first job and going to grad school at night, I started gaining weight. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have any real sense about how to control my weight either. I made some half-hearted attempts at gym going, but 30min on the elliptical just wasn’t doing it for me. Plus, I already spent so much time inside between work and classes that I hated being cooped up in the gym, too.
Around that time, my sister told my mom and I about the Maine Coast Half Marathon which was being run the weekend of my mom’s birthday. It had a 5k component for runners and walkers as well, and she thought that the three of us plus my Aunt could all make a girls weekend out of it. Kate was training for the half marathon, and she thought my mom and aunt could walk the 5k. She suggested I run the half marathon with her. My mental recollection swears that she suggested I run the half marathon just a month out from the race, but I may be exaggerating. It would be great if this was a triumphant, no big deal, couch to half-marathon story, but that’s not my story! I told her I’d run the 5k instead, that a half marathon was surely out of reach for me at any point in my life. There was no way I was running 13.1 miles (running has many times taught me to never say “never”), but I figured I could work up to 3.1 miles.
I vividly remember mapping out a one mile route using Gmaps pedometer. My friend Emily’s apartment was at the halfway point, and I always mentally waved to her as I went by, feeling thrilled that I was halfway done with my mile run. But let’s back up to that first run. I went out thinking “one mile, no problem. I got this.” I bounded off, full of overoptimistic glee. I was going to run a mile. No big thing. Two minutes in found me clinging to a stop sign, hyperventilating, and hoping the stoplight would never change so I’d have an excuse not to cross the street and start running again. In fairness to myself of three years ago, I probably went out like my former sprinter self, and had burned everything up before I even hit a quarter mile. This is such a common newbie mistake, and as I continued running, I would make every newbie mistake in the book. I finished that first mile though, and I went back to my apartment feeling fairly satisfied. I had run a mile after all.
I ran that one mile loop every day, always feeling better when I had gotten to Emily’s apartment and knew I was halfway done. I was completely impressed with myself. It sounds silly now, but that mile gave me so much confidence. Not everyone can run a mile. I had exactly no feet in the running world at this point in my life, and I was probably one of those annoying people who asked “so how far was that marathon you ran?” It’s important to note that I loved running every single day, the second it was done. While I was running I felt uncomfortable, out of breath and slow. Magically, once I’d done my mile I felt like I was on top of the world, and I forgot that I’d been miserable while running it. I eventually started doing two of my loops, but the farthest I ever ran before the 5k was 2.5 miles.
The day of the race I was so nervous. I’d run cross country races before of course, but somehow that experience was positively no help on this morning. I was wearing all cotton, and just a random pair of sneakers. Certainly not running shoes. I didn’t have a watch or anything. I might as well have stamped “newbie” on my forehead. We lined up and took off. I went out too fast (this would turn out to be true for nearly every single one of the 20+ races I’ve run since then), but was just determined to run the whole thing. There was a girl in front of me dressed all in Barbie pink, and wearing a running skirt. I’d never even seen a running skirt before, and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to run in a skirt. I decided I was going to keep up with her the whole way and beat her. I have nothing against the color pink, and now I have nothing against running skirts, but I needed something to focus on, and I picked her. Going up a hill at the start of the second mile I was pretty sure I was going to die. My practice loop had been perfectly flat, and I hadn’t trained on a single hill. Somehow personal pride and the pink running skirt ahead of me pulled me up that hill, where I was able to get my breathing under control. I passed pink running skirt just before the start of the third mile, and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the race. I was determined to just keep running, though past 2.5 miles I was in uncharted territory. When I saw the finish line, I sprinted for it like there was no tomorrow. (In fact, you could describe my racing strategy for nearly every race I’ve ever run as “go out too fast, try to survive, sprint to the finish.”) I finished in 32:40 and was so proud. I’d run the whole thing!
At this point I still actively hated running, though I loved having run. Distance running never had that same feeling of flying that I’d gotten from sprinting or gymnastics. I simply couldn’t hold a fast enough pace for long enough. I kept running simply because it was the most effective weight loss mechanism I had found. I mapped out a new two mile loop to run every day, and the unwanted weight slowly but steadily came off. I occasionally ran a 3.1 mile loop, but most every day I went out and tried to run my 2 mile loop a little faster so I could be done and enjoy the satisfaction of having run a little sooner. I was sure I could never run a 10k (6 miles?!) but eventually I trained for and raced one. I was just as sure that I could never possibly run a half marathon (are you seeing a pattern?), but I followed the Cool Running beginner half marathon plan to the letter, and the 2009 BAA half marathon is still my favorite race that I’ve run. I ran this half marathon with my sister for the first 8 miles or so, and I didn’t start to feel tired until mile 11. In fact coming down the hill out of the Franklin Park Zoo (where I clocked a 7:59 mile that showed incredibly poor judgment), I actually captured that feeling of flying that I so loved. I finished that first half marathon in 2:05:10 and was full of stupidly giddy post-race endorphins for days.
I imagine you can see where this is going. I was sure I could never run a marathon. 13.1 miles was one thing. But running 20 miles? Much less running 20 miles and then running another 10k? This was ridiculous. This was the stuff Olympians did. Not average people. But I lived in Boston, so come Marathon Monday I paid attention. And it turns out, I was wrong (I’ve been wrong a lot about running). Olympians did run the Boston Marathon, but average people ran the Boston marathon too. Perhaps that’s unfair, as I’d say there’s nothing average about a Boston Marathoner. People who qualify for Boston are speed demons, and those who run for charity are decidedly not average. Charity runners spend their winter training too, and that 20 miler takes a lot longer to complete at a 10:30 pace than at a 6:30 pace. Plus when you get back from your training run, you’d better be planning a fundraiser and not just sleeping on the couch. I was asked to run the 2010 Boston Marathon team as a charity runner for the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at Mass General Hospital. My sister had run the 2009 marathon for this clinic, but she was hurt and couldn’t run in 2010.
Running for the cystic fibrosis clinic was an incredible experience. They particularly like to partner with the marathon to show their patients the importance of exercise, which is a key part of managing cystic fibrosis. Each runner on the team gets a patient partner who cheers for you, and I was lucky enough to get two. My partners were two young sisters who both had cystic fibrosis, though you never would have known it from hearing them talk about their exploits at school and softball practice. During the marathon, my partners were waiting for me with signs at the top of Heartbreak Hill. Walking up that hill was simply not an option. I ran up to my buddies, and I was so glad to see them. Running the marathon was an incredible experience, and qualifying for Boston outright is definitely on my list of life goals. But to be honest, I think I’m more proud that I raised $3500 for the cystic fibrosis clinic. Training for a marathon can be so internally focused. Your weekends (and the weekends of your friends and family members) revolve around your long run schedule by default. Someone else has to make dinner if you’re going to get in those six miles after work, and even if you’re running with a buddy, a great chunk of the miles you’ll put in while training will find you introspective if not alone. Running for charity allowed me to make the marathon about someone else.
Running the marathon was the highlight of my Boston running career. Since I’ve moved to Berkeley, I’ve run two half marathons, and a handful of shorter races. My favorite part of running here isn’t the perpetually perfect running weather (though that’s a close second). I’ve been lucky enough to find a community of people out here to run with. While I trained for some races with friends and my sister back in Boston, I probably did 90% of my runs alone.
The Bay Area has an incredible community of runners and running bloggers that I’ve been fortunate to run and race with on a variety of occasions. For more than six months now another constant in my life has been the Wednesday evening run club at the Berkeley Lululemon store. It’s been wonderful to see the club grow and expand from the handful of us that ran together on my first Wednesday evening. The girls at the store (hi ladies!) have done an incredible job organizing the club. There are two different distances to run, and different inspirational ambassadors (or awesome lululemon leaders) leading us on different runs each week. I never use this run as a hard training run (though I do go all out on the mile challenge!). I like coming to run club to talk to people, see how their week has been, find out what they’re training for and just chat. The club does a great job of balancing different skill levels and paces, and I like to bounce around and talk to everyone. I’ve finally found that perfect balance of running and community. I like to think that a few years from now I’ll remember both the chatting AND the running!
My running story continues to unfold, and I’m thrilled with the supportive and involved running community I’ve found in Berkeley. While I’ve struggled with a knee injury for the last few months, I’m hopeful that 2012 will see me to a sub two hour half marathon and a sub 25 minute 5k. And one of these days, I’m going to qualify for and run Boston again. Never say never!