Running out of Excuses

I'm no athlete. Instead of playing high school sports, I'd rush home to watch my favorite soaps.  I'd rather float in a pool than swim.  Whenever my best friend takes me power walking on the beach, she brings ankle weights, and I pack a book and a snack. 

For the past year, I was dutifully paying gym fees, but I hardly ever went.  When I did drag myself there, I watched the clock like a school kid longing for recess.  So, when the economy stumbled to its knees and took our savings with it, frugal became the new cool in our family and I happily gave up the gym. No more guilt, hooray!

On the other hand, no more buttoning my jeans, either. As winter melted into spring, shedding my coat meant exposing my thighs. Even a measly twice a week at the gym had kept me from gaining weight and having to buy new pants.  How could I beat back the fat without breaking out my checkbook?

Running outdoors was the obvious solution. I already owned virgin running shoes because they were on sale a year earlier in my favorite shade of green. Visions of the Boston Marathon danced in my head. I would grow muscled and lean and long of breath. 

I started observing our neighborhood runners: a petite woman who pranced like a gazelle in neon leggings, a gangly guy in a fluorescent safety vest who zipped by while I  sheepishly gobbled up a second piece of toast at breakfast, a blonde mom huffing behind a pink jogging stroller. This parade should have motivated me. Instead, I felt intimidated. They were athletes.  I was not. Weeks went by. I busily crafted excuses: It was too cold. It was raining. It was Tuesday.

I began laying out my clothes like I used to as a child: socks tucked into sneakers and placed at the ends of my sweatpants, with a sweatshirt on top of that. All that was missing was me. More weeks went by. 

Finally, after a month of looking at my clothes and heading downstairs for a breakfast stuffed with guilt, I realized that I had to hit the pavement early, before intimidation could cause my thighs to balloon another inch.  That night, I set my alarm for half an hour earlier.

I put on my workout clothes, went straight outside into the crisp morning air, and began to run, thankful that it wasn't quite light.  I'd like to say that it felt great.  I want to report that I ran triumphantly to the Chariots of Fire theme song playing in my head. Instead, all I felt was pain, and all I heard was the sound of my own wheezing as I limped along. After five minutes, I turned around and walked home, defeated.

Two days later I tried it again. (I’d read somewhere that you should only run every other day, a factoid I clung to like the oxygen tank I longed for.) I’d made it to the first streetlight on my first morning. This time, I willed myself to the second one. It was only fifty steps, I reasoned.  Even I could run fifty steps!

From then on, I went running every other morning and added a new streetlight each time. Within four weeks I could run 16 streetlights, out and back. They were 100 feet apart, which meant I was running 3,200 feet! (This heady achievement dimmed when I used the Google calculator to convert this distance to a paltry .6060 miles.) Still, these personal finish lines kept me moving. 

At the twentieth streetlight, I discovered a tiny street—a connector that would allow me to run an actual loop. It was a daunting 1.34 miles, but now I had a real goal. I'm not sure what happened. But, somewhere between weeks seven and eight, something changed: I forgot about the streetlights and ran the whole loop simply because I didn't want to turn around. I imagine it was like that rush of adrenalin that pushes mountain climbers to the summit of Everest. There weren't any prayer flags or Sherpas, but I had truly tested my endurance—and succeeded. The best part? There are plenty more streetlights out there for me to conquer, one at a time.

Published in Shape Magazine, April 2010
HOLLY ROBINSON is the author of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir.