Monday, March 12, 2012

How school almost made me hate running but then taught me to appreciate it

To me, gym class always seemed like punishment. I was short, overweight and painfully shy, so this loud, highly social class was always a struggle for me. If choosing teams in gym class were the litmus test for popularity, I was consistently the least popular kid in school--even though my volleyball serve was killer. None of that really bothered me, though. The only thing I was really, truly frightened of was the dreaded mile run.

In middle school, the "mile" was us running 9 and a half times around our school yard, where the gym teacher would heckle us as we plodded along, telling us that he sees a 60-year-old man out there every day running the mile, and we couldn't catch up to him at the pace we were going. That meant little to me then, because as an overweight 12-year-old, I could barely shlog a lap, much less run it. ("Shlog" is a word I will use frequently.)

I turned 27 earlier this month, and if I stretch my spine and keep really good posture, the top of my head can hit the 5'3" mark. I know for sure when I was 14 years old, I wasn't quite up to my full height potential, but was already pushing 150 pounds, and still couldn't run half a mile without stopping.

I went to one of the city's top high schools where the academics were rigorous, and gym class was no exception--I thought they were joking when they said we'd have written exams in every class. Besides the actually tests we had in gym, the teacher was... tough. She was a no-excuses woman who was rumored to be a retired drill sergeant. And she had us out running 4 miles in a single gym period.

If we didn't meet certain goals in one gym period, we'd be out running the next day. If we ran one day, but didn't meet the expectations set for us, we'd be out again the next day. Normally we'd know it was a running day because she would chase us out of the locker rooms and out the front door. Some days, we'd be settled into the gymnasium ready to do ANYTHING but running, and--surprise!--out the door we'd go for a 3-mile time trial. We were just out there, sprinting laps or trying to race the gym teacher around the track. I dry-heaved a few times at the end of a run, came close to vomiting more than once. Some kids did throw up on the track.

Running became punishment for me, and the idea that some people did this for fun absolutely boggled my mind. I watched the tall, lean cross-country kids glide along the track effortlessly, while I was running (shlogging) mile after mile with terrible form, in cotton T-shirts or sweatshirts and Payless-brand sneakers, with no access to water and a really, really bad attitude following me every quarter-mile.

Eventually all that running did pay off. There were other things going on in my life at the time, but by my third year in high school, I had lost nearly 30 pounds. I stopped skipping laps on the track. I still couldn't finish four miles in a gym period, but I could jog 3 without stopping. And over the summer, every once in a while once or twice a month, I'd even go out for a short fun run in the park near my house.

The seed was planted, but it took years to germinate and grow to its full potential. Even now, when anyone comments on my form, how far or fast or whether I should focus on intervals or weight training, I find myself retreating a little because it reminds me of the time when running wasn't fun. But then I get over it. Or put the volume up a little louder on my iPod.

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