Do you remember what it was like to be in high school? What about junior high? The desire to find acceptance, to fit in yet be noticeable. To stand out without sticking too far out. To be your best and be known for your strengths while hoping like hell that your weaknesses are not what define you.
This is the A-Number-1 reason I did not participate in school sports.
I attended ONE practice session for the high school track team and was by far the slowest, least coordinated and most out-of-shape girl that showed up. The rest of the girls were polite enough NOT to laugh at me and some were even encouraging and helpful. But I was humiliated. I woke up so sore the next day that I could barely move and even though the coach did her best to try and persuade me to keep at it, I refused to show up for the second practice. I would not endure that humiliation again. I spent the remainder of my high school years living in envy of the girls who ran, played or cheered. They had this talent and gift that I desperately wanted but would never have. I had placed myself out of the "athlete" category at the age of fifteen. With all the wisdom and insight that fifteen year olds typically possess, I decided it was best to resign myself to a life of inactivity.
Let's fast forward to about fourteen years later when I ran my very first 5k. I started going to the gym about four months prior to this race because I wanted to lose the rest of the weight that I had gained while pregnant with my third child. I remember the THRILL of running two miles in 30 minutes on the treadmill! It was an amazing accomplishment as it was something I never thought to even try before. I was soon able to run a little longer and a little faster and I decided that I would try this road race thing just to give myself some incentive to keep at it. I worried like hell about finishing last but just kept telling myself that it wouldn't hurt to try this. Much to my surprise I finished in the middle of the pack. Not fast (duh, I knew that wouldn't happen) but not incredibly slow either. I ran an entire 3.1 miles without stopping!!! I was so excited! A few months of spending twenty to thirty minutes a day on the treadmill was all I needed to accomplish this?!?! Amazing. I wish I knew sooner that I had this in me!
After the elation waned, I found myself remembering that longing I had in high school. How I watched the girls in their varsity jackets with envy, knowing I would never ever know what it felt like to wear one. How I was afraid to run in front of anyone because I was afraid that I would be too slow or tire too easily or just look ridiculous in front of everyone else. I knew that there was no way I was ever going to be fast so I didn't need to display this fact to the rest of the world.
I'm still not fast.
But it's different now. I still always finish somewhere in the middle of the pack every time I run a race. (Ok, ok... I'll admit that I have placed in my age group a few times, but...) It has been seven years since my first 5k. Since then, I have run thousands of miles. There is a vast collection of medals,prizes and t-shirts from countless races in my home. To date, I've run three marathons and six half marathons and countless shorter-distance races. Every starting line is a blessing and honor. Every finish line builds both my confidence and my humility. Each person who stands there with me at the start- whether they finish far ahead of me or far behind has earned their victory with their own will and strength and might. It isn't all about the competition against others. It isn't about being THE BEST. It's all about giving YOUR BEST and being proud of your accomplishments and efforts.
What if there were truly a way to remove competition from school fitness programs? What if we could teach young people that they don't need to be one of the best in order to enjoy a sport? What if the next generation undoubtedly knew that fitness doesn't require athletic talent? A mile is still a mile even when you run slow. It's still an accomplishment. It's still 1400 strides toward a healthier body. I am grateful for what I have accomplished, but how I wish I knew all of these things when I was fifteen. I wish I knew that serenity, contentment and peace could be found by lacing up my sneakers and stepping outside EVEN if I never outran anyone else. I wish I knew that stress and anxiety could be washed away by going out for a run. I wish I experienced the simplistic joy of willing my body forward. I know all of these things now, and my children are learning them too. They all enjoy and understand the challenge they impose against themselves when they step out to the start of a race. The mother within me beamed when I heard my son answer a simple question while he was still DYING from finishing a five mile race. He was asked by his non-runner friend "Why would you do this to yourself?" and he simply said "It feels good to finish."
So there we have it. Take the competition and pressure to perform for others out of the equation and... it just feels good to finish. Well said, oh fourteen year old boy of few words. Well said. Do you remember feeling that way after phys ed class? Yeah. Me neither.