25 years ago, I was a total non-athlete. I was a reader, a conversationalist, an observer and a student rather than a participant. Other people lived in their bodies, connected with their worlds through breath and stride and resistance, but that was not for me. “Exercise” was just one of the things I was told I should do and didn’t.
Fast-forward a quarter-century and I’m on the eve of attempting my first half-marathon. The odds of success are good; it’s a 13.1 mile race and I ran 12.04 miles a few days ago without problems. Has my image of myself changed? Not really. I’m still a thinker rather than a doer, an audience for other people’s acting. But I’m having to wrap my mind around the fact that I am now also a person who makes time and space in their life for this thing called running. And that is quite a change.
I’ve never battled a serious weight problem or been given a chilling, “wake-up call” diagnosis. My blood pressure is fine, my blood sugar is fine, my cholesterol is fine. I’ve been overweight as long as I can remember, but never labeled “obese” or unable to do what I wanted because I was unfit. I’ve been able to find clothes, fit in airline seats, keep up with my kids. So I made excuses, wrung my hands occasionally and let my body slowly decondition while I lived life in my head.
I was handed the opportunity for a fresh start about 14 months ago. For about 2 years before that, I had been reading and thinking about ways to make my life a more accurate reflection of my own self rather than an attempt to avoid conflict or fulfill the expectations of others. So I finally did that. I ended or changed the boundaries of relationships that were toxic and oppressive. I began investigating my own ambitions and desires and figuring out ways to realize them. And I began to look at and think about myself in a holistic way, as an entire person rather than a discrete collection of strengths and weaknesses and habits.
The first thing I did was to start reaching out into the world to spend time with people and activities that engaged my interests. And when my timid efforts bore fruit, I felt a surge of confidence. Suddenly I became interested in seeing what I was capable of in a host of ways, in testing myself against my own goals and learning what I could really do.
So I started walking on the treadmill in the fitness center at my office. Then I started run/walking. Then I started running outside and discovered one day that I could run the entirety of my favorite long walk, some 4.4 miles. My workplace offers incentives for wellness activities, including running, so I began tracking my mileage/speed first with a pedometer and then with an iPhone app. And then a friend suggested I run a 5K and I did, and she suggested that I train for a half-marathon and I agreed. The notion of “racing” never did and still doesn’t appeal to me. The challenge of gradually training my body to be able to cover that distance is addictive; figuring out how finally to sidestep my excuses and do what is best for me is a puzzle worth lingering over.
I wonder if perhaps I spent my life as a non-athlete because I was afraid to be judged, or to fail, or to look like an idiot. I suspect the answer to all of those questions is some degree of yes. That doesn’t really matter now. What matters now is that somewhere in the fog of figuring out who I want to be during the second half of my life, it occurred to me that I want my body to be strong, and my mind to be disciplined and dedicated enough to keep it that way. I’m a nurse; I see and hear every day how people’s lives are compromised by their bodies’ failures. I have lost friends and family members to bad genes, bad lifestyle choices, bad luck. I felt like a hypocrite smoking cigarettes, eating junk food and sitting on my couch.
So I quit smoking nearly a year ago, started exercising and, more recently, began eating a near-vegan wholefoods diet. I feel great. I look good, even to myself. And most of all I feel competent. It takes work to get the basics of life–food, water, sleep, exercise–to flow in a healthy way on a regular basis. And I accomplish that work nearly every day. That’s why I keep doing it. Because for the first time ever, I am the champion of my own health, my own mental stability and clarity and creativity, my own feeling of wholeness. Running is cheaper than therapy, and it makes everything work better, from my digestion to my spiritual life. I’m a slow runner, and unlikely to gain much in speed, no matter how hard I train. I’m okay with that. Slow means less risk of injury and more time to think.
Tomorrow I’m likely to cross the finish line and be proud of myself for accomplishing the goal I set for myself months ago. Today, looking back over the long swath of time that I ignored or even abused my body, I’m grateful for having found a happier path. From now on, the effort to keep my body healthy, strong and capable will be part of who I am. I will revel in the rhythm of breath and footfall and heartbeat. I will feel the connection between myself and the trees and rocks and animals I share my world with. I will let the anxiety and frustrations of my inner life be dissolved and balanced by the flow of endorphins and the deep oxygenation of prolonged exertion. I will sleep like a child and wake with confidence because that’s the gift I finally got around to giving myself and thank God it’s not too late.
I may never define myself as an athlete. But I define myself today as a runner, and I’ll be out there running for as long as I can.