It all started on Facebook. For years, my college friend Melissa and I had commented on each other’s posts about running. Though neither of us had been athletic during our college days, we had both found our way to recreational running in young adulthood and happily connected over our shared hobby ever since. After plenty of back and forth, she finally laid out an invitation: Would I fly from Arizona to Florida to compete with her in her hometown’s annual 15k race?
Despite being a heretofore short-distance runner with only 5ks (and one random 9k) to my name, I said yes. The thought of seeing my dear friend for the first in years tugged at my heartstrings. And, I saw training for a 15k as a personal challenge. I’m turning 40 this year—a milestone I haven’t exactly been looking forward to. Could I perform the hardest physical feat of my life as I approach my (gulp) fifth decade of life? Perhaps, I thought, if I could tackle this challenge, I could prove to myself that getting older doesn’t have to be a grim prognosis. Maybe it would help me find actual joy in the prospect of crossing the finish line on the big 4-0.
Getting To Race Day
Thus began my four months of training to run 9.3 miles. Perhaps foolishly, I didn’t use any pre-set 15k training programs. Instead, I simply hit the pavement in my neighborhood at any opportunity, gradually increasing my distance. My usual three miles became four, then five, then six, as my Sunday afternoon runs took me further and further from home.
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I’ll be honest: This process wasn’t easy. My legs ached, my feet hurt, and my lungs were not happy with me. But I kept at it, telling myself that discomfort is where transformative change happens. Striving toward something uncomfortable was, after all, what this endeavor was all about. As I pounded out the miles, I considered: What kind of person do I want to be in my 40s and beyond? I’d like to be someone who rises to challenges, rather than gets defeated by them. And so, by the week of the race in March of 2022, when I hopped on the plane to Florida, I had persisted to a distance of 7.5 miles. I hoped adrenaline (and walking breaks) would take me the rest of the way.
From Starting Line To Finish Line
Race day in Jacksonville dawned cool and overcast—perfect weather for running. Melissa and I queued up with 15,000 other runners, the starter gun flared, and we were off. We kept pace with each other through the streets of Jacksonville’s downtown, then on through residential areas, where onlookers cheered for us, tossed donut holes at us, and even tried to get us to take Jell-O shots. (“Jacksonville’s a party town,” Melissa said wryly.)
Eventually, we hit mile 7.5, where I figured my body would begin to give out and I’d need to walk. But after a quick 30-second break, I found I wanted to keep running. I crested the steep bridge that comprised the second-to-last mile of the race, and it was all downhill from there. With the finish line in sight, I increased my speed and sprinted the rest of the way.
The Runner’s High
Holding my medal (yes, everyone gets a medal), I felt an enormous surge of pride. I had done it. I had run the furthest distance of my life at age 39 and a half. As I walked back to the tent where Melissa’s running club held their after-party, I couldn’t help but reflect on my accomplishment and all it meant to me.
For starters, completing this race reminded me of how far I’ve come in my personal fitness journey. I wasn’t raised in a household that appreciated physical activity, and it took me until my 20s to begin exercising consistently at all—let alone run. Now, with three pre-teen and teenage kids of my own, I couldn’t wait to text them my race time and photos of the event. Passing on the legacy of a healthy lifestyle to my kids is something to treasure as I approach a new decade.
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And, of course, I value all that a healthy lifestyle brings me, too. Rather than accept the “over the hill” label society likes to put on middle-aged people, I plan to keep climbing—and my 15k proved to me that I can. Clearly, my body is still strong and capable of physical feats I never knew it could handle. According to Melissa, some of the best, fastest runners in her running club are in their 40s and 50s. (I got to meet some of them and marvel at their amazingly toned quads.) Like them, I have a choice: to believe the years to come will be stagnant or embrace them for all the wonderful blessings—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—they may hold.
Meanwhile, training for and running a longer distance with a dear friend has shown me the fruits of a decades-long friendship. Rounding the bend towards 40-years-old, Melissa and I have a shared history that spans more than half our lives. Through our trials and joys, we’ve gained a level of wisdom and maturity that we simply didn’t possess when we were younger. I don’t take that for granted.
I can’t think of a better way to head into my 40s than my 15k experience. Preparing for and running this race has made my upcoming birthday feel like an exciting line to cross, not a milestone to dread. Whatever the future holds, I say bring it on. I’m ready to run.