Nowadays, I’m roughly what an uninformed party could call “in shape”. I bike to work 4-5 times a week, I can walk about 5 miles before my feet start hurting, and I’m capable of doing a pull-up. When I was in college, I was more definitively in shape; in senior year I ran 30-35 miles a week, which just about balanced out the frat food and alcohol. Before high school, though, I was wildly out of shape, even by middle school kid standards. Then when I started high school I did something pretty out of character.
Honestly, I know a lot of people for whom their high school sports experience would not merit much thought. When I was in elementary school everyone played soccer, it was just simply what happened. A lot of those kids kept playing sports in some form or another. Neither wildly unathletic nor the kids whose parents got them started on hockey or football at a stupid young age, they just had some form of athletic activity as part of their life, neither formative nor a chore.
I was never that kid. I was skinny and slow, in part due to a broken leg at age 3 but mostly due to having no athletic push at home. Once I learned how to ride a bike (at age 10) my dad would try to get me to ride with him, but I hated it. Running the mile in gym class was always the worst day of the year, wheezing through a 10:30 while the middle school jocks would turn in 7 and 6 somethings. So I got both physical and mental anguish for my trouble.
This doesn’t seem to add up to someone who would go out for the track team. In retrospect I’m not sure why I did it, other than having an old friend of mine who ran cross-country and was going out for track, and seemed to enjoy it. We were both skinny and slow in elementary school, so maybe I could become skinny and fast like he did.
I remember my first track practice because, even considering how out of shape I was, it was really, really bad. In addition to the first practice of the year always being a hard one (there were no cuts on the track team for speed, so the coaches had to rely on pushing slackers to quit), it was fucking snowing. I will remember this for the rest of my life: running (barely, this was 25 minutes into a 40 minute tempo run) into a whiteout, hearing the coach yelling and seeing mere outlines of my teammates in front of me. I could barely walk the next day.
It never got easier, per se. I was pushing my body harder than it had ever been pushed, and it responded by spraining each of my achilles tendons in sequence, and at one point pulling my groin (though not severely). But I kept in it. I kept running. I kept coming back and letting myself hurt, and pushing through it to keep running. I actually qualified for a few races senior year.
The team was very supportive. Actually, much more supportive than I thought they’d be, considering I wasn’t likely to be anchoring any races (I did, once, but not until late senior year) or setting any records. But yet, as I was suffering through my drills freshman and sophomore year, there were always people there from the sprint squad telling me to keep going, that I had it. And then when I was in junior and senior year, I was the one turning to the younger members of the sprint squad and pushing them the same way.
Despite having never run first seed for the team, never going to states, and never scoring points in a meet, I got my varsity letter in track my senior year. I was running the 200 between 25.9 and 26.0…I don’t know what it was back then but now you need about a 24.5 to crack the top 300 in the state. Even so, I felt justifiably proud.
Two moments stick out for me in this experience. One happened sometime junior year, when I was talking to someone I knew in choir. I mentioned going to a track meet, and he kind of chuckled and looked at me.
“Remember when we were both running track freshman year?” he said.
“Yeah,” I responded.
“Remember when I bet you you’d quit the team, and then I quit the team instead?”
“And you’re still running.”
“Yeah, I am.”
The second moment came early in my track career. Freshman year of high school we still had gym class, and we still ran the mile twice a year. In the fall, I had turned in a strongly mediocre nine minute mile. In the spring, I had been running track for about six weeks when we ran the mile again. 7:51. Our gym teacher was also the sprint coach, so I was used to him getting on my case, yelling to go faster, the things coaches do. In this circumstance, he just told me, “that’s amazing that you cut 70 seconds off in one year.”
I learned a lot running. The biggest thing I learned, though, was how much your brain needs the training as much as your legs. Goals are difficult, especially when they’re far out in the distance. I wasn’t perfect at this in high school…I would have met a lot of my running goals a lot faster if I was at least a two season runner, but with so many other things going on that never happened. Still, I had something to focus on over every year and over the entire four-year span of high school. I had something to focus on other than when I’d be able to leave, which was my main academic concern.
In college I found that without the structure I had in high school, motivating myself to work out was significantly more difficult. In senior year I was finally able to get myself running on a regular basis, but after I graduated it tapered off both due to the stress issues I was having and another injury when I tried to start up again. It wasn’t until 2012 when I decided I was going to bike to work that I was back on the wagon consistently, and even then I had a couple fairly intermittent years and missed winters.
Doing my first long-distance ride in some time this past weekend brought me back to thinking about my training experiences and thinking about my standing cycling goal I have yet to meet, riding a century. While it’s hard to get large blocks of time to go on long rides, and my city address isn’t an ideal starting point, the fact is that the only real obstacle to me riding more is, well, me. In order to get back into the mode of pushing myself and trying to reach my goals, I’ve opted to remind myself of a time in my life when I was surrounded by people telling me that the only barriers between me and my goals are the self-erected ones. Given enough sweat, you can do pretty much anything.
100 miles. Next spring. Let’s see what I can pull together in the next six months.