The other day, my seventh grade students were complaining loudly about the “buzzer test” they had to take in gym class later that day.
“It’s awful,” one girl informed me. “You have to run as a beeper goes off and then it gets faster and faster.”
“I’m just not even going to try,” her friend added.
I remembered being in their shoes as an unathletic youngster. I have a singularly terrible memory of being forced to do the same test in high school as “Dominic the Donkey” played in the background for some inexplicable reason, and thinking to myself, “This is what hell must look like.”
But times have changed! I explained to my students that I also hated running when I was their age, but now I go run outside for fun, so maybe they should give it their best shot!
They pondered it for a second. Finally, one student piped up and said, “Yeah, I’m still not going to try.”
I am a slow runner. I am a bad runner. But, since I’ve moved to Somerville, I started running on the Tufts track around the corner from my house since it is much cheaper than joining a gym, and oddly enough I actually like it.
My favorite part of running is the youth soccer I pass on the way to the track. I love watching the tiny three year olds run after the ball in miniature cleats as overzealous dads stand in the middle with a whistle. Does one actually coach youth soccer, or is a better title “Toddler Herder, Ball Fetcher, and Water Break Enforcer?”
I’m also entertained by the abundance of good looking men who like to run in the Tufts area. Sometimes they bring their dogs. Or their babies. And then my cuteness overload explodes.
All of this hilarity is just preparation for the actual workout. When I started, I could barely make it twice around the track. A month later, I feel like I’ve finally found my stride. I have settled into a rhythm that feels sustainable, comfortable, and pleasurable.
More importantly, I have fallen in love with something that is difficult for me. As children, it is hard to love what is difficult, unless you were one of those extraordinarily relaxed children who loved to play even though you were bad at the game. This may be hard to believe, but I was not that child. Yet, as an adult, I can commit to doing my best at something that does not come naturally. It is my time each day to try something hard with little cost if I fail. The same cannot be said about teaching — while it’s also important to challenge yourself to teach well, the price of failure is twenty-six bored seventh graders with big mouths and active imaginations.
The other day, though, I met my match: actual runners. As a gaggle of muscular men and women zoomed around the inside lane, I heard one runner say to another, “Seven minute mile, right?” I jogged on the outside lane and wept. Nothing destroys a fledgling runner’s confidence faster than being graced with competence.
However, when I ran last Monday, I fell in step with a woman running with her male partner. As he drifted ahead of her, I realized that she and I were running at similar paces. Since I rarely find a person who runs in public as slowly as I do, I fell behind her so that she set the pace for me. I got so inspired by her persistence that I followed her around the track until I realized I had reached a new milestone by running a mile and a half without stopping.
My dad is a runner himself, and often liked to take his millennial children down a notch with the following saying: “There is always someone smarter, better, and faster than you.” When I go to the Tufts track, I see the living proof of that. Luckily, I run a lot better when I don’t focus on how much I have to grow. I feel best about my run when I commit to going at my own pace.
If this woman had not persisted in her own journey, and done it better than I had previously done, I would not have challenged myself to see if I could replicate her success. Sometimes, those who are ahead of us in life show us what’s possible. Instead of being jealous of those who are going calmly ahead of us, what if we aspired to run behind them? What if we did our best to get to the same finish line in our own time and in our own style? In our competitive world, where some of my classmates are getting married and making big salaries and traveling the world, I cherish the reminder that my pace is fine and good and will get me to where I need to be (eventually).
As I run, I’m often reminded of a quote I heard from Ta-Nahisi Coates during the podcast Another Round:
“To go out and get a nice, you know, run in, I had to get up at 5:30 [that morning]… That’s my victory. I got up.”
Sometimes, getting to the track is half the work. Then, I remind myself, if I came here, why not do the best I can? If I can bring that same attitude to my personal and professional life, I think I’ll do pretty well.