For the first 31 years of my life, I hated running. I really hated running. The notion that anyone would run on their own for recreation seemed absurd. In fact, I remember looking at the people jogging around our neighborhood and thinking that they had to be crazy. Who does that for fun? Certainly not me.
Well, now I am one of those crazy people. A few weeks ago I completed my first marathonâ€”26.2 miles up and down the steep hills of San Francisco.
How did that happen?
It all started a little over a year ago — July 18, 2009, to be exact — when I decided it was time to start exercising regularly. I wanted to lose a few pounds (okay, maybe more than a few) so I could keep up with my two young children and generally enjoy the numerous benefits of a healthier lifestyle.
So that night I grabbed my iPod, hopped on the treadmill in our bedroom and started walking at a leisurely pace. Ten minutes and half a mile later, I had to stop. I was sweaty, tired and seemingly close to death. I could not go any further.
It wasn’t the greatest of starts, but I decided to come back and do it again the next night. I survived that second night too, and before I knew it, I began to pick up a little bit of speed. Eventually, it stopped feeling like each step might be my last.
When the treadmill broke, I decided to invest in a membership at the Texas A&M Rec Center. That was fantasticâ€¦until 40,000 students came back into town at the beginning of the fall semester and packed the gym wall to wall. As the semester progressed, it became harder and harder to find an open treadmill or exercise bike. Frustrated and tired of waiting around, I decided to do the unthinkable—run outdoors.
I knew I was going to hate it. Those people in my neighborhood always looked miserable. There was no air conditioning outdoors. No television to watch. No towel or water fountain handy when I needed a break. I mean, really, this is Texas. We do everything indoors if we have a choice.
Once I ran outside, though, something unexpected happened. Not only did I survive my first jogging excursion, I enjoyed it. It felt I was actually doing something instead of only mindlessly moving my legs to keep up with the treadmill. It gave me the chance to explore campus and see parts of Aggieland that I hadn’t seen since my days as an undergrad. Most importantly, it gave me an hour to think clearly without interruptions from phone calls, e-mail or other people. Running outdoors wasn’t tiring. It was relaxing. It was invigorating. I LIKED it. Maybe all those joggers weren’t crazy after all.
“When I got on that treadmill last summer, I didn’t want to finish a marathon. I just wanted to do more than I done the day before. It’s amazing how far that can take you.”
Throughout that fall, I ran in a number of 5Ks and smaller races here on campus. At the end of the year, I decided I was ready to take things to a new level and I signed up for the Austin Half-Marathon in February. I had a blast doing it, so I ran in two more half-marathons that spring. It was official: I was no longer a couch potato. I was a runner.
As the summer began, I faced the prospect of several hot months without a race to train for. I wasn’t excited about waiting until October for my next half-marathon in San Antonio and I was worried that I’d lose motivation as the temperature skyrocketed. I needed something to keep me going. Something big.
After a few weeks of careful contemplation and a sudden fit of insane overconfidence, I signed up for the San Francisco Marathon. Up until that point, the farthest I had run was about 18 miles (and all of that on the flat roads of Texas). I honestly didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it, but I had my goal for the summer — figure out some way to survive 26.2 miles of those famously steep hills by the bay.
As the weeks of training went by, it wasn’t always easy or fun. Some days it was downright miserable. Minor pains began to linger on and pile up, the temperature continued to climb and the question of whether I could actually run that far increasingly weighed on my mind.
In running, there’s something called “the wall” — the point at which your body screams for you stop and the only thing that keeps you going is sheer willpower. It’s the point where runners succeed or fail, where the men are separated from the boys, so to speak. It’s commonly said that most people hit their wall at around the 20-mile mark — a distance that I had yet to achieve. I was terrified of reaching my wall and not being able to get past it.
Finally, on July 25, 2010, the big day arrived. My wife joined me in San Francisco (she ran in the half-marathon, a first for her as well) and we ran the first seven miles of the course together. As the race wound through Fisherman’s Wharf, out over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, through Golden Gate Park and then the narrow, steep streets of San Francisco, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the beauty of the city. Soon, the pressure of finishing dissipated as I stopped stressing out and instead took the time to appreciate my surroundings.
By the time I reached mile 20, I wasn’t worried about hitting the wall any more. I was determined to make it, even if it meant crawling those last six miles on hands and knees. It didn’t come to that, though, because with each step, I felt more and more sure of crossing the finish line.
As I rounded the last turn and ran down the Embarcadero towards the finish line, one of the college-aged girls that had been running with me for the last few miles turned to me and said, “You know, old man, you’re awesome.”
And you know what? She was right (although perhaps not about the “old man” part). For that day at least, I was awesome. Not because I finished the race. Not because I had finished all those other races in the past year or because of the 1,239 miles of training I had done in twelve months.
I was awesome because I did something that I didn’t know I could do. For one brief moment, I surpassed my own expectations and discovered that my limit wasn’t where I thought it was. I still have room to grow as a person and achieve new goals, as long as I’m willing to put in the work. And that is truly awesome.