Yesterday, I crossed the finish line of my first-ever 10K race.
To some people, that may sound like no big deal. After all, marathon runners, triathletes, distance runners accomplish far more impressive feats every day. But for me — a petite, klutzy, nonathletic 37-year-old woman, this was a real accomplishment. Until a couple of years ago, I had never run further than the bus stop. And yet, there I was, finishing a race in a very respectable time, accepting a medal, and feeling just like everyone else out there.
How did I get here?
What’s this weird feeling?
It started in the spring of 2015. I’d joined gyms on and off, and tried out different types of exercise from spinning to step classes to kickboxing, but I never stuck with any of them — with the exception of downhill skiing, which I’ve been doing since childhood.
But, that particular ski season was a bit of a bust. I’d injured my calf muscle while hiking on some Mayan ruins on a trip to Mexico that winter, so I hadn’t managed to out to the ski hill much. My body was apparently craving exercise. And as the snow melted and the weather got warmer, I found that, on my daily lunchtime walks, I had an unfamiliar spring in my step. The kind of spring that seemed to want me to move faster… even to run.
I experimented. I ran to the end of the block. Then another block. I dragged out my gym shoes from the back of a closet, and went out on a sunny day and just ran to the park. I couldn’t manage more than sixty seconds or so without getting horribly out of breath and having to stop. But, for the first time in my life, I wanted to learn.
Lapping everyone on the couch
I’d read a lot about this Couch to 5K craze that everyone seemed to be talking about. Originally a program started by the British NHS (I think), this was a coached program developed specifically for non-runners who wanted to get off the couch. I downloaded it and loaded it onto my phone, not really expecting to get to 5K. I didn’t even fathom such thing. I figured it would just help me get to the point where I could run a few blocks without keeling over.
So I began by running intervals. 60 seconds of running, 2 minutes of walking. Repeat. Then 90 seconds of running. Then 2 minutes. I developed an instantaneous response to the voice coach’s command of “start running” or “start walking”.
And, much to my surprise, something happened: It started getting easier. Just like the program said it would. I don’t know why I felt like that would apply to everyone else, but somehow I’d be an exception. I guess I was so used to thinking of myself as someone nonathletic, out of shape, klutzy, untalented.
At first, I would feel self-conscious being outside in exercise clothes running my short little intervals. I was convinced everyone was staring at me. But gradually, I realized that everyone out there is doing the same thing. Fast or slow, in shape or out of shape, we’re all lapping everyone on the couch. I started feeling more confident on my runs, and even worked up the courage to give a casual nod of greeting to other regular runners I encountered on the route. Sure, I was faking it like crazy. But then, who’s to say that they’re not?
I bought some running gear. Nothing much — running, after all, is one of the most democratic sports out there, because you don’t actually need any specialized equipment to do it — but a few things to make my runs easier. One of my first purchases was a waist belt to hold my phone. Then I bought a pair of sports headphones, because I liked running to music, and my regular earbuds would fall out of my ears with every step. I eventually acquired a hat, a few running outfits, and a headband and long-sleeved half-zip for running in colder weather. Later, when I started venturing further from home and wanting to carry more stuff with me, I purchased a run backpack. None of this was strictly necessary, but it did make it more comfortable to run.
I discovered that running is a great way to clear my head and de-stress. And, while I loathe going to the gym with every fibre of my being, I found that I actually enjoy running on a nice day. Much like skiing, running gives me the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and the outdoors. I think I just can’t deal with indoor exercise — the gym smell of body odour, the hamster wheel-esque pointlessness of running on a treadmill, the social pressure of being in step with an aerobics class, or the testosterone fuelled bro attitudes of the guys in the weight room all turn me off. But on a nice day, it just feels natural to want to be outside enjoying the fresh air.
The Couch to 5K program is supposed to take eight weeks to complete. I did it slowly, over the course of about four months. I repeated workouts until I felt ready to progress to the next one. I ran less frequently than the prescribed three times per week, but I was still running. Me. The klutz. Running. Yeah, it was weird.
The 5K threshold, and runner’s high
I ran my first race in the fall of 2015. It was the 5K distance of the Montreal Rock N Roll Marathon. I signed up for it in the spring, with a friend giving me motivation. Then I went away for a month in August, travelling the Silk Road across China and Central Asia. I didn’t run the whole time, and only managed one short training run in the park when I got home.
But the race itself was a revelation. I hadn’t anticipated how much of a rush it would be to run with crowds of people cheering me on. My feet felt lighter than ever, and I sped along, weaving around slower walkers and parents pushing strollers until I’d caught up to the faster racers from the earlier corrals. I managed to run the entire 5K without stopping to walk a single time. And I finished with a time of 32:22 — below the 7-minute per kilometer mark. Not bad for my first attempt!
For the first time, I understood the term “runner’s high”. I was fused with adrenaline after that race. So I kept doing it. I paused for the winter, of course, but started running again as soon as spring came around. I carved out a regular route around the park near my house, which was around 3K. I’d run it in around 20-25 minutes. Gradually I started pushing myself further and running a longer route that included a second nearby park and took 5K to complete. Once or twice a week, I’d don my running gear, pop in my headphones, and go for a run.
I signed up for a charity 5K the next April, which took place on the beautiful Ile Notre Dame in sparking clear weather. It was also freezing cold, and I was absolutely not dressed for the weather. In fact, I was so cold that I ran faster to compensate — and beat my previous time. 31:06 for a 5k is still my all-time record, I think.
Beer running and social running
Then, last spring, I discovered a local beer running group here in Montreal. Every week, we meet up, run approximately 5k to a different pub, and then have a pint together.
It’s more of a social outing than a serious running club. No runs are timed; everyone goes at their own pace. Some run fast. Some, like me, are slower and tend to be at the back of the pack. Others walk, or just join the group at the pub. There’s no pressure.
And of course, we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’ve “earned” those beers after a 5K run. The calorie math doesn’t quite work that way, especially for a petite like myself. But hey, if I’m going to go grab a beer with friends anyway, I might as well get in some exercise first, right?
If I’d known there was beer at the end of it, I might’ve started running a long time ago.
The Beer Runners keep me motivated. Even when I can’t quite muster up the willpower to go for a solo run during the week, I nearly always manage to show up for my Wednesday night beer run. Oh, I’m still a fair-weather runner; I’ll skip it if it’s raining or miserable outside. But it does give me that little extra push to stick with running.
Some of us even signed up for a few fun races together. One example was last April’s Chococourse 5K. The race is sponsored by chocolate makers, and free chocolate is given out at the finish line as well as at each kilometer. The race was run in an icy, slushy blizzard — we skated more than walked, and everyone was soaked through to the bone by the time it was done. Heck, I even ran in ski goggles. But there’s nothing quite like coming off a race course to a nice rich hot chocolate and an exhibit of chocolatiers giving out free tastings.
My first 10K in a heat wave
Which brings me to yesterday’s race.
Montreal’s in the midst of an unseasonably crazy heat wave, and record-high temperatures forced the organizers to cancel the full-length marathon, move the starting time of the half-marathon up earlier, add water and cooling stations, and provide medical attention to over 900 people — most of them for heatstroke. Not exactly ideal conditions to attempt my longest run yet.
But the 10K was going forward as planned. And I’m nothing if not stubborn. So I donned a hat, sunscreen, and my race bib, and made my way to the starting line.
And, heat or no heat, the magic of the crowd kicked in again. I told myself to take it easy, stopped at every water station to take a drink, and paused to walk for short intervals at every kilometer past the halfway point. But even despite that, there must have been a breeze at my back, because I crossed the finish line with an official time of 1:06:23 … a pace of under 7 minutes/km. That’s faster than I’ve managed for nearly any fun run or training run this season! It’s also in the top third for all women who ran the race!
At the finish line, I celebrated with some friends who’d run the half-marathon, and some others who didn’t run at all. We all rocked out to 90s tunes at the free Moist concert in the park, and tried to stay cool and hydrated in the oppressive heat.
But I did it! From couch potato to 10k in a little over two years. I have the medal to prove it.
Okay, so I can barely move today. But it was worth it for that feeling of completing the race. It’s definitely more of a challenge to bounce back from this at 37 than it might’ve been fifteen years ago. But hey, there are people in their 90s out there running. If they can do it, I can do it.
I’ve already signed up for next year. I may be crazy, but I’m far from the only one. At this point, I think I’m hooked.
Running as a petite
One of the things I enjoy most about running is that my height isn’t a disadvantage.
Oh sure, if I wanted to compete on a more intense level, having longer limbs would no doubt be helpful. But running the way I do — socially, non-competitively, for exercise, to clear my head — doesn’t require any specific height or body type. Being smaller means I may take shorter strides, but it also means I have less weight to carry with each step, so it’s kind of a wash. I can keep pace with taller runners of a similar fitness level to me without too much trouble. In fact, one of the fastest runners in my beer running group is a guy who’s almost as short as I am.
It reminds me of the fake Nike ad created for the Mel Gibson movie What Women Want:
You don’t stand in front of a mirror before a run and wonder what the road will think of your outfit. You don’t have to listen to its jokes and pretend they’re funny. It would not be easier to run if you dressed sexier. The road doesn’t notice if you’re not wearing lipstick. It does not care how old you are. You do not feel uncomfortable because you make more money than the road.
And you can call on the road whenever you feel like it, whether it’s been a day, or a couple of hours, since your last date. The only thing the road cares about… is that you pay it a visit once in a while.
To that, I’d add that the road doesn’t care how tall or short you are. It just cares if you run.