Even though I spent most of my teenage years training to be a ballet dancer, I'd never use the word "athletic" to describe myself. To me, athletes are people who actually enjoy working out, or who played sports in high school, or don't get winded walking up the stairs. I go to the gym because I feel better once I'm done, but I never like the workout. I just do it because I think I "should," whatever that means. And for a while, that went for running, too.
Actually, running felt like straight torture. I remember crying in middle school when we had to run a mile in gym class. I huffed, puffed, and sobbed as I jogged, and I was the last person to cross the finish line. As I got older, my relationship to fitness became decidedly hot-and-cold. I'd be in a dedicated workout jag for a while, then I'd fall off and quit. But even during those stints, I was way too self-conscious to try running outdoors. That, I thought, was for the "real runners" of the world. Wouldn't people judge me if I took my run-walking to the streets?
When I was into working out, I'd squeeze in cardio in other ways. I swung kettle bells and did bodyweight squats. I biked and rowed and huffed on the stairclimber. But part of me always admired running (from afar). I'd sit in Central Park and watch the dedicated joggers. They all seemed to be clued in to a secret that I didn't know — maybe it was that quote-unquote runner's high, but that sounded like BS to me.
And then, this past June, my friend Phill sent me an email that would change my attitude toward running forever. He was training, along with Nike, for the Hood to Coast relay in Oregon — a 200-mile-long relay from Mount Hood to the coast — and he wanted me to be on his team. Should I agree, I'd train for six weeks with him and 11 other teammates. During the race, I'd run three legs — between 4 and 6 miles each — over the course of two days. It was a lot to consider, but I'm someone who loves a goal. And figuring that I'd never again have the chance to work with some of the top trainers in New York for zero dollars, I immediately agreed, and started trying to run outside on my own to prepare.
That first run outside was hard. I purposefully avoided Central Park in order to not feel intimidated by "real" runners, and jogged down 2nd Avenue, instead. After a few blocks, I was already winded, and walk-ran the rest of the way home. I felt like everyone was judging me — the bodega owner who sells me macaroni and cheese, the old lady with the Pomeranian and a cigarette dangling from her lips. I even hung my head in shame when I walked by my go-to bar, choosing not to wave at the friendly Irish bartenders who have consoled me through much worse than a bad run.
I called my mom, obstinate and choked up, to say there was no way in hell I would be able to run this race. But she told me to keep at it, so I listened. I went from running something like 4 miles a week to running 8 on my own over the course of a month before training actually started. And, if I'm being honest, it was pretty miserable.
I was terrified going into the first training session with the team — especially when I realized that everyone else was super athletic. We ran for 5 miles over the Williamsburg Bridge (which was almost half the total weekly mileage I'd been clocking up until that point), and I was significantly slower and more out of shape than the other people on my team. Middle school all over again. But everyone was so supportive, especially our coach, Joe Holder. "This is your moonshot," he told me. "You're going to kill it." This still sucks, I thought. But maybe I could get used to it. When I got home from that initial run, sure enough, I felt that runner's high that I never believed existed. It was just like the euphoria I felt when I tried out my first vibrator one Valentine's Day a few years back. My head swam, my face was flushed, and I couldn't wait to try it again.
Once I started training with the team, my mileage jumped to 20 per week. If you're a more seasoned runner, you're likely shaking your head, because you know it's a bad idea to increase your running load so quickly. But I was inexperienced, and I was preoccupied with trying to not be the weakest on the team. And anyway, I was starting to actually like running. After my first few solo jogs, I found myself looking forward to lacing up my shoes and hitting the trail.
And then one day, about two weeks into training, I was running around the reservoir in Central Park when my ankle gave out. I felt a sudden, sharp pain around my achilles. I stumbled, and when I tried to keep running, the pain got worse. I limped home, iced it, poured myself a vodka on the rocks for comfort, and sent an email off to Joe. He told me to keep an eye on it. But the next day, my ankle was still swollen. A week later, I was diagnosed with a bad stress fracture in my lower left tibia. The orthopedist fit me with an air cast and told me to stay off the ankle for two months. I was out of the race, and I was devastated.
It took me a while to cope with the fact that my running experiment hadn't worked out the way I wanted it to. I missed running more than I thought I would, and this was compounded by the fact that now, whether I wanted to or not, I wasn't able to work out at all. I told the doctor, who is a runner himself, how upset I was that my body had failed me in this way. "It didn't fail you," he said. "You'll get back in those running shoes sooner than you think." He said he'd been struck down with a stress fracture once, too, and the following year, he beat his best running time in a half-marathon. That gave me hope.
So I made it through the next two months by picturing myself running again. After eight weeks, my orthopedist cleared me for physical therapy, and I jumped in with vigor. I've been strength training, working on my form, and running on an anti-gravity treadmill — which feels like running in a hamster wheel on a spaceship, in the best way — to get myself back into shape. I find myself enjoying every run I'm on, and I get excited every time my physical therapist tells me I can go for a few more minutes than I did the day before.
Just yesterday, my physical therapist cleared me to take my first outdoor run since that fateful day nearly four months ago, and I almost cried with excitement. We talked about my goals, and I mentioned that I might want to run a half-marathon next year. "What about the New York Marathon?" she asked. I actually laughed, but she was dead serious. I couldn't imagine myself running a marathon — especially the New York Marathon. That one's for "real runners," and I'm a woman who jogs in oversized T-shirts and blew her ankle out when she tried to do more. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a possibility (especially when I thought about it after a few cocktails). Now, the New York Marathon is officially on my bucket list.
Had you told middle-school me, who huffed and puffed around the track in tears, that one day she'd be planning to try a marathon, she probably would have laughed (and then cried again, because her future would include so much running). But here we are. I wake up excited for the days I get to run, and am working with my physical therapist on a plan to get those miles back up. Hell, I've even gotten my first running injury out the way — something that I've been told is a rite of passage. Maybe I'm a real runner after all.