I promise this isn’t going to turn into a running blog (I wouldn’t even know what that entails), but I do want to talk about running today. I ran competitively for only four years–junior high and the first two years of high school. I ran cross-country, so races of 2.5-3.5 miles on trails, and I began training in the summers. The season began when school began and ended by early November, because this is New England.
I was pretty good at running those distances. My high school’s home course was at Bryant College (pfft, I know that link says Bryant University, but it was a college way back then), and that was also where the division meets were held, so I knew that course well. There was a big hill at one point, coming out of the woods, and how I loved to attack that hill and pass people on my way up. I had a decent kick at the end of races, too; I could usually manage to sprint by anyone who was nearby. I liked running. So why did I quit after sophomore year?
A combination of reasons. I wanted a job, but I probably could have worked one in around cross-country practices; the season, after all, wasn’t that long. My coach left and I didn’t know the new coach. It’s possible I would have continued running without that switch. The new coach came through my line in the grocery store–that was my job, cashiering–the summer before my junior year to try to convince me to come back, which felt kind of…icky. But I think the big reason I quit is because I was all-division my sophomore year and I started hearing things like, You should be all-state by senior year. I didn’t hear that as encouragement; I heard that as pressure. And while I’m very good at self-imposed goals, other people’s expectations feel like a failure possibility. And the surest way not to fail is to decline to compete.
(The best place I can send you for a deeper explanation of that phenomenon is Alfie Kohn. His books should be required reading.)
So I haven’t really run, except for one summer in college, for about 25 years. But all this time, I felt like a runner. At various times I’d consider it, but I was always tied to a nursling or something and it just felt like too many logistics to figure out. For most of this year I’ve struggled with insomnia, and at some point this spring I realized it was light out at 5:15 am, so why not get out of bed and go for a walk through the neighborhood? It was a chance to center my head before having to deal with everyone else’s needs and demands. By the end of June, I felt like I wasn’t moving fast enough to get out of my own head, and I began to run.
When I was fourteen, my grandmother loudly declared at a family gathering that I had “a runner’s body–nothing extra.” And while I was mortified about the latter part, she’s right about the first part. I do have a runner’s body, and it quickly remembered what to do. I’ve gradually increased distance and decreased my time per mile. Somewhere along the way I signed up for a local 5K, which takes place in a week. My first goal was to run it without embarrassing myself. As my split times fell, I changed my goal to under 9 minutes per mile. I hit that and quietly decided I wanted to run the course in under 27 minutes. I’ve struggled to run 5K through my neighborhood in that time, but my neighborhood is full of hills. Yesterday I ran the comparatively flat 5K race course for practice and finished in 26:39. So I guess I need a new goal for that race.
As I said, I’m good with self-imposed goals. If I’m running, I’m running for myself, and I think that was my hang-up in high school. At a time when I wasn’t at all sure of my own expectations for myself, I simply knew I wasn’t comfortable serving as the instrument of other people’s expectations. The coach who came through my line wasn’t interested in how I felt about running; he knew I was pretty good and wanted me on the team so the team would be better. In the same way, my guidance counselor didn’t care where I wanted to go to college; he pulled me into his office freshman year to lay out a plan that would get me into Princeton, because nobody from my high school had gotten in there yet, and it would reflect well on the school. That was my high school: as a smart, moderately talented student, I was viewed not as an individual with individual wants and interests but as a means to an end that might glorify the school.
That last paragraph is why this post is also filed under “education.” If there’s one overarching goal I have for my kids’ educational experience, it’s that they’re not viewed as a tool for someone else to gain glory. The only goals I’m interested in are their own.
Back to running. I’m loving it. This morning I ran five miles, the longest distance I’ve run this summer. I feel good out there, even when I’m a little gaspy and my thighs feel like rubber. I can feel myself getting stronger, and I feel awesome at the end of every run. I’ll be forty years old next month and I’ve given birth three times and I ran five miles today! I’m so looking forward to next weekend’s 5K. And even though this isn’t going to be a running blog, I hope you don’t mind if I let you know how it goes.