Five Years, One Hill

[I wrote this a few days before running the Wasatch Back; before I write about that experience, I thought I would share this first. Warning: It is LONG.]

In a couple of days I will run a long-distance relay race with a team of co-workers. This is something I've never done before. It's something that will test my limits, physically and mentally… and something that I’m not sure I’m prepared for.

Don't get me wrong; I have trained hard. But running does not come easily or naturally to me. I'm acutely aware that there are a ton of people who will power through this thing and make it look easy… and the reality is that I’ve had to work 10 times harder just to get to a point where I feel like I can perform without passing out or having a nervous breakdown. I desperately want to do my part without dissolving into a spandex-clad puddle of goo, and in recent weeks my fear had nearly convinced me that I’m in waaaay over my head with this one.

And that’s when I had a full-circle moment: One that unexpectedly takes you by the shoulders and turns you around so that you can see how far you've come… and then turns you back around so that you can continue forward.

The circle begins five years ago, when the bottom fell out of my life and I found myself a single mother living in what appeared to be a God-forsaken part of Utah. It was a pretty big transition, during which I had become significantly overweight and sedentary. I hated the number I saw on the bathroom scale... but, ultimately, I knew that working through my internal issues was more important than my external appearance. (Besides, you have no idea how much easier it is to hit rock bottom when you're clutching Twinkies in both hands... they really soften the blow.)

At the time I worked with a cute girl named Shari, who was smart and funny and sported a trim figure. It was clear that she was an athlete and, as we became friends, I learned that she was a runner. We had more than one conversation that went something like this:

"So, how many days a week do you run?" I would ask.

"Four or five times a week," Shari would say.

"Seriously? Well, how far do you run?"

"Oh, four or five miles... sometimes six miles if I give myself enough time."

"Wow," I would reply through a mouthful of Oreos.

"You should run with me sometime! You could totally do it," Shari would say.

At this point in the conversation, I would always wonder what part of my body she was looking at that would lead her to believe I could run a distance of any length. In hindsight I think it was my ankles—faint indicators that I was slender and athletic in a past life—that ultimately betrayed me.

"Shari, I would never be able to run that much or that often,” I’d reply, shaking my head. “And by the way, you're crazy!" And I really thought she was crazy to think such a thing. After all, I knew my limits.

Fast forward around the circle a few years. I remarried, changed jobs, learned big lessons about myself, and essentially pulled my life back together... which meant I was in a much better frame of mind to do something about my body. I joined Weight Watchers, started exercising and lost 25 pounds. My new job was further away from home, so I needed a more efficient, convenient form of exercise. Until then I had avoided running; just the thought made my knees ache (remember, I'm not a runner). But one day, exhausted by the mere thought of packing my gear for the gym, I hopped on my treadmill. I walked for a while, then ran for five minutes without stopping—which was all I could handle.

Days turned into weeks, then into months. I went from running five minutes to running 35 minutes on the treadmill. I went from running inside to running outside. (Hoo boy, what a rude awakening that was! My knees still haven't forgiven me.) I went from "not-a-morning-person" to "not-a-morning-person-but-I-will- heave-myself-out-of-bed-at-5:30 a.m.-to-run-person." I dropped 12 more pounds in 10 weeks.

During this time I became close friends with some girls who entered races for the fun of it... 10Ks, extended relays and even marathons. I was mystified… running for fun? I. Did. Not. Get. It. Sure I was running now, but make no mistake: I was only hauling my butt through gravity at an accelerated pace to ensure that my pants would still fit me every day. I loved supporting my friends at their race events, but I had no aspirations to become a competitive runner… or even run with a group of other people. After all, I knew my limits—and those limits topped out at three miles all by my lonesome, thank you.

Traverse the circle a bit more; I changed jobs again. (I sound like a flaky employee, don't I? I'm really not.) Now many of my current co-workers are 1. Active, health-conscious men, and 2. Amped about an annual race called the Wasatch Back Relay. Last year I watched as my company’s teams participated in the event and, I had to admit, it seemed like a lot of fun. The camaraderie and team spirit, everyone working toward a single goal—I was enamored by everything except, of course, the running. When the race was over and I heard about their experiences, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I had missed out on something really cool.

When recruiting began for 2009 Wasatch Back participants, the inexplicable happened: I impulsively wrote a check for my entry fee, walked to our race coordinator’s office and handed it to him. "Hurry and cash it before I change my mind," I said, and bolted.

Later I found myself in my car, shaking my head and mumbling: "Geez. What have I done?"

In January I asked myself that question several times; as the months passed, I asked it several hundred times. What had I done, exactly? Had I set a goal I couldn’t accomplish? Had I fallen prey to the endorphin-infused hype generated by these bona-fide runners who claimed to be my friends? I mean honestly, what kind of friend would encourage you to do something you clearly aren’t equipped to do? STUPID PEER PRESSURE. Didn’t I learn anything from those after-school specials???

This is the hullabaloo happening in my head one morning in May, as I’m running up a fairly unpleasant hill near my home. (FYI, hills and heat are killers for us non-runners.) As I was giving myself yet another pep talk, I saw someone crest the top of the hill and begin their descent. As the gap closed between us I looked… and I looked again… and I couldn’t believe who was running toward me.

“Shari!” I called out, and crossed the road to greet my old friend.

“Oh my gosh—Kareen, is that you? How are you?” We hugged and laughed and then, with her eyes wide with shock, she blurted: “What in the world are you doing out here?” It was a fair question. After all, based on our past conversations the last place she thought she’d ever run into me was... well, running... and on a hill at 6 a.m. no less!

“I’m training… I’m running the Wasatch Back next month,” I said. It felt good to say that out loud, and I couldn’t help but smile.

“That’s terrific! How often are you running?”

“Usually four or five days a week,” I replied, still smiling.

“Cool! And how far do you run?”

“Normally four or five miles… but I run further on the weekends when I have more time.” I’m still smiling, but now there’s a weird lump in my throat, too.

“That is awesome,” Shari beamed. “I am so proud of you!” We chatted for another minute, promised to run together sometime, and parted ways.

And then it hit me: In five years, I had accomplished something I once thought was not in me to do. On a random hill, I realized that I had become someone I once thought I could never be. And as that amazing, full-circle moment hit me square between the eyes I was still smiling… and crying... and running.

Meeting Shari on that hill gave me an invaluable perspective of myself and my progress—and although I still have butterflies, my full-circle moment has propelled me in these final days before the race. I also know that Shari wasn’t the only person I met up with on the hill that day. The girl I want to be—the girl who believes that she could actually become a bona-fide runner someday—was waiting for me on that hill, too.

That same girl waits outside my house every morning, as I crawl out of bed and tie up my running shoes. At times I admit I still look for an excuse not to go but, since I don’t have any good ones left, I head out the door and meet her. Afterwards I’m always glad I did, for one simple reason: Because the more time I spend with that girl, the more I want to be that girl.

That girl will be at the Wasatch Back, too… on runs four, 16 and 28 to be exact. I don’t want to let my team down, and I especially don’t want to let her down. So with 48 hours to go, I know in my heart that I’m going to give it everything I’ve got... and maybe even a little more than that.

Maybe I don’t know my limits after all.


Tennille said...

I didn't know you were a runner now! That's awesome! And I'm all excited to hear about how it went. Half of my neighborhood runs and if I could only get past the pain it gives my knees, I might join them. For now, I bike at the gym instead.

I'm so proud of you!!

Kareen said...

Silly Tennille... I went to painstaking lengths to point out the fact that I'm NOT REALLY A RUNNER... didn't you read my post?? :) Thank you for your support and kind words... this weekend I will post about the race, it was QUITE an adventure!

Las Vegas Colloquialist said...

OO-Rah Sister of mine! Incredibly inspiring, and thought provoking.

A Dunn Deal said...

lady lou- good story. I'm so proud of you!!