When my husband told me that the Pittsburgh plan was on, that he’d gotten the transfer he requested, my first question was “Will we still be here for the race?” We checked our calendars, and I was relieved that we would be.
Relocating involves some looking back as well as plenty of looking forward. Most of the changes I’ve undergone here in Houston are sort of nebulous and hard to explain, but at least one is clear and simple. I exercize now – habitually, regularly, all of that – and this was not at all part of my lifestyle 4 years ago. I started because my husband and I commute together, and he would go to the gym after work. Given the option of staring at the computer for a 10th hour (our work-days are 9 hours long) and “working out,” the choice was clear, even to me, the sort of person who, in Philly, “exercized” occasionally by walking the five miles home from the office drinking from a bottle of cranberry juice mixed with vodka. Road sodas, we called them.
At the gym, I started very slow, walking on the treadmill or riding the elliptical, just whiling away the time. Within a year, I’d gotten bored and made a point to at least work up a good sweat, if only to justify my shower afterwards. The heat here in Houston makes one feel perpetually grimy, and showering twice a day is a pleasant indulgence.
Last year, for our anniversary, the husband signed us up to climb Mount St. Helens. I had no particular interest in scaling peaks (still don’t, actually), but once I agreed to it, I was motivated to build up some endurance to reduce the likelihood of being carried down the mountain on a stretcher or whatever. To my surprise, I was among the faster hikers in our guided group, and I beat my husband to the top by a good 10 or 15 minutes. I swear I didn’t abandon him. The route was single-file up early-summer snow-pack, and anyway, that’s another story.
(That’s me waving good-bye on my way to the top.)
As corny as it sounds, this experience altered my self-perception. I was more physically capable than I imagined. As a young kid, I liked running and baseball and other athletics, though I was not very coordinated or strong or competitive. When I passed through puberty, my buxom frame seemed an impediment, and the seeming became reality in that way it does with such things. It was a full decade before I figured out how to work around it: doubling up on bras helps a lot. Getting over the ick factor of exerting oneself helps even more. When buying gear for Mount St. Helens, I found a sports-bra that worked alone (not that it was truly necessary for hiking, but whatever, it was part of the splurge), and equipped with this support and some newfound confidence, I took up running.
I built up my endurance very gradually, taking it one “run” at a time, happy with slight improvements, accepting of my less-than-stellar days. Sometimes the treadmill was a slog and sometimes it was enjoyable, and I soon realized that the unpleasant runs made the pleasant runs possible. Last summer I started running outside, and I enjoyed the balmy Houston mornings that left me dripping profusely (like showering from the inside out). I started writing down the distance and time for each run, so that I would know whether I was pushing myself as hard as I did the previous week. In January, we signed up for the Bayou City Classic 10K, and having this on the horizon kept me committed. I didn’t follow a formal training plan, but I read a lot of advice about preparing for a race, and I started to get excited. I was motivated to run even in the cold Philly winter when we were there to see family, and I kept my routine in Houston: at least two shorter, faster runs on the treadmill during the week, and one longer one on the weekend around our neighborhood.
Last week I scaled back, as is recommended so that the legs will be well rested. I followed another rule that made good sense: Do nothing new on race day. This meant using my ready-to-be-retired sneakers (which have served me well so far) and wearing my usual get-up, even though it looks more like pajamas than running gear. I also ate a late dinner so I could run on an empty stomach without feeling too weak. (For longer distances I realize I’ll have to balance my sensitive digestive system with proper fueling, but I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.)
It worked. I had no unnecessary distractions in the way of chafing attire or a troubled tummy when we joined the crowd downtown. I thought running in a pack would be disturbing, but this was a relatively small race (3,000 or so) and I was absolutely euphoric trotting along for the first mile surrounded by people, listening to the thumps of so many feet, everyone moving along together. I’m so accustomed to running alone.
(Photo from the Bayou City Classic Facebook page.)
It started to thin out a little, and by mile three I’d found my mark: a woman roughly my age, a few paces ahead, in a black t-back tank and black capri pants. I was briefly distracted by the faster runners coming back up Memorial Drive on the other side. Some of us clapped for them. I watched the first dozen or so of these elite athletes, and we clapped again for the woman who would be the first female finisher, but then I realized I’d slowed. I found my mark again and sped up to keep the gap between us short.
There was so much to look at and I was so thrilled to be there that I didn’t tire until well after we rounded the halfway point. I lost my mark again but didn’t mind. I planned to take it easy until the last couple of miles so that I could finish strong. When the weariness started to be demoralizing, I used one last bit of advice I’d read somewhere: Find your mantra. It was simple (warning, more corniness here): “Light feet. Strong legs.” Instead of feeling more leaden, my lower half felt more powerful; the brain is the engine, the propulsion.
I picked up my pace and found my mark again. Passing the 8K sign, knowing there was not much farther to go, I overtook her. A while later, she overtook me, but as we rounded the bend back into downtown, I passed her easily and pounded along. I sprinted through the finish chute, remembering how I sprinted at the end of the 5K I ran at age 8 (another story), and immediately saw my husband, who was hyperventilating a bit. He has the sporting spirit that pushes him up against his limits. He measures his performance against those around him, whereas I’m always measuring my enjoyment against my desire to perform well. (I don’t like pain. It hurts.)
(Photo from the Bayou City Classic Facebook page.)
After he calmed down, he told me I’d crossed the finish line just after 1-hour ticked past. I had been concentrating on my forward movement, so I didn’t even see the clock there. It’s a good thing he was paying attention because I’d put my chip on wrong, so I have no official time. Still, 1 hour is not bad.
One of my goals for the transition to Pittsburgh is to keep running. It’s challenging and fun, both as a solitary pastime and a public activity. It surely would have improved my physical and emotional health during high school and college, but better late than never. And Pittsburgh has a snowy winter and steep hills, so there will be new challenges to face.
Anyway, it seems appropriate to have done my first (or second, technically, I guess) road race in the city where I learned to love running as an adult. It’s a sort of good-bye and thank you to Houston for its flat terrain and mild winters, and for being so far removed from everything I thought I knew about myself that I’ve been free to explore this crazy “fitness” stuff. I’m leaving much stronger than I arrived.