Back of the pack

This morning I ran four miles. Without stopping. That was a pretty big accomplishment considering that I haven’t run much at all since the snow started three months ago, that the gray sky and cold wind made me want to get right back in my car, and mainly that I wasn’t sure I would ever be a runner again after I had back surgery last year.

But somewhere around the two-mile mark I started to feel like I might make it to a 5k, and that would be just fine with me. And then I just kept going. I even felt like I could have kept running after the four-mile mark, but I didn’t want to push my luck.

Out of nowhere I crossed over to that bizarre point when running actually feels good. It’s so easy to forget that point exists, but it does. Otherwise no fool would be a runner.

Running, for me, is hard for all the same reasons other people list. It is especially hard because no matter how hard I train, no matter how much I weigh, no matter how much I spend on shoes or how loud I crank my music, I am slow. People who appear to be much older, barely shuffling, and carrying on entire animated conversations pass me. Asthmatic people could kick my ass in a race. People in the 70-year-old category beat me in the Living History Farms race last fall. And people, I’m 27.

I never advanced past C team in high school cross country, except for one junior varsity performance in which I was something like 47th out of 50. I improved my times, I got stronger, but I never ever saw the front of the pack. I never even saw the middle.

That’s not an easy pill to swallow for someone who’s a perfectionist-overachiever. Usually if I’m not good at something, I just don’t do it. But I guess I am drawn to the solitary activities like running, hiking and yoga in which you can challenge yourself to get better. You never have to shoot the winning free throw, you just have to knock a few seconds off your last time. And dear god keep me as far away as possible from the mean sports, like dodgeball. I just don’t have the aggression (or the arm) for it.

But even though I am embarrassingly slow, I can’t stop running. Something always brings me back to it. It’s like I need to prove to myself than I can do this because it’s so hard and because I’ve never quite mastered it. I need to be a runner, even if it means bringing up the rear every time.

When I read Runners World, which in my opinion is one of the greatest magazines out there, I simply cannot relate to the 80 percent of writers they have that measure their mile splits in the 6s and enter races on a whim to wind up in 3rd place. Do they make 364th place medals? Maybe the real question is, what reward is there for being a slow runner?

I guess it’s just something you have to do for yourself in the name of character development or muscular thighs. And you do meet some fabulous people who are also puttering along in the 11-minute wave.

Not too long ago there was an article in Runners World about a guy who was the worst one on his college cross country or track team, and I loved it. The guy had no regrets about joining the team and setting himself up for humiliation. He did it even though it was that much harder for him than any of the natural athletes who did do well. I’m not that brave, but I will keep running – for my health, for my stubbornness, for my 364th place medal.