Monday, July 17, 2006

My New (Old) Obsession

I’ve started running again. (Yes, I know, I said I started running again last year. Alas, it fizzled once the school year got going.) It feels real this time.

Here is the history of my Quest for Fitness:

When I was young, I was a bookworm. They picked me last for teams in gym class. One of my gym teachers in middle school liked to publicly humiliate me. “Not Athletic!” got branded firmly in my psyche.

When I dropped out of college, I took up bicycling. I was living at home again and Dad drove me the 10 miles to town when we’d both go to work each day. My parents started hinting that maybe I should think about getting a car, but I was secretly plotting to go to England and was trying to save money for that. A friend of mine suggested getting a nice bicycle instead of a car, because I could take that to England and save on transportation costs there.

I knew my mom would freak out. So I quietly arranged with my Dad one day not to pick me up from work – I was going to buy a bicycle and would bike home. I explained that when my mom saw that I could do it (and it was too late to stop me), she’d adjust to the idea.

Dad said, “ok.”

I walked from work that afternoon to the bike shop, which was run by a French man who had been a former racer. I thought he would laugh at me. But he had a lot of respect for what I was doing. He said that the bike he sold me (a Peugeot 12 speed) would be wonderful. He checked it over and carefully adjusted it for me. He wished me well. I took off. I cannot begin to describe the sense of freedom and accomplishment I felt as I rode that first 10 miles. I was thrilled (“I can do this!”) and anxious (“what will my mother say?!”)

When I got home, my father looked both sheepish (for conspiring with me on this) and proud of me. My mom just kind of shook her head in a resigned sort of way. (When I did break the news about going to England too, after I had already bought the airline tickets, she surprised me by saying, “well, good, I was hoping you wouldn’t just stay here and get stuck in a rut!”)

So, I bicycled to and from work every day. I loved it.

And I did take that bicycle to England, and bicycled around. That bicycle is still the one bicycle I have.

I stayed in pretty good shape, mostly through bicycling, throughout the 3 ½ years that I wasn’t in college. But when I went back to college, bicycling receded again.

I picked up running for the first time after college, when I was working. I was living in an urban area, and I found that bicycling in so much traffic rattled me, so I needed a new form of exercise. I was always drawn to running, but found it extremely hard. Finally, I hit upon a week-by-week training program for women taking up running for the first time, and I followed it to a T. (First week: walk 30 minutes 4 days of the week – simple enough!) To my genuine astonishment, it worked! By the 11th week, I was running 3 miles!

In graduate school, my commitment wavered a bit but never fully fell apart during the first few years of heavy coursework. But at the dissertation phase, I was totally addicted and obsessed. I think it is because running presented a concrete alternative to the abstract mental work I was devoting most of my time to. All I had to do was go out for 30-60 minutes and cover a distance, maybe even tracking my time, and I’d steadily see improvement. Dissertation writing was different: I could not measure my progress very easily. I could write for days, only to throw that whole draft chapter away a week later. Each new book I read threatened to undermine my thesis. A sense of clarity and progress one day could dissolve into confusion the next. I still did enjoy dissertation writing, but having the running as something steady, predictable, and physical was refreshing. I’m sure it kept me sane, and is largely responsible for my finishing the dissertation.

But once I started teaching, the running fell away, alas. I relocated for the job, and moving is enormously disruptive of well-established routines. I would have to find new running routes! But what was most disconcerting was what I quickly re-discovered about small-town life: you can’t go anywhere, at any time, without facing the very real possibility of seeing someone—or five people—you know. Had I still been a graduate student, this wouldn’t have troubled me. (“Huh, I’m a runner! Yeah!” I would have thought to myself.) But now I was trying to establish myself as a dignified professor, and the people I’d run into would be, er, my students – young and sleek and fast.

Knowing what I know now, I should not have been daunted by that. Of course they would admire me for running! But, back then (not so long ago really), I was insecure, sure that they’d be laughing at me for thudding along so slowly. And, to be honest, maybe some would, but the me of now simply doesn’t care. The me of now thinks: “Well, where will they be when they’re my age? If they’re lucky enough to live this long, then they’ll see what it’s like!” But I was too insecure then: adjusting to a new role in life is a rather traumatic experience for someone with chronic low self-confidence.

So, I lost it. Besides, I was working 15-16 hour days, and had picked up music again seriously and it was all I could do to squeeze in the hour of practice I needed for that. I remember sharing with some of my new colleagues at a gathering one evening my “radio button” theory of “extracurricular activities”: if I push one button in, the others all pop out again. So, now that I’ve integrated music back into my life, the “running” button has popped back up. I can’t do both. My new friends (who neither ran nor played music, but did seem ever so much more confident about their new professor lives than I was) laughed at my quaint theory, and I, ever insecure, suddenly felt even more like a failure.

I’ve not been happy about this somewhat inadvertent reclamation of my “Not Athletic!” identity. One day, in trying to get a grip on my complex life, I was working through some Franklin Planner exercises on roles and goals, and realized that the abandonment of my “runner” identity was a real loss. Really, I am much happier when I feel fit. So that re-ignited the aspiration to bring that back into my life. That was, oh, about two years ago.

It’s hard of course: when you remember that you once had a level of competence in something, and now it feels impossibly hard, it’s demoralizing.

So, I’ve been living with this aspiration for years. First I postponed it until after tenure. The year I came up for tenure, facing that challenge was absolutely all I could handle. Then I did try last summer and made a start, but it fizzled again. Of course I had great aspirations for sabbatical. But all of the anxieties about running into people I knew were intensified and complicated by the fact that my being visible to others made them keep asking me to do things. And besides, winter here is a hard time to start. I live in a cold clime.

So I put it off.

As spring unfolded, the thawed paths became muddy and temperatures bounced dramatically back and forth, continuing to put me off. For a while, it seemed to be raining every other day.

Finally, the weather became undeniably perfect. I had no more excuses. “Now or never!” I thought to myself. But this was when I began having chest pains. But while the chest pains frightened me anew from starting, they also had a paradoxical effect. I found myself facing a new kind of panic, a panic that surprised me immensely: what if something was seriously wrong?, I thought to myself. What if I can’t run, ever again? It’s one thing to choose to let it slip; it’s something else altogether to be forced to let it go. I realized in a powerful new way how to appreciate good health. I realized that it’s not an obligation but a privilege to be able to take care of one’s physical health and cultivate one’s fitness.

I knew then that if everything checked out all right, this time I’d do it.

And I was right.


  1. Oh, I so admire you! I'm simply trying to walk enough a day, and that's hard enough to do (finding spare moments away from the cat and the dog and the child is hard: usually when the Hubby's home, and then of course I don't want to leave :)). I certainly wouldn't mind hearing more about this "learning to run" program: maybe that'd motivate me.

    And nay to the chest pains: I hope everything's alright.

  2. Hi AJ,

    Yes, I had the chest pains thoroughly checked out, and everything's fine. I came to realize how much I was tensing my chest due to anxiety. I began practicing deep relaxation when I would notice my tenseness and now I'm no longer having the chest pains.

    Meanwhile, here's the program I followed:

    Each phase requires doing the recommended activity 4 different days during the week. It’s better to space the days of the week so that there are never more than one or two rest days between the days you exercise. If you find a particular week hard, repeat it the next week before moving on to the next phase. If something hurts (other than tired sore muscles!), take as many days off as you need until it doesn’t hurt any more before resuming exercise.

    Be sure to frame each workout in 10 minutes of walking to warm up, and end with 10 minutes of walking to cool down. This means that by phase VIII (or possibly as early as phase VI) you will be extending your total exercise time beyond 30 minutes. More experienced runners may be able to do with less warm up and cool down times (5 minutes each), and so after phase XI is comfortable, you can cut this back a bit.

    Phase I: Walk for 30 minutes, 4 different days of the week.
    II: Walk-Run (W-R) (run a little at least one time).
    III: W-R (run at least two times).
    IV: W-R (run for about 8-10 minutes, not necessarily continuously).
    V: R-W (run 10-12 minutes, not nec. continuously)
    VI: R-W (run 1 mi or 10-12 min continuously)
    VII: R-W (mostly running – W to catch breath)
    VIII: Run (continuous running for 15-20 minutes)
    IX: Run (20 minutes)
    X: Run (25 minutes)
    XI: Run (30 minutes)

    I'm sort of following it again, and am about at a Phase V level at the moment, pushing myself a bit this time, which might be rash, because I'm older now than I was back then (aren't we all?).

    But I fully understand your having time constraints. It really can be hard fitting this in. Some women get up early in the morning while everyone else is sleeping and treasure this time alone. Others find ways of taking the whole family along!

    But like my own story shows, maybe there just are times in one's life when it is not so feasible, and it's okay to forgive oneself while waiting for the rhythms of life to shift in ways that later make it possible. And anyway, walking is really great exercise and is easier on the joints!

    Good luck!

  3. Hi, C Scholar! I consider this one of the most important posts that I've read in a long time. Most of what I read in these friendly cyber-precincts is soooo heady (and I love heady), but I'm trying to honor being embodied, too. Thanks for your help.

  4. Johan, thanks so much for letting me know that you appreciated this posting! When I posted it, I thought, "well, this is different from my usual!" But how could I not share this new (old) way that I'm paying attention to my own well-being and feeling positively transformed? Why, I'm feeling almost evangelical about it! :-)

  5. Your evangelism is working. I started walking back in April. About a month and a half ago, I printed out the guidelines from your comment. About three weeks ago, I started "phase 2". Today, I entered "phase 4". I actually ran eight minutes - not all consecutively, more like run 2, walk 2, run 2. But it's working! Thanks for the tips.

  6. Today, I finally ran 30 minutes in a row! Thank you again for posting this outline that helped me see that I could start with just running a little bit at a time.

  7. Wow, that's great Robin M.! Isn't it a wonderfully empowering feeling, to be able to do this?