Less than two years ago, my husband gave me one of his old bikes and we joined a group of beginner cyclists for a one-hour
outing. The cycle started with a small hill. I completely failed to get up it. I broke down mid-hill and threw a tantrum that lasted several hours. I was upset with my husband (who else do I have to blame for life’s miseries?) because I felt he had set me up for failure. The bike I was using was not a nice road bike like everyone else’s. It probably wasn’t even the right size for me. How was I expected to do hills anyway? And we should have started by going off on our own until I had more confidence and strength to join others.
A month later, my husband took me to a beautiful rural area several kilometers away from our house. I cycled there on my brand new, properly fitting road bike. For reasons known only to him, we ended up on some extremely steep (for me) hills. I threw another tantrum. I got off the bike and walked up the steepest hills. My legs were not strong enough to pedal up. It just wasn’t happening. And again, I was angry with my husband for setting me up for failure by taking me to the steepest hills in the country, or so I believed at the time.
Three months later I cycled with my husband from London to Paris in three days.
One year after that I cycled solo 5630 km from Lisbon, Portugal to Tallinn, Estonia.
If not for that whole experience, I would have given up on running by now.
Running has been driving me crazy for about five years. I’ve only dabbled in it until recently, the treadmill being my main running companion. My goal had always been to just do it. Speed and distance were rarely important to me. As long as I ran for about 30 minutes I figured I deserved a good pat on the back.
It was only when I began realizing how much I sucked at running that I decided I needed to challenge myself to become better at it.
I was slow. I was – and still am – REALLY slow as a runner. I’m actually really slow at everything I do. The first time I noticed was while I was walking on a street in Moscow at a pretty normal pace (for me). A gorgeous 20-something-year-old woman in stiletto heels whizzed by and quickly disappeared into the distance. At the gym, I’m always the last woman undressed after class, the last woman out of the shower, and the last woman dressed. I’m always the first one out of the gym, but only because I don’t sit in front of a mirror for another half hour putting on makeup. My husband tells me I’m very slow getting ready for bed. There’s a routine involved in that, though! He doesn’t do any of it! It’s not a fair comparison.
I wasn’t always slow. Between grades 2 and 5, Eric Pullins and me were the fastest two kids in class. No one could beat the two of us. Sometimes I would beat him and others he would beat me. But those days are when my running glories ended.
In my head, I always see myself running like Sylvester Stalone did in Rocky in that scene when he’s running on the streets of Philadelphia and ends up victoriously running up a big series of steps. That’s how awesome I think I look.
In reality, my run is more of a shuffle. It’s taken me ages to get my gait to widen even a little bit. Whatever muscle it is that some runners use to take gazelle-like leaps and bounds while they run, I either don’t have it or it is sufficiently hidden that I haven’t yet found it.
I started working on running longer distances at a faster pace in the past few months. I finally managed to run a half marathon last April. That was a huge accomplishment for me. I never thought I could run that far, regardless of speed. I’ve been regularly running in the local Parkrun, a weekly 5 km race organized all over Britain. My goal has been to improve my time. It has taken me awhile to get there, but I’ve now reached a stage where I run that race 10 – 15 seconds faster each time I do it.
I joined a running club as well. The great thing about that is that I’ve been able to run with other people who run at my pace. And as I improve, I’m able to graduate to other groups. I’ve moved up three groups since I started running with them three months ago. I can barely keep up with the group I’m with now. But I’m working hard. There are LOTS of groups faster than this one. But I don’t need to focus on that while I’m running. All I need to do is to keep up with the group I’m with.
I’ve been seeing some improvements in my running. My gait is a teeny bit better. My pace is a little bit faster. My 5 km time is improving. My legs are feeling a little bit stronger and they don’t hurt as much after a hard run. I’ve started to learn how to build up and maintain a pace for longer runs. I’ve learned how to save a last, extra bit of energy for a final sprint. I’m actually starting to enjoy running.
Until this morning, that is.
I ran a 10 km race last Saturday. I loved it. I did it exactly the way I felt I should. I kept my pace at a level I could sustain and pushed a little bit harder over the last kilometer. I was happy with my time, given that the first 5 km of the course were very hilly.
And then this morning the official results came out and I saw how I ranked among the full group of runners. I was nowhere near the half mark. I was somewhere in the middle of the last half of runners. Most of the runners who joined this particular race belonged to running clubs. So many of the female runners who are my age had significantly better paces than I did. How can ANYONE run that fast? is all I could think. I ran that race at the highest heart rate that is healthy for me. I know because I now use technology to try to monitor my development as a runner. I was thinking that I was experiencing significant progress. Then bam! I realize that in the grand scale of things, I’m still just a lousy middle-aged runner.
This is where my greatest challenge as a runner lies. I need to keep my focus on improving myself compared to my past self. I can’t compare myself, yet, to far better runners.
It’s that lousy competitive part of me that pushes me on, though. I need to be able to run as well as that 65-year-old woman who recommended the running club to me in the first place. Man is she fast! I need to be able to beat that little eight-year-old girl that always passes me in the weekly 5 km race. And then there’s Little Man in My Head who keeps telling me that I’m almost ready to represent Egypt at the next Olympics. Being 45-years-old with no previous running experience is irrelevant, he keeps trying to convince me.
I’m trying to find the balance and it’s a struggle. I need to challenge myself. I need to motivate myself. I need to focus on being better than my last-week-self. I need to keep older woman and little girl in my head as people to strive to be like when I grow up as a runner. But I can’t let it demotivate me when they whiz by me now. And I can’t be demotivated when the majority of runners in a 10km race manage to beat me.
Less than two years ago I couldn’t cycle up a hill. This year I cycled through the Pyrenees and the Alps. I didn’t do it fast, mind you. But I did it.
All I need to do is to keep at it. Improvement might be slow, but it’s happening.
In the meantime, I need to focus on enjoying the company of all those amazing runners who have the determination it takes to go out in every kind of weather to improve. I need to draw from their strength to feed my own.
This whole blog post is written for the sole purpose of motivating myself to get off my butt into the cold rain this evening and do the weekly run with my running club.