I’ve never, ever been the athletic type. In grade school, I somehow did a short-lived stint as a softball player. My time was split between warming the bench and hunting for daffodils in the outfield (where I was always assigned).
As a preteen, I was always the very last choice for any gym team pick. True story: The kid with the broken arm was chosen before me.
I really outdid myself in high school, though. By that point, I spent more time sleeping in gym class—or skipping it altogether—than actually participating. I had to repeat class not once, but twice. Seriously, I almost didn’t graduate high school because I couldn’t be bothered to run a few laps around the track.
Later, as an adult, my attempts at physical activity were often short-lived. I did want to be fit, but I had no real desire to put in the work. I dallied with yoga for a bit in my early 20s, but I just wondered how some of my classmates made planks look so easy while my arms shook. So I quit.
Seriously, I almost didn’t graduate high school because I couldn’t be bothered to run a few laps around the track.
I would jog a mile here or there, but I never stuck to it. And I participated in a few 5K races with friends and family, but I didn’t think of myself as a “runner.” In my mind, that title was reserved for the truly hardcore—not someone like me, who seriously struggled to get through even a couple miles.
But by the time I was 32, I moved to a new city where my partner got a job. That’s when everything started to shift.
At first, it had seemed like an exciting adventure, but as the novelty wore off, I started to feel a crushing loneliness sink in. Working from home meant that I spent a lot of time alone, cooped up indoors. And with the winter coming at that point, I feared that I would really sink into the blues. I need a reason to get out, I thought. And that’s when it struck me that I should go running. It’d be something to do, and it would help lift my mood.
On top of that, the past few years I’d spent hunched over computer screens for work. After work, whether I was commuting from an office or working from home, I was always completely drained, even though I’d barely moved all day.
I participated in a few 5K races with friends and family, but I didn’t think of myself as a “runner.”
The bottom line was this: I was done with feeling like crap. Plus, I wasn’t getting any younger—so I worried that things would only go downhill from here.
I found myself signing up for a half-marathon a few months after we moved. I was 33 at this point, and I’d never run (or walked) more than those 5Ks (and I remembered how hard that was). After I registered online, I sat there staring at the screen, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. I’d spent a lifetime avoiding exercise! Did I seriously just pay good money to torture myself?
Becoming “A Runner”
Getting fit at 33 is no joke. At first, running was painfully, embarrassingly difficult. I’d cringe when cars passed me on my slow journey around the block. On some runs I’d end up stopping frequently for breaks.
Inspirational montage scenes in movies are always fun to watch, but living through my own personal montage scene was boring, frustrating, and physically painful. I wanted to fast forward to the end, when I’d be a real runner and it would all suddenly be so easy. If there was a way to skip all those training runs and go straight to 13.1 miles, I would have taken it.
Nevertheless, I kept going.
I did several things to keep myself on track. I used a half-marathon training plan for beginners, tweaked it to fit my timetable, and followed it closely. I learned that trying to run as far as I could every single day could cause damage to my joints and muscles (especially since I was not super-active before) so I stuck to a doable schedule: three short runs and one long run each week.
I used a free fitness-tracking app to monitor my average run times. I also added in some cross-training on my off-days. In an attempt to get motivated, I’d make awesome playlists for my runs or pick a new park to visit.
My short runs were one or two miles each when I started out; my long run was three. This was challenging for the first couple of months, but it got easier. Gradually, I increased my run times. Seeing my weekend runs go from three miles to four, five, or six (and beyond!) made me feel super-accomplished.
I wanted to fast forward to the end, when I’d be a real runner and it would all suddenly be so easy.
I won’t lie: I sometimes felt a lot of high school gym class-style dread. I’d just want to give up. But during times like these, I set small goals: “Just run to the end of this block” or, “If you make it over this hill, running down the other side will be your reward.”
On other days, my internal dialogue was less inspiring: “Just get through this stupid run so you can go home and eat nachos.” What can I say? It worked.
The Amazing Benefits of Running
Every now and then, everything seemed to click, and running actually felt amazing. On those days, I felt as if I existed outside of time. Instead of counting down the minutes until the run would be over, I forgot how long I’d been running. Was this the fabled “runner’s high” that I’d heard so much about?
As I grew more familiar with my favorite trails, parks, and neighborhoods, I started to feel like I belonged in my new city. And when I passed another lone jogger, they would give me a nod or a wave, making me feel like part of a secret community.
Training for the half-marathon also kept me accountable. Staying up too late or eating terrible food seemed less appealing when I knew it would make me feel gross on the next morning’s run.
Slowly, I started to notice a transformative shift. I slept better and had more energy throughout the day. My skin cleared up, and my headaches were less frequent. I noticed muscles forming in my calves that I’d never seen before.
As I grew more familiar with my favorite trails, parks, and neighborhoods, I started to feel like I belonged in my new city.
The best part? With running, there are no teammates to let down, no back-bending yogis to compare myself to, and no whistle-blowing gym teachers. Just me, my playlist, and a pair of running shoes.
The Big Day: Running My First Half-Marathon
But when the date of the half-marathon grew near, I started to worry: What if I fell on my face, or rolled my ankle, or had one of those days where every mile felt like a Herculean effort? After all these months of training and preparation, what if I failed miserably, just as I had in my younger days?
I made a deal with myself: My only goal was to finish the race, no matter what. I wouldn’t focus on speed or technique; I’d just get it done. Even if I was the last one over that finish line, I was determined to cross it.
The crowd at the starting line was huge. Looking around, I saw all sorts of people. Sure, there were a bunch of sinewy athletic types, but others looked more like me. I started to relax.
I made a deal with myself: My only goal was to finish the race, no matter what.
The starting horn went off, and I got swept up in the excitement of the crowd. The first few miles were easy, but I tried to pace myself to avoid burning out early. I started dragging around miles six or seven, but the crowd’s encouragement kept me going.
By the end of the race, I was a mess. Aching, sweaty, and depleted, I didn’t know if I could muster the strength to make it to the finish line. I knew I owed it to myself, to that girl I used to be—the one who never would’ve made it this far. Summoning every bit of my willpower, I propelled myself across the finish line on legs that felt like jelly. Someone handed me a medal and a glass of champagne. I did it.
In the end, it wasn’t actually the half marathon that made me a runner. It was the act of lacing up my shoes every time I wanted to be doing literally anything else.
It was every single time I ran in sub-freezing temperatures on toes numb from the cold, every time I made good decisions about how to fuel my body pre and post-run, and every time I stopped thinking about how dumb I looked out there. That’s when I became a real runner.