Growing up, I couldn’t imagine anything more torturous than the forced runs in P.E. class. Sweat pouring down my face, my lungs begging for mercy, and a gym coach egging me all combined to make me absolutely loathe this form of exercise. (It probably didn’t help that when you’re a kid in Arizona, you still have to run when it’s 115 degrees outside.) How anyone could enjoy this miserable activity was a mystery to me well into adulthood. Give me an elliptical machine or a bike and I’d gamely grind away, but up through my early 20s, I wholeheartedly identified as a member of the “If you see me running, I’m probably being chased” crowd.
Training for a 5K
Then, working a desk job at the YMCA in my 20s, I got roped into participating in an annual Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5K. All employees were “strongly encouraged” to attend — and you know what that means in the workplace. It had been years since I had run any further than the distance to and from my mailbox (to avoid being seen in my pajamas by my neighbors), and I had certainly never gone as far as 3.1 miles. As unpleasant as it sounded, if I was going to make it through a 5K without embarrassing myself, I knew I would to have to step things up and actually train.
Thankfully, when you work at a YMCA, the tools for race training are easy to come by. After work, I’d get on a treadmill, plunk a glossy magazine on the little shelf overhanging the buttons, and go. While I didn’t opt for any official couch-to-5K program, my progress mirrored these easy-access plans, starting small and adding distance incrementally. One mile wasn’t too tough as long as I didn’t go very fast or kick up the elevation. Two miles took more effort, so I patted myself on the back when I could get through it at a steady jog — though still wondering why on earth anyone would choose to run. Getting side cramps while struggling on a glorified hamster wheel wasn’t really my definition of fun. Finally, I took the plunge to three full miles (achieved by walking part-way). Mission accomplished, I thought, with minimal satisfaction. At least now I could make it through the Turkey Trot, even if I still detested running.
The Big Day
On the day of the race, there was a sizable crowd filled with familiar faces: my fellow employees as well as dozens of gym members I saw nearly every day at my job. Struck by the spirit of camaraderie of the mass sporting event, I had to smile as I took my place at the start line. And then, bang! We were off to the races. A few hundred meters in, as the crowd began to thin, I observed with a pleasant twinge that so far I wasn’t dead last or even among the stragglers. Actually, my steady pace kept me somewhere in the middle of the throng, and I was feeling — well — good! I fell in step here or there with a coworker or someone else I recognized, chatting for a moment. And then, miraculously, I realized I could go faster than the person at my side. Could this really be happening? The girl who thought she would die after every lap around the junior high track actually passing people in a race? My competitive side awakened, I wondered how many others I could pass before the finish line.
As I ran, the beauty of the Arizona November morning filled my senses. The rising sun spread its warmth on the desert, birds chirped, and flowers bloomed. Something in me seemed to open too: a creeping possibility that perhaps this activity I thought I hated might not be so bad after all. In addition to the thrill of competition, perhaps running could offer a way to commune with nature I had never considered. How often did I just get outside for any stretch of time with no particular purpose or destination? Maybe that was part of what drew people to their outdoor runs.
Soon the finish line loomed ahead. As I approached, I saw my husband, mom, and fellow employees cheering me on. Two coworkers who knew what drudgery my race training had been spontaneously lifted up the red ribbon the first place winner had already broken through. A burst of joy washed over me as I barreled toward their shouts and applause — and broke through the ribbon to finish my very first race.
Crossing that finish line, I finally understood the term “runner’s high.” The endorphin rush of heart-pumping exercise, the emotion of self-empowerment, and the encouragement of others brought me an exultation I had never experienced from any other form of exercise. So what if my muscles ached and my hair matted to my head with sweat? I had done something I never imagined I would, and performed better at it than I ever could have expected. In a matter of 40 minutes, my die-hard hatred of running had shifted to a new understanding of its potential in my life.
That Was Just the Beginning
The YMCA Turkey Trot was in 2005. In the 13 years since, running has become one of my most treasured pastimes. Gradually, my body has adjusted to its demands. I now look forward to the times I can spend outdoors, my heart pumping, my mind and feet synching with the beat of favorite songs in my headphones. I may not have been bitten by the marathon bug like many runners, but I have made it to numerous competitive 5Ks and 10Ks. I served three years on the planning committee for a local race of over 1,000 people, and I’ve run in the race as a competitor for many years. Last year I came in third place for women in my age group.
Developing a love of running has taught me that building positive associations with exercise can bring a magical transformation. Though we all know it’s best for our bodies to get active, so often we struggle with motivation, believing that something so challenging will only be unpleasant. Involving friends, incorporating beloved music, and soaking up the beauty of the outdoors were the pleasure factors it took for me to turn my dread of running into an outright passion. If it worked for me, maybe it could work for you too.
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(Photo via Getty)