When I started running 11 years ago, I considered it a success if I could last five minutes before having to stop, gasp for air and stifle the urge to puke. I did not undertake this torture voluntarily. I was duped.
In the spring of 2011, my friend Kathleen called shortly after she’d landed at an airport. On her flight, she’d sat next to a woman who had competed in a number of triathlons and raved that they were so much fun. Kathleen knew the Rotary Club in Ukiah hosted a triathlon each fall and suggested we do the next one. The excitement in her voice was contagious and I readily agreed. Before I had a chance to ask questions, she hung up to collect her luggage.
I swear, I didn’t know what a triathlon was, but trusted her not to suggest something that wasn’t enjoyable. She’d long been my friend, workout partner and fellow empty-nester. We regularly encouraged each other to seek ways to challenge our physical abilities. Mostly, though, we tried to prove to our 20-something-year-old kids that we were still vital and relevant.
Days later, I looked at the Rotary Club race website: half mile swim—okay, I swam a lot as a kid; 20.5-mile bike ride—again, childhood bike riding experience qualified me; 5k run—now wait a darned minute. I’ve never been a runner and, in my late fifties, wasn’t about to start. I called Kathleen and said, “NoNoNoNoNo! You didn’t tell me about the running part. I hate running. I’m not going to do it.”
She gently reminded me I’d already committed. Goddamnit! I had no choice but to honor my pledge. Throughout our four months of training, she tolerated my constant bitching with great patience and a bright smile.
Over time, when running, my feelings of nausea and lightheadedness abated and I started to believe the activity may not have actually been invented by the Devil himself. I regularly recorded my time and became obsessed with trimming my minutes per mile. As the triathlon grew closer, I felt quite smug. However, my only goal was to live to tell the tale.
I lived. It was fun. And I’ll never do it again.
A few weeks after the race, I inexplicably felt urge to run. The urge to run? Oh, for God’s sake! I’d become one of them—those people who prance about on sidewalks and the edges of roadways seemingly to mock my opposition to prancing.
The following spring, after months of running, I decided I might be fit enough to sign up for the 5k at the local Whale Run. I love seeing a person’s eyes widen in awe and admiration when I announce that I’m going to do a 5k. I sincerely thank whoever invented the metric system for making that distance seem far more impressive than 3.10 miles. I was pleased enough with my time—12 minutes per mile—but determined to beat it in the next race.
I ran a few races each year, one time earning a medal and another time a ribbon—just enough incentive to keep going and push myself to collect more. One year, I ramped up and did a 10k. This taught me an important life lesson—after 5k, my enjoyment of running quickly turns to loathing.
The best thing about participating in these races is the exhilaration of being among large groups of people who are intoxicated with endorphins, which makes them extremely happy. Maybe St. Paddy’s Day in Chicago has a similar vibe, but I’ve found no other event that compares. It’s addicting.
When Covid Time hit in 2020, all local races came to a halt. In March 2021, my husband of 46 years died and I was catapulted into a tailspin of grief.
During my first year of widowhood, I suffered so many things—the most confusing and disturbing were severe panic attacks. Well-meaning people offered suggestions to relieve my pain. High on the list were yoga and meditation. I gave both a try. I adore my yoga instructor Delphine, but after several Zoom classes, I had to concede I really don’t like yoga. Guided meditation only made me cry more and increased my anxiety attacks.
I moaned to my friend Jessica about my shame and frustration over not being able to follow what appeared to be highly recommended prescriptions to lessen my grief. I’ll never forget how she looked me straight in the eyes and asked, “What do you like to do?”
“I like to go on a run, come home to do a light workout, then stretch while laughing at standup comedy on YouTube.”
Jessica said, “Then do that.”
I started doing that a few times a week. It went a long way towards cleaning out the toxic pipes.
A year later, I volunteered to help organize the Noyo Headlands Race scheduled for October 29, 2022. A germ of an idea entered my head—maybe, just maybe, I could sign up for the 5k.
My internal judge would not shut up. You haven’t done a race in over two years. You’re 68 years old—too old to engage in such nonsense. Your body isn’t what it used to be—you’ve got the lower back thing, that hip thing, and your knees sometimes plot to assassinate you.
Two months before the race, I punched my internal judge in the face, registered for the 5k, and made an appointment with my chiropractor.
I girded my loins against him suggesting that pursuing such a goal at my age was ridiculous. Instead, he asked, “Do you want to compete or finish?”
I’d never entertained the idea I could enter a race and not obsess about my time—to do it just for fun. “I guess I just want to finish,” I said. “Do you think I’m capable of doing that?”
“Yes,” Eric said. “And I’ll help you.”
His encouragement filled my heart with gratitude and I saw him every other week. I also made regular appointments with my massage therapist who was on board to help me reach my goal.
As the weeks passed, I became increasingly discouraged. I’d once pushed myself to run an 11-minute mile. My time now, at best, was 13-15 minutes. Grief over the loss of Gary and, more recently, my mother, sometimes strapped concrete blocks to my legs. I pushed myself to increase my speed, but couldn’t always shake off the weight. I kept returning to Eric’s question: Do you want to compete or finish? What a liar I was when I told him I was fine with merely finishing.
I continued racing against myself. One Sunday, near the end of a frustrating run where the weight I was carrying caused my knees and hip to carp at me the whole time, I sat on a curb, put my face in my hands and sobbed. With my feet in the gutter and my palms soaked with tears, I gave up. I accepted I could do no more than finish the race and reluctantly embraced that as a respectable goal.
After I crossed the finish line at the Noyo Headlands Race with my friend Yvette, I was surprised when I began to cry. I grabbed her in a hug and wept with gratitude. A month before, she—a fierce competitor—agreed to run this with me and accepted my condition that we wouldn’t concern ourselves with our time.
I cried as I remembered my workout trainer Bethany, who took me by the shoulders at the start line and said with great authority, “You can do this.” At that moment I knew I could, but confessed I was concerned how my knees had been nagging me and I feared they were on a murderous sabotage mission. She bent down, cupped my knees and gave them a blessing. They miraculously cooperated.
I have no idea what my finishing time was. It may have been slightly better than the mother with a toddler in a stroller and her seven-year-old son jogging by her side, but I don’t know. I lost track of them as Yvette and I bellied-up to the halfway point turnaround table, slammed back water shots for a good five minutes, and exchanged pleasant banter with the proprietors.
I must say this was the most fun I’ve had at any race. Yvette and I trotted along, joking and laughing, cheering on runners who passed us and those who were on their way back to hopefully snag a medal. It felt good. It felt so, so good.
By giving up, I outraced myself and won.