C25K Week 8, Day 3. The final workout! Brisk five-minute warmup walk, then jog 3 miles (or 30 minutes).
The task ahead didn’t seem as striking as the fact I’d toughed out C25K for the full eight weeks and not given up. I don’t usually quit things I’ve started (look at what profession I’m in!), but this was different. I started C25K because I had some messy feelings to process: bad childhood memories of exercising, the desire to set a good example for my daughter, and some struggles with anxiety and depression.
There are a lot of “slob to superstar” narratives on the internet. They always sound a bit like religious conversion stories of prolific sinners (“thug to theologian”) and political conversions from one brand of radicalism to another (“fascist to flower child”). They usually start with the confession that the person watched ten hours of television a day while eating pizza and ice cream; they were so unfit they couldn’t put one foot in front of the other, and now look at me! I’m an Olympic marathon runner!
My reality isn’t very dramatic. I wasn’t unfit to start with; I’ve worked out most of my adult life, albeit in a rather gentle way (brisk walks, elliptical trainer, exercise bike, light weights, sit-ups, those wimpy push-ups where you cheat by balancing on your knees, etc.). I’m good at making myself exercise regularly because I’m a very driven, disciplined person. If you’ve forced yourself to practise an instrument all your life, you can force yourself to do most things.
The problem with running is that I don’t like exerting myself outside where other people can see me being bad at it.
And that, in effect, was the hardest thing about training for C25K: having to be bad at something. When G. K. Chesterton opined “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” he obviously hadn’t met anyone as Type A as me. I’m the sort of person who takes pride in doing things better than everyone else. Even if I’ve worked my backside off in the pursuit of a goal, I try to make it look easy.
My horror of being publicly bad at something did get better over the weeks. The more I ran, the less I suspected that anyone who saw me was making fun of me. Once I got into a routine of running in the evening, I started to recognize “regulars” on the track. A group of middle-aged dads was there most nights, mostly walking. A woman about my age came every other night, staying on the periphery of the track where she half-walked, half-ran, slowly and painfully. I never spoke to these people, but I started to see them as travellers on a similar journey. (Also, though I was slow, I was usually the fastest person on the track, and as you can imagine I didn’t hate that at all.)
Even as I kept at it, pounding around the track again and again, I’m not sure what I expected to get out of this. For a time, I had the idea that I could run my way out of my chronic low-grade depression and anxiety. My previous forms of exercise were all things I could do while listening to an audio book, but running wouldn’t allow for that because it was harder. Running forced me to be alone with my feelings and I thought I might be able to burn some of them off.
It didn’t work. The by-products of aerobic exercise — pounding heart, shortness of breath — are similar to the symptoms of anxiety attacks. For me, it unearths some feelings I’d rather not feel. No matter how fast or how long I ran, I couldn’t run away from myself.
“What would happen,” a friend asked, “if you stopped thinking of it as running away, and started to think of it as running towards?”
“Towards what?” I scoffed. “A tree?”
“Whatever floats your boat,” said my friend.
And so, for my final workout, I stopped counting the minutes and wondering when I was going to start feeling better, and just looked at the trees, the century-old white pines and ponderosa pines around my neighbourhood. Whichever direction I was going in, I found a tree to look at and ran towards it. When the track curved around, I found a different tree. While I still couldn’t say I was enjoying my run, I found that I could do it, all 30 minutes of it.
Was that all there was to it, all along? Just…finding a different tree?
One minute remaining, said the robot voice in my headphones. Had it really been half an hour? I glanced at my FitBit. Yes, it had.
Right there on the screen, 3.2 miles. With shaking hands, I typed the number into an online measurement converter. 3.2 miles = 5.1499 km. I’d done it. I’d run my 5K.
I didn’t punch the air or let out a whoop of triumph. I just stood there staring at the screen of my phone.
“Are you going to keep on running?” asked my brother, later.
I didn’t know what to say. Logically, it seemed a bit of a waste not to, now that I’d established that I could do it. Then again, it seemed perfectly logical to quit while I was ahead, given that I hadn’t enjoyed it much.
In the spirit of teaching myself to tolerate being bad at things, maybe I could replace running with new horrible hobby. I voiced this thought to my daughter, who replied “What about crochet? You were bad at crochet that time we tried it.”
I contemplated the mind-bending annoyance of having to figure out which loop to poke a crochet hook into, keeping the tension of the yarn right, trying to see where I’d been and what I was supposed to do next, botching it all, and hurling the yarn and the hook and the hopelessly knotted project across the room.
Compared with crochet, the thought of keeping on running sounded…almost bearable. I’ll think about it. For now, however, I’m celebrating the attainment of my goal with the lesser-known second phase of Couch to 5K. I call it 5K to Couch, and I may be here for some time.
© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.