Okay, so what constitutes a real runner?
Even though I’ve been running on and off for exercise since college, I had never considered myself a real runner. Whenever anyone mistook me for a real runner, I’d protest.
“Oh, no,” I’d insist. I’m not a real runner. I just sort of jog along.” I had always done about four miles a day. More that four miles? I’d ask myself. Why?
I have a friend who’s been a real runner for years. Due to knee and hip problems, she’s begun having trouble with the longer runs.
“I really miss the long runs,” she started telling me, sounding like she actually meant it. “The fifteen milers or more.”
You’re kidding, right?With four miles a day, I’d always been able to maintain my weight and had always been a steady size six. But a strange and terrible thing happened after my thirty-sixth birthday; my body wanted to be bigger.
I’d always heard that the older you get, the harder it is to stay thin. I sheepishly admit that I’d never believed it. When other women would discuss this in front of me, I’d mentally roll my eyes.
Ladies, please accept my most humble apology.
Because suddenly I found myself at age thirty-nine, ten pounds heavier, and now a steady size eight. Yes, I know. A size eight is still small. But guess what? Nobody likes getting bigger. Thin people don’t like having to buy a bigger size any more than heavy people do. And what’s the outlook? A few more years, ten more pounds, and a steady size ten? A few years after that and a sturdy size twelve?
It was time to get serious.
I began to watch what I ate. I tried low fat. I tried low calorie. I gave up sugar for Lent.
I couldn’t lose a pound.
You know what they say about desperate times. I’d have to increase my running mileage. Four miles just wasn’t doing it anymore. I worked up to seven.
Seven miles a day, five or six days a week. My husband, a real runner, helped me buy better shoes, and bigger. My first seven-mile run killed off nearly all the toenails on both of my feet. It took eight months to grow them out.
Weeks went by. Thirty-five to forty-two mile weeks. My husband began to talk about the Provo River Trail Half Marathon, an annual race down Provo Canyon.
“You could do it,” he told me. “Forty-mile weeks – that’s marathon training. If you can run seven miles, you can run 13.1. Just start doing some longer runs on Saturdays.”
Longer runs? Longer than seven miles?
I did it. One Saturday I ran ten miles. Ten miles. Imagine!
“Okay,” I told Kent. “Sign me up.”
I started to go out with Kent and his real runner friends. I could keep up! Actually, I was probably slowing them down. But I was running faster than I ever had before. Good for me – not so good for them, maybe.
My longest training run before the half marathon was 11.5 miles. I knew I was ready.
Ready, but nervous. Nervous because even though I’d run down Provo Canyon several times now, it was hard to imagine what it would be like on race day. All those people! And what about the whole check-in procedure? Picking up my bib, boarding one of the buses that would take us to the starting line?
And what would end up being my biggest concern: What about the bathrooms?
Before we left the house early on the morning of the race, Kent got out the Gatorade.
“Drink plenty of this stuff. Your body’s going to need it.” I drank plenty of it. And by the time I had picked up my number (1402), my nervousness, combined with all that Gatorade, was making it imperative that I get in a bathroom line before boarding a bus for the ride up the canyon.
I have never seen such long lines. As I stood waiting, I heard one woman ask a friend, “Shall we consider the lilies of the field?” They wandered off to find an alternative to waiting in line.
My turn finally came, and in the nick of time. We had waited so long that we just made the last bus that was ferrying runners up to the starting line. We climbed aboard. I glanced around at the busload of real runners. Some of the women I had had plenty of time to observe in the bathroom line. They chatted casually in pairs or in small groups about their training and workout procedures, and about past race experiences. And they all looked the part. Most of them were very tan with alarmingly white teeth and costly running attire.
Professional, I though. Very intimidating.
They looked like they worked at Gold’s Gym.
“What am I doing?” I thought. I was wearing a cheap pair of running shorts, a t-shirt and running shoes I’d bought on sale for $39.99.
I was an impostor!
I began to feel slightly panicked. Mostly because I had to go to the bathroom again.
The bus pulled up to an area near the starting line.
“Don’t worry,” Kent assured me. “They have Port-A-Potties.” Indeed they did. A long row of eighteen or twenty or so. And in front of each was a line of eighteen or twenty or so people. Maybe more. And it was almost race time. The nearby trees and bushes were full of runners, both men and women, heading off to consider the lilies.
“You could use a bush,” Kent suggested, nodding in the direction of the sparsely growing vegetation. This is Utah, and even though we were in the mountains, there wasn’t much to hide behind in this particular area.
With all these people around? Umm, nope.
“No, you go on to the starting line,” I told him. “I’ll get in line and see how it goes.” We weren’t planning to run together anyway, so what difference did it make if we got separated now or a few minutes from now?
I got in a line. A few minutes later I heard the starting gun. Quite a lot of runners abandoned the Port-A-Potty lines in favor of starting the race on time. Not me. I knew it was pointless to even try to run in my condition. Others felt the same way. It was a good ten minutes before my turn came and I was able to begin the race.
And guess what? The moment my $39.99 shoes hit the pavement my nerves left me. I simply ran. I ran like everyone else. The crowd had thinned out by now, and I was actually able to pass a lot of runners. A mental advantage of starting at the back of the pack: to pass instead of being passed.
I felt pretty good.
In fact, I felt great. And I felt smug as I managed to get ahead of some of the Gold’s Gym employees.
The downhill part of the course was fast and fun. And it was true what they say about race day adrenaline: it kicked in! I loved every step of the first ten miles. My legs were performing a graceful, rhythmic dance. I was light and free. And the time went by so quickly. I could tell I was running a lot faster than I’d ever run before (which, let’s face it, isn’t really very fast). I almost felt like a real runner.
And then I reached the mouth of the canyon. The trail flattened out. Only three miles left, I told myself. But wait a minute. What was happening? As I ran, I began to feel like my body was performing a totally different act from what it had been doing during the previous miles. I was no longer being propelled downward, aided by some force other than my own. They ballet was over. My legs began to feel like they were cast in stone. The sun was up now, and the heat of the August day was setting in. I plodded along. The course seemed endless. They were running us through a residential area in a roundabout way to the finish line. I hadn’t familiarized myself with the exact route before race day and I now recognized that as a mistake. To know exactly what I had left to run past would have been a real mental asset.
And I should have worn a watch. I hadn’t worn one because I hadn’t wanted to put myself under any pressure to run this thing in a specific amount of time. I don’t like pressure, and I had fooled myself into thinking that if I didn’t wear a watch, I’d treat this race like any other run down the canyon, relaxed and enjoying the beauty of nature around me.
“I’ll probably be the last one to finish,” I had told friends and family. I was not setting myself up for failure. “They’ll probably ask me to pick up the cones on my way in,” I joked. But deep down inside I had a goal of finishing the race in under two hours, and as I ran, the competitive nature that really does exist within me (but is usually reserved for things like board games) had begun to emerge. Now I wondered how I was going to reach my goal, especially since I had spent the first ten minutes in the bathroom line. I wished I had worn a watch.
And then, with about one mile to go, there was Kent on the side of the road. He had already finished the race and had decided to backtrack and lend me moral support on my way to the finish line. He jumped in and ran alongside me. Only at this point, he really could have walked alongside me. I was hot. My legs ached. I was barely moving.
“You’re doing great!” he humored me. “Come on, you’re almost there. Push it!” Had I had the strength to turn my head, I would have glared at him.
“I am pushing it,” I panted. I really did appreciate his support, but man, I was almost dead! Other than childbirth (we always have to work that one in, don’t we, ladies?), this was the most physically grueling thing I’d ever been through.
“There it is,” I heard Kent say. I looked up and beheld a glorious sight. It was the finish line. One more guy comment from Kent:
“If you sprint, you’ll be able to beat that old man up ahead of you.”
“I am sprinting,” I informed him as he exited the racecourse.
I felt a smile begin to creep over my face. I kept my head up, my eyes on the banner strung above the finish line. The official clock read 1 hour 57 minutes. Yes! I was going to make it.
“And once you cross that finish line,” I told myself, “You’ll never have to run another step again if you don’t want to.” My foot hit the line and I all but came to a complete stop. I had reached my limit. But what a feeling! Pure joy.
I was proud of myself. Kent was proud of me. And later in the morning (was it really still morning?) when we returned home and I stuck my race bib to the fridge with a magnet, my kids were proud of me.
I hobbled around on sore legs for three or four days, and the bib stayed on the front of the fridge for three or four months. Every time I looked for something to eat, as I continued the quest for a size six body, I was reminded of my accomplishment. No, I haven’t yet made it back down to my former size. The increased mileage did help me to lose a few pounds, but not enough to fit into that old pair of jeans that hangs in the back of my closet.
And I’m still not sure I’m a real runner, but I am pretty sure I could pass myself off as one.
One day recently, as I moved the bib from the front to the side of the refrigerator, I noticed a typo. Instead of Provo River Trail Half Marathon, the text read Provo River Trial Half Marathon.
A trial run?
Oh well. I guess I’ll have to do it again.
So it's seven years later. I went on to run two full marathons after that. I did eventually make it back down to my former size, but I'm currently working on getting back up to where I was!