How I "Passed" The Mile Run 8 Years After High School

Photographed by Kava Gorna.

One of my earliest memories of P.E. is the dreaded mile run test, an annual calamity masquerading as "fitness assessment" that for some reason the adults in charge of curriculum thought was a great idea. I can still see my fifth grade self running those 5,280 feet and I cringe at the memory of the mess of bodily fluids and medical professionals I once passed by.

Here's how it went down: After my fellow 10-year-olds and I were given the traditional pre-cardio ice cream sandwich, we were let loose on the soggy lawn by the side of our school. By the time we had finished our laps, one classmate with a hacking cough worse than a TB patient had thrown up, an asthmatic kid was in the back of an ambulance with an oxygen mask, and at least half of us had at some point slipped on a cluster of acorns and slid into a kid-sized ditch. As for me? I for the most part side-stepped catastrophe, jogging for the few seconds it took to light my lungs and thighs on fire, before easing into a stroll, and repeating that 'til I was done.

I was never one to push myself too hard physically, and why would I? The evidence of what could happen if one did so was right before my eyes. The distress of my classmates is what running, and more generally, fitness itself, came to mean to me — medical emergencies, grass stains, and general winded despair. Elementary school, middle school, high school — I never passed the mile run once.
Thanks to that, by high school "out of shape" became an integral part of my identity, right up there with vaguely eccentric dresser and Buffy fan. The mile run continued to be a part of my year, and I continued to take my sweet time with it, never pushing myself and never passing. Long after the chain smokers had finished I was still dragging myself along the track, running long enough for it to hurt then easing back into a walk. And I didn't care; being able to run the whole mile wasn't something that I wanted. My friends and I looked at the mile run and the desire to conquer it with disdain, actually. We didn't need to prove our worth with physical abilities. We had our minds. If something ever chased us, we'd think our way out of it.

Oh, high school.

By college, I'd left behind the 'tude and the idea that I was "too cool" for fitness, but the effects lingered: I was wildly out of shape, even if I wasn't intellectually opposed to exercise anymore.

Freshman year, I signed up for a 5K totally randomly; It was happening across the street from campus, and my doing so would raise money for breast cancer. I just thought, why not? I didn't even own running shoes, so I ran in a beat up pair of Target sneakers — which, by the way I don't recommend doing. As I jogged and limped through the final mile, I realized, for the first time, that running was something I could do. I finished the 5K, after all. And I could learn to do it better, maybe? Looking around at the other runners, I realized I wanted the confidence morning joggers and their high pony-tails seemed to exude. I wanted to be able to race through the woods while an upbeat indie song played and I reached a personal epiphany. I had failed fitness as a kid, but that didn't have to define my adulthood, did it?
So I ran another 5K. I ran a few days a week, sometimes on the road in the morning and other times at night on the treadmill, preparing. And I did get better, stronger, and less defeated. I could run longer and longer without having to stop to walk. Though, each time I was about to reach that breaking point when I just had to walk, that image of my chaotic fifth grade mile would ultimately slow me down. I just couldn't push through it for some frustrating reason.
I ran a few more 5Ks, and each time I trained that slow-moving fifth grader was there with me.
In an effort to up the ante, this past summer I participated in a triathlon — what I thought would be the ultimate test — and I actually finished it. I thought doing so would be proof that I'd finally moved from out of shape to vaguely athletic. But throughout the swim, the bike ride, and the run, I felt like an impostor. I gasped for breath as the real athletes passed me, offering the kind of reassuring, "looking goods" you'd give to a kid who was totally going to wipe out soon. By the time I crossed the finish line, the front runners already looked rested and refreshed, and I later learned that the kind volunteers who handed me a water bottle at the finish line only held their posts long enough to greet me because my mother was there to assure them that, yes, there was another competitor still on the course. I don't think I was dead last, but I know I was close to it. I know I should have felt accomplished, but I didn't. I finished a triathlon, yet I still felt held back by something.

So, the autumn after my technically successful tri, I signed up with a personal trainer, thinking that might be the missing piece in my fitness quest. For the last three months, twice a week, I have done awful things called "dynamic planks" and "burpees with weighted jumping jacks" and something involving a large inflatable ball I just call "it would be so embarrassing if this is how I die." And eventually I realized what I needed to do to convince myself of my own progress — I needed to run and pass my very own mile assessment as an adult.

After three months of training with a pro, I finally felt ready to see how far I'd come. I decided to attempt the run on a weekend at my parent's house, figuring sprinting through the same streets I had walked home on after so many unsuccessful mile attempts would be symbolic. I had remembered 10:00 minutes as the time I had needed to be under to pass, but after looking it up I realized I'd have to run it in under 9:45.

By minute five I was seriously considering giving up, looping around the same block until a woman walking her dog became a whitish blur. I nervously looked down as the seconds ticked by on my watch, getting to .8 and then .9 and I pushed and pushed...until I finished in 9:49. A failure by four seconds.

Yup, I still couldn't pass. But despite that I honestly felt victorious. I didn't need to collapse after I finished. I calmly walked home, huffing discretely, proudly realizing that I didn't hold back.

In the end, I think I just needed to go back to the mile run and try. Like, really try. Even if I'll never be an elite athlete, it turns out it was never about achieving it, it was about proving to myself that I could put in the effort. So in my eyes, this counts as a "pass."

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