Amidst the many demands of adulthood, life can sometimes lose its lightness. Even in our positive efforts toward health and wellness, we can become overly serious in our pursuits. It certainly helps to keep a sense of humor as we engage in such activities, especially to buffer the humbling aspects of such new endeavors.
I discovered this truth when I decided to take up running in my 30s. I had been an avid walker for years and figured, how hard could it be to convert? I got a good pair of shoes, a nice-looking outfit, and downloaded music with a man's voice that promised me that if I stuck with his intervals of walking and jogging, I would be a real runner in nine weeks. I decided that a 5K would be my goal, since this seemed to be the shortest distance worthy of a race, t-shirt, or bumper sticker.
My first attempts at running were torturous. Somehow, I thought it would be enjoyable when labeled as an activity. I thought that by announcing, "I'm going for a run," the experience of moving quickly on foot would be different than past memories of attempting to catch up to my son in tag or to arrive at my car before a police officer flagged my expired meter. Instead, the experience felt exactly the same. I was greeted by the familiar sense of panting, along with muscles that groaned about being called into duty.
Just as when a man goes bald and sees only others' hair, once I had my first struggles with running I became surrounded by a world of runners. I'd notice them on the side of the road when I was in my car. Running came so naturally to some, it seemed their bodies didn't even notice they were moving. For others, a sense of strain oozed with each step. It was hard to decide who was more impressive.
Worse yet, as I talked about my new resolution, I realized that almost all my friends ran regularly. I became shocked, even somewhat annoyed, at the humility of these people. They had never thought to mention their five-mile morning exercise, or the half-marathon they had run the year before. At first my response was one of disbelief.
"You mean to tell me that you got up this morning, started running, and didn't stop until 10 miles later, and now you're sitting here all alive and fine, eating lunch with me?"
Even my dental hygienist, who had never seemed particularly hardy or robust, revealed that she was in the midst of her yearly training for a marathon. When she finished chiseling at my plaque, I asked her, "So, what's your secret?" "How do you run that far?"
"GU," she said.
"Goo??" I responded, not letting her re-enter my mouth without some explanation. I thought maybe this was some new spiritual practice or some object I could insert in my shoes.
"You know, GU," she said. "It's a high-energy gel that you eat while you're running."
Wow, I thought as she continued talking. This is exactly what I need. I could GU before running, and then in response to the voice in my head that always tempts me to stop after several minutes: Are you tired yet? How much further do you think you should go? How are your feet, do they ache anywhere? Are you feeling out of breath?
"Yeah," she continued, "In a marathon, they say you can GU as often as every four miles."
"Fur Miwose!" I groaned best I could over the buzz of the polishing tool, realizing that if I could run that far, none of this would be an issue!
As I left the office that day, I realized that I'd need to come up with my own GU alternatives. I decided to start by soliciting advice from my runner friends -- so I began jotting down every running tip I heard, even the tips that contradicted other tips. I figured I'd probably need all of it to ever arrive at the finish line.
"Run for distance," "Run for time," "Buy socks that whisk away moisture," "Use your iPod," "Listen to the sounds of nature," "Add in sprints," "Run every day," "Take time off to rest your body," "Consider getting a new running outfit as a reward," "Get the outfit now, it will motivate you," "Run on a treadmill," "Run in the woods," "Run with someone else," "Stretch before," "Stretch after," "Stretch before and after."
Somehow, with the passing of enough weeks -- after placing all this advice into a blender of sorts and making my own training concoction -- the day finally came when I had the sense that I could do it.
I put on my sleekest-looking outfit and made my way to the route I had measured around my neighborhood. I kept my pace steady, trying not to get discouraged in moments when the finish line seemed far away, and trying not to get too excited in moments when I thought I might actually make it.
With the passage of some chunk of time, the moment actually arrived when I crossed the fence line that marked my finish line. I wanted to scream or break through a ribbon or throw down a football -- something -- but instead, I just proudly walked home, noticing that, curiously, I wasn't out of breath.
Still, I'm waiting to encounter a friend or acquaintance (even someone ahead of me in the grocery line will do) who is talking about their desire to start running. I long to minimize my months of struggle with an "Oh, it's not so bad -- you can do it," and add in my own sliver of advice: "Just keep a sense of humor about the whole thing."
You can wish her luck as she attempts an 8-mile race this fall -- she'll need it!
For more by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D., click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.