Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Spelling champion AND athlete? It wasn't possible then, but maybe now.

Can you BELIEVE this girl wasn't an athlete?
I have never been an athlete. As a child, I took tennis lessons and was a disaster; in middle school, I tried my hand at softball and was worse. After my dad stopped by practice early one afternoon and saw me crying while trying to run a mile, he let me quit.

So the fact that I’m running now makes absolutely no sense. There’s nothing I understand about it; nothing except that this attempt may mark my last opportunity to try to not absolutely suck at something physical.

Growing up, I was the spelling champion who wanted instead to be good at kickball.  When we played at recess, I wasn’t chosen last, but I was darned close. I wasn’t bad at kicking the ball, but I couldn’t run fast enough to get on base. If I did happen, by some fluke, to get on, I was more concerned with not getting hit by the ball than I was with making it home.

I was also a larger girl, which didn’t help.  That’s funny to recall now, as I ended up topping out at 5’4” 1/2, but the weird thing was that I reached my full height – and a weight of 140 pounds -- in fifth grade. While the other girls were weighing a flat 90 soaking wet, I could have bench-pressed any boy in my class. So the combination of my awkwardness and my size didn’t exactly lend itself to agility.

The weird thing, though, was that I danced – ballet, tap, and “jazz,” as they called it in those days – and I wasn’t half bad. I was tall, but proportional and, strangely enough, muscular, and when it came to executing dance steps, I possessed none of the awkwardness that I displayed in any athletic endeavor.

(“You’re light on your feet for a big girl,” another dancer’s mom said to me once.  Uh, thanks?)

I also loved music and was able to somehow lose some of my inhibitions in the studio, although I really hated the full-length mirrors and did anything to avoid being in the front row so I didn’t have to see myself in them. I was an endomorph in a room of tiny, lean girls, and sometimes that wore on me. But if I avoided the mirrors and just danced, I didn’t hate my body quite so much.

That sentence really makes me sound more pathetic than I was; I grew up in a very affirming home and was praised for my talents. I really wasn’t full of self-loathing; I was a teenage girl who wanted to be something she wasn’t. That didn’t make me unique, or even particularly miserable.  It just was what it was.

But here I am at 50 – 50! – and I look down at my activity tracker and look in the mirror and wonder, could I be morphing into the woman that that girl so wanted to be?  Sure, I’m a whole lot older.  And a whole lot grayer.  But although I can’t call myself an athlete, I’m running.  And I don’t suck at it.

A few caveats – my goal is three miles, and I’m not there yet.  And I’m slower than slow.  But I get out there every morning, and I push and I struggle and I sweat.  And at the end of my run – in the interest of accuracy, my walk/run combo – I can’t wait to do it again. Not right away, but the next day.

How did this happen?  My daughter wanted an activity tracker, and I bought one for her. And when I saw how cool hers was, I bought one for myself. That was the beginning of the end of normalcy.

You see, I’m a bit competitive. After my surgeries, my physical therapist would get me to work harder by telling me another knee patient could bend his leg farther than I could. The result: I’d bend deeper and deeper until I “won.”  I didn’t find out till later that I’d been “winning” all along, but he had tapped into what made me tick and knew I couldn’t stand the thought of being bested.

When I run, I play head games with myself, using my friend Karen’s trick of pushing just one driveway farther, then the next driveway, then the next. Some days, it’s not easy, but doable; other days, my leg muscles are screaming. But each day, I inch closer to that as-yet-mythical three-mile mark, and I wonder if maybe I should have tried a little harder at kickball.

How many more times in my life will I have the opportunity to set this sort of goal?  At work, we talk about “stretch goals,” but in my arena, they’re not as readily tangible as this one. As I become able to run for longer distances, it’s as if I can feel muscles popping out where there had seemingly been none. I see the changes, and I feel strong.

I also feel … realistic. As my friend Gretchen wrote in response to a Facebook post about my running, “At your age, the goal is to not hurt yourself, and I’m not even kidding.”  I know I won’t be able to do this for long; half of each of my knees is a prosthetic, and one of my hip joints is on its way out.  And I’m by no means a natural runner; where others have lean muscle mass, I have still-jiggling masses of flesh.

But to be overly simplistic, it feels great to do something hard. And it’s affirming to be doing this as an old person; unlike in my angst-ridden middle-school days, the 50-year-old me could give a rat’s you-know-what how I look as I trudge alongside a busy street. 

As my Weight Watchers pals say, even as slow as I am, I’m still lapping everyone on the couch. I wish I could go back in time and tell the 13-year-old softball-wannabe me to stick with that mile run just a little longer, because eventually, I would have gotten there.  Sure, 37 years is a long time, but a finish line is a finish line.

1 comment:

  1. "But if I avoided the mirrors and just danced, I didn’t hate my body quite so much."

    Best line. Doesn't make you sound pathetic it actually sounds kinda great to me and makes me a little teary. Learning to love my body for what it does is a HUGE step in the direction of learning to love it for what it is.

    Learning that lesson in public without worrying too much about what everyone else thinks is pretty awesome too.