Confessions of a wannabe runner

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by Ladanna James

I wouldn’t call myself a good runner — despite my efforts for more than 10 years. I don’t even like calling myself a runner; I describe myself as a wannabe. I envy the real runners. The ones with good form, speed, fluidity and consistency. When I attempt to run, it’s, well, far from graceful. I’m plodding, fairly uncoordinated — overly sweaty.

Twice last summer, my then 15-year-old daughter ran with me. She says I don’t run; I shuffle. About the only thing I have in common with real runners is my consistency.  Despite the lack of grace, I never give up. I keep shuffling. Why? My accomplishments fuel me. I feel powerful, post-run. Well, maybe not immediately post-run. At the end of every run, I wonder why I keep punishing my body. But once I’ve recovered, I begin to feel strong, like I have all I need inside me to overcome the obstacles life keeps dropping in my path.

I started running almost 10 years ago after I was diagnosed with Graves disease, an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones. The prescribed medication worked, and I’ve been healthy ever since. But I packed on more than 30 pounds during the recovery phase. I started using the treadmill in my basement in earnest, but it wasn’t enough. I was itching for fresh air.

I’m not sure how I managed to talk myself into going outside that first time. I do remember that it was sheer agony but not for the reasons you might think. I’m a private person. I like blending into the background. Running outside puts me on display. I kept telling myself I look ridiculous. That pedestrians and motorists alike are laughing at the overweight middle-aged woman trying to run.

While I prefer staying clear of most spotlights, I’m also stubborn and driven. I’m relentless in pursuing the goals I set for myself. Despite the agony, that first run confirmed for me that I do indeed like feeling the sun on my face. I like getting to know my neighbourhood better on foot.

Over the years, running has taught me a few lessons that apply to both my professional and personal lives:

Lace up those runners and look the part. In other words, fake it ‘til you make it. I decided that looking the part would make me feel like an athlete. So, I conscripted my husband and my two girls to help me shop for inexpensive gear at outlet malls. The right running shoes, workout clothes and smartwatch made a world of difference to my psyche. I felt like less of a fraud. It’s no different from the advice I received from mentors early in my career: dress for the job you want, not the job you have. In so many instances, life is about being prepared and showing up ready to go.

It’s ok to take it nice and slow. It’s about the distance not the speed. I. Am. Slow. There’s no denying this fact. I used to berate myself for walking during a run or for looking more like a speed walker than a runner. I’ve learned to go easy on myself. Some days, I sprint like a twenty-something (or at least in my mind I do); other times, I need to do run-walks. It’s OK. The moment I gear up and get out the door, I’m already a winner. As my daughter likes to tell me, “A bad run is better than no run.” I’m not always going to be in top form. I forgive myself and walk when I can’t run. Then I pick up speed when I can.

Don’t try to outrun the people who have pulled ahead of you. Who knows where they’re starting from? I remember the day well. There I was, shuffling along when a thin woman with long legs and a bouncy ponytail pulled up alongside me and then proceeded to outpace me with what looked like very little effort. I remember feeling embarrassed and frumpy. I was sure people would see and compare us, with me coming out on the losing end. Then, I reined in my negative self-talk. I had been running for almost an hour! Miss Perfect Form might have just started her trek when she flew past me. And, what if she hadn’t? I’m not competing against her; I’m competing against myself! All too often, we measure our successes against others’. We don’t know other people’s starting points; we don’t know what they have to face on their journeys. It’s important to not get distracted by other people. If she knew I’d been running for almost an hour, maybe she would’ve seen me as her hero. Who knows?

Calluses are a sure sign you’re toughening up. Calluses are caused by friction and pressure and are a good metaphor for life. I count my calluses as badges of honour. I’ve pounded the pavement often enough to have earned these puppies. Whether it’s Graves disease, sudden unemployment after years of being a star performer, multiple miscarriages before giving birth to two beautiful daughters, my life has thrown me curveballs, but all of these experiences have served to toughen me up and helped me sympathize with others along the way.

Don’t keep it to yourself. Be accountable. This is important. I needed to be accountable, so I could turn running into a habit. What better way to do it than to shout it from the rafters? Being open forces me to have something to report back when people ask about my progress. What’s more, sharing my journey has encouraged others in my network to become more active, too. While I was growing up, my well-meaning Jamaican parents drummed into me the need to keep my business private; to keep hurts and struggles close to the chest. But I’m glad I never took that advice too seriously. Just as with running, by sharing my personal struggles, I’ve made myself vulnerable to others. And, despite what some might believe, there’s strength in vulnerability.

So, yes, I am a wannabe runner. My runs aren’t pretty, but my accomplishments are a thing of beauty to me. This summer, I will attempt to shuffle my way to a personal best of 15 km. Wish me luck!

Ladanna James lives in Bradford, Ontario, Canada.

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