Now that I’ve finally run my first 5K, I have to say that I have a serious bone to pick with those couch-to-5K programs everyone gets so jazzed about. I just don’t think that they’re really all that great at getting you actually ready for an actual race.
Fortunately, I did not use a C25K to prepare for this particular race.
Now, maybe the whole C25K thing has worked out great for you in the past. Maybe it set you on the path to being a better runner, a better person, a better friend to small animals.
We are not here to talk about you.
In fact, on reflection, you might want to prepare yourself for a whole lot of unnecessary extrapolating from the personal to the universal. Because that is apparently how I roll. Up in here. Y’all.
So I imagine those C25Ks work just fine if you’re a lapsed runner, or a runner who just needs a tuneup, or a runner who hasn’t run with any specific goal in mind for a while.
If you’re a runner, basically. I’d be prepared to believe that they work for actual runners. Or a generally fit person, I guess. A person who does things. Outside. With an elevated heart rate. For fun.
But they specifically gear themselves towards couch potatoes, which in practice has tended to mean people like me, or people like the person I was not that long ago: Somebody who has never actually run.
And a person like that? I’m sorry, but that person generally needs a bit more time, preparation, and quite possibly therapy before they are ready for a race.
If you’re not me, and if you’re significantly less mentally ill than I am, less consumed by other people’s imagined opinions of you, not even a little bit driven by self centered fear, and you don’t spend time tending to raging bonfires of resentments at perfect strangers at the drop of a hat, a C25K might be just the thing. If you’re naturally non-competitive and easy-going, if you’re the sort of person who can lose at Monopoly and not want to knock the table over in a fit of frustration and rage, if you’re the type of weirdo who can fall down and then laugh at yourself. And mean it.
If you are that person, then I guess I salute you. But I also secretly resent you.
Me, I need to be at least moderately decent at a thing before I will try it out in public. And believe me, when it comes to running I am setting the bar here very, very low. This was no time for my usual “I need to be awesome at this before I will let you watch me doing it.” I wanted to finish without wanting to die, for instance. I felt I should be able to complete the course without wanting to physically assault any bystanders for coming across as even a little bit condescending when they cheered for the slow fat girl bringing up the rear. I hoped to cross the finish line before the last water station had been packed up into the back of some real runner’s SUV.
Those were my goals.
Last fall, I registered for a 5K based on the false premises of a couch-to-5K training plan. The run was scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, but I knew well before the last day of October rolled around that I wasn’t going to be ready. Physically, mentally, spiritually. I’d been doing the training, but I was still getting shin splints and having trouble running more than two miles at a pop. And I was terrified by the idea of running in public. So when I was presented with the chance to go visit family for the holiday instead, I jumped. I bailed on the run without a second thought and concentrated on training through the winter instead.
Maybe I will just not be a racer, I thought. Maybe I will just run in private, alone, at dusk.
And that’s basically what I did. For months.
Until yesterday, when I ran in a real, live 5K in Hyannis, among people who knew me from real life.
A friend of mine, someone who (it should go without saying) is far more well adjusted than I am, suggested we run this race together. Her son-in-law works for the very worthy organization putting it on, and it’s one I like to support when I get the chance, so I said yes without really thinking it through. Bernadette said she’d be running with her grandchild in a stroller so surely I would be leaving her in the dust.
Oh, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
I can always drop out later, I whispered as I filled out the online registration form. It’s worked for me before.
But as the winter turned to spring, I continued to surprise myself by running consistently, and by consistently running faster to boot. Amazing. I began to feel like I didn’t actually suck. As much. Perhaps.
From November on, I’d faithfully stuck to a less race-oriented training plan, one designed to help you lose weight and gain speed. I lost fifty pounds. I found myself enjoying four mile runs like they were nothing, and looking forward to interval training days like they were a special treat.
Race day came. I didn’t back out.
It was a bit of a cool morning that day, with more than a threat of rain, so the crowds were minimal. Spectators were clearly going to be mercifully thin on the ground. Bernadette’s husband was going to be cheering us on at the finish line, but this was categorically Okay With Me, since Richard is a friend and I like him. I did not tell him he was an exception to a rule, but that’s sort of implied when you are my friend. In all kinds of ways.
I had discussed my misgivings about sideline cheering from strangers with my good friend Cindy, who is also a runner with a vaguely nontraditional body type and speed (though less so than me — she regularly manages to blend in with the norms and even passes as a real runner when she wants to), and she agreed that she would find some meaningful way to cheer me on that would be more seemly and appropriate to my delicate sensibilities.
I continue to have better friends than I deserve.
I spent some time in the days leading up to the race fantasizing about seeing her run the race a few yards ahead of me and gently poking any insincerely enthusiastic spectators in the side with a stick. A rounded stick, not a pointed one. I’m not some kind of animal.
The route itself was, of course, very flat and non-threatening. Welcoming, even.
Even better for a nostalgia addict like me, it wound past all of these Places Of Importance From My Past. So I was able, for the first mile, at least, to imagine my mom’s old friend Ruth Rusher cheering me on from her Ocean Street house, her crotchety old husband silently playing Go in the bay window overlooking the ferry docks. I was able to jog sedately past the Hy-Line office where Mom — a part-time tour guide during the summer months in the 70s — would go to pick up her paycheck, then treat us all to a special lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I thought nostalgically about deep fried chicken as I trundled ponderously on by.
Then it was on past my old friend Jay’s house. I used to visit him after work sometimes and watch him edit photos on his very expensive and elaborate computer equipment, inside his deeply crappy little apartment, and think about our priorities in life. Our choices. Jay died a couple of years ago. I think about him all the time.
I thought about him yesterday as I bounced sedately past the tumble-down boarding house where he used to live. He would have been profoundly skeptical about this whole running project of mine, but he would have kept these reservations to himself, in the spirit of friendship. Mostly.
Then it was on past the JFK Memorial Park, the one overlooking Hyannis Harbor, where I once posed for a picture with the young couple from Tehran that my family sponsored during some late-70’s burst of international goodwill. I sometimes wonder what happened to them, in the years that flew by since we all stood smiling arm in arm, my orange plaid pants flaring brilliantly in the summer sun.
I wondered vaguely what their names had been as I trotted on down the road. Weren’t they medical students? Did they end up in the States? Did they remember us at all?
After this, alas, the nostalgia parade slowly tapered off. My family never went to the beach that marked the end of the road, not as far as I know. But the smell of the fog off the ocean, mingled with the hot scent of warming asphalt and salt-steamed sand made me think about the northside beaches my friend Tina used to work at during the summers we were teenagers. I’d ride my bike with great exertion from my home on the south side (downhill from the north), and we’d sit at the entrance to some tiny, hot parking lot or another and inform a never-ending procession of tourists in cars that the beach lot was full. The beach lots, you should know, are always full.
She got paid very good money to do this. And she got a seriously enviable tan.
The race went on. I passed a few folks who had started out too strong. Their labored panting provoked entirely unwelcome pangs of sympathy in me. One or two of them rallied when they saw the slowpoke who was overtaking them, and they’d sprint optimistically ahead for a few dozen yards before subsiding again to the shoulder, hands on hips, heads bent, chests heaving. I’d overtake them again, and move on.
We wound slowly past well tended seaside cottages and their rambly little gardens, then turned left onto the road where we rejoined the walkers from the shortcut that had peeled them off from the main route a mile or so back. Round about Jay’s house, I think, was where we’d last seen them. I wasn’t really sure.
I passed more people. Middle of the pack walkers, families, groups of friends. Happy people with well balanced lives. None of them, apparently, thinking a single thought about me. Or my running speed. Weird.
I wondered what it would be like to be one of them.
I rounded the curve to the home stretch and picked up my stride. The finish line was within sight, so I hardly even minded seeing all of the fitter runners walking slowly past in the opposite direction, towels around their necks, swigging water from bottles with sponsor logos on them. I found I didn’t even mind it when they clapped and cheered for us, my little pack of grimly determined back-of-the-packers who had suddenly, inexplicably bonded together over the last mile or so. By tacit agreement, we all maintained our relative positions as we neared the finish line. I think we’d all had our struggles with the won’t-be-passed-by-fatties folks back there, and the last thing we wanted to do was surge haughtily past a fellow-sufferer in the final stretch.
This was how I felt about it, at least.
So I maintained my pace, waved and smiled to the cheerleaders, who were not condescending at all but were actually friendly and happy and sincere. It was weird. I… might have been wrong. About them, and about their opinions of runners like me. I will admit the possibility.
Richard, the exempted friend, was the loudest one cheering at the finish line. Bernadette picked up her camera and snapped some shots of me crossing the finish line. I have no idea how she got the shutter speed fast enough to capture anything more recognizable than a speeding blur of muscle and sinew, but I guess I can ask her later.
My other friend, Cindy — the one who I’d hoped would run interference for me with a softly rounded stick — texted me just as I crossed the finish line. Turns out she had chosen to eat a big, greasy breakfast in a window booth of a small roadside diner on the final stretch of the race. When she saw me coming, she says she briefly considered standing up and shouting something, but thought better of it, and took another bite of her donut. Then she picked up her phone to text me that she was thinking very warm thoughts about me. And about bacon. But mostly about me.
I got her text about five minutes later, after I’d gotten my water and had my picture taken and enjoyed the adulation of a handful of random strangers, none of whom irked me in the least. I even joined in with the clapping and cheering myself, hooting and whooping for the rest of the runners and walkers who came in after me, their smiles broad, their excitement undimmed.
In fact, it’s probably time to just come clean and admit that I had a freaking blast. I ran at a slower pace than you’re probably even guessing right now, a pace that is technically referred to as Slow As Heck, but I still managed to beat my goal time by several minutes. Which means that my average pace was a full minute per mile faster than I thought it’d be. Just about every other runner in the world would have surged right on past me — and did — but I beat my own expectations of myself, and not by a little bit.
And apparently that’s sort of what this running thing is actually all about.
I… might have been wrong. About it all. About everything. What? Stranger things have happened.
Like the way my name has magically appeared on the registration form for another 5K, one month from now.
How the hell did that happen?