Athleticism is a trait that has long evaded my covetous yet reluctant limbs. Realization of this hit in the third grade, when elementary school physical education advanced from the camaraderie of giant parachutes and square dances to the rivalry of the Presidential Fitness Test—pull-ups and sit-ups and declarations of, “I ran that mile in six minutes. How many did it take you?” Well, not six, Natasha, but it was a number that is a multiple of six, what does that get me? (Not an award, I can tell you. And to this day, that school-gym smell of dirt, sweat, and basketballs still conjures up pangs of dread and jealousy.)
But to be sure, my deficit in athletic prowess does not stem from lack of want or imagination. I can quite readily conjure up all sorts of inspirational suggestion: images of lean muscles and wind-caught ponytails, Blue Ridge Mountains growing larger in my eyes as the rhythmic cadence of my own footsteps moves me closer to their forested edges…the weight of the gold medal around my neck as the Star-Spangled Banner resonates in my ears. No, I am not short in the department of visualization, and in this, perhaps, lies part of the problem: my picture shows are too good. While my mind seems to crave this particular sort of accomplishment, my physical self seems content to simply watch the eight-millimeter films of my imagination from the comfort of the sofa, legs stretched, ankles crossed, eyes glued to the image of her more kinetically-capable self, piping up only occasionally to mutter complimentary phrases such as, “I’ll be…” and, “Wasn’t that something!” In other words, she’s a little lazy, and she would love some popcorn if you’ve got it.
I am also quite good in ways of exclaiming, and by “exclaiming” I mean: sitting on my hind-end, exercising my jaw muscles by prattling on about how much I would love to be able to run like the wind. (In fact, my cheeks are most certainly in their prime as a result of this.) If I had a nickel for every time I wholeheartedly uttered the phrase, “Man, I have got to start exercising more,” Vegas would have its next career slot machine player.
Proclamations such as the aforementioned are comforting; they insinuate the idea that if I mention something enough I am not wholly neglecting it, just putting it off until a more agreeable, convenient time presents itself. Which, fingers crossed, is never. Inevitably, though, this is not the case. Inevitably, someone will come along and say, “Oh, remember how you always mention that thing you want to do? Here. Let’s do it.”
This happened to me in December of 2010 when my best friend Lacye begged me to join the gym with her. It would be wonderful, she declared — the best of times — and they just so happened to be running a Christmas special; we could sign up for a year as a couple and pay only twenty-two dollars each per month. Obviously, I rejected the idea immediately. I was in no shape to be seen at a gym around the likes of individuals who were sure to be model athletes. The thought of traipsing about such an establishment jolted me right back to elementary school gym class, and would I have paid for elementary school gym class? Absolutely not. She persisted, however, and (true to best friend form) pointed out that my arguments were ridiculous and riddled with unfounded self-consciousness. In short — they were weak. Just like my quadriceps. And next thing I knew, I was at the counter of the Hiwassee Valley Pool and Wellness Center, signing away a year of my life and $264 of my bank account.
I was indeed intimidated initially—the rows of treadmills and ellipticals seemed immense and complicated, and I wondered just how easy it might be to get one’s neck fatally caught within the taut lines of those pulleyed weight machines. But in time my anxiety eased, and we soon found ourselves to be part of the regulars.
Also part of the “regulars” was a fantastically fit group of dedicated runners. They would meet most days in the parking lot before jolting off in a pack, or, if it rained, they would reluctantly move inside to the treadmills. Lacye knew a few members of the group, and it turned out that two of them, Paul and Bill, were employees at the local community college where I worked. I enviously observed them regularly; they could run for miles and miles. There were days that a few of them would be running when I got to the gym, then would still be running when I left an hour later. It was this kind of endurance I desired. I wanted my body to be able to do that, to accomplish such a feat of physical exertion. I wanted my body to be able to do it so I could measure success, measure my resolve mile by mile.
But it was also this kind of endurance I was quick to exclaim about but reluctant to commit to acquiring. Paul tried often to coax us into their circle; “You should be running with us,” he would singsong as we walked into the cool embrace of the air-conditioned gym. “You know you want to do it.”
But, we didn’t. Lacye and I had become quite content with our exercise schedule, usually a bit of cardio followed by an hour in the fitness classroom, an hour we spent three-quarters of sitting on the exercise balls, holding weights and talking about all manner of whatever. (Did I mention how good I am at exclaiming?) And in this way, we maintained a gym habit for almost five years.
The following year, though, this cycle changed. No longer content with the administration of our original facility (and their decision to double our monthly fee), we moved our membership to the only other gym in town. By this time, my schedule and Lacye’s had become incompatible, and I found myself more often than not going alone. Rather than losing motivation, however, I maintained. (Because though I missed my gym-defined significant other, I will admit it is much easier to run when one reacquires the use of the oxygen that was previously used for chatting.)
There was no question my ability to run a mile in its entirety improved, but this did not mean I was the star athlete I imagined in my daydreams. Historically, my motto has been: do what it takes to keep your pants comfortable while still maintaining that persistent donut addiction. But with the change of gyms, I made the abrupt decision to legitimately improve my running endurance. Up until this point, I had scarcely been able to run more than two miles at a time — a (non-) feat of accomplishment resulting from my penchant for sticking to what I know I can do and not branching out further. But I wanted to improve. I wanted to run greater distances for longer periods of time because I thought this served as one of ability’s units of measure. Like a grade is to the mind, distance would be quantitative proof of my body’s capabilities.
I went about it all wrong.
Apparently believing the capacity of my cardiovascular system to do work would increase simply by my desire for it to do so, I amped up the speed on the treadmill and lunged myself into fervent activity. Initially, thriving off the energy of grit and determination, this was not entirely ineffective. I could run for solid thirty-minute intervals before collapsing into a walk and thanking the treadmill gods above for allowing 29:59 to turn into 30:00. Once I found my breath (and reassured myself that it was perfectly acceptable not to hit a pace higher than “power walk” before ten minutes had passed), I would run again, this time unable to continue for the aforementioned thirty minutes. In short, I was making the miles but getting nowhere on the road to running continuity.
Finally, after a few months, I accepted the fact that, if I wanted to run longer, I would need to slow my roll. I kicked down the speed and immediately knocked out three miles in succession. Yes — in the eyes of a professional marathoner, three is a warm-up. But in the eyes of a professional never-gonna-marathon-er, three is a gold star victory. I was proud of that number, surprised I was able to make it even that far, and feeding off the pleasant feeling, I stuck to three for a while. Then one day, I amped it up to four.
The thing about my mind is that while she is undoubtedly my biggest critic, she can also get a little carried away with her confidence in my person’s abilities. She puts far too much detail into the portrait of Result: Success and far too few brushstrokes into the portrait of Success: The Epic Journey. And when she is content, this shortcoming is only exacerbated.
It was the hours following the community college’s graduation ceremony, and I was high off the euphoria of participating in my first as a faculty member. I love a graduation — there are few things that rival the blissful energy surrounding such an event, and I was buzzed with happiness. Therefore, when I ran into Paul and Bill (of gym No. 1’s running club) at a local restaurant, my aforementioned mind was hardly in her right self when she led me to announce, “I’ve been thinking about running a half-marathon.”
What? What? A million fiery dandelions exploded in my mind as my body attempted to process my mouth’s declaration, and I wanted to slap my own face in astonishment. It was not a lie — I had been thinking about running a half-marathon, but I had been thinking about it much in the way one thinks about flying to the moon or becoming the President of the United States. It was a pipe dream, really; something I never imagined I would literally do, and something the small, sweet, fantasy-driven aspect of my mind nevertheless dared to encourage me toward with whispers of, “You could do it, Madame President. Of course you could do it!”
In retrospect, I should have known better than to let that little nymph take control of my voice. Now, not only had I uttered the words aloud, I had uttered the words aloud to other individuals — other runner-individuals at that.
“Oh!” Paul said, his face lighting up, practically glowing amber in the dim of the restaurant, “If you want to do it, I will train you! There’s a half-marathon in Cherokee that you have to sign up for if you’re really serious. It’s a good course, and you get all kinds of swag – long-sleeve t-shirts and bags and vests, and we do it every year! It’s great!”
“And soup,” Bill chimed in, “don’t forget about the soup, Paul, the soup!” (Note: animated delight over race-day soup, perhaps partially, at least, courtesy of Bill’s Bud Light.)
Paul half-heartedly concurred with the soup rave then settled back to business. “Think about it, seriously. If you really want to do this, I will train you. But I will warn you, you will hate me in the moment.”
Pressure. Suddenly, the slightest tingles of pressure, and Reality began to languidly saunter back to the throne from which my running-reverie had knocked her down. Just before she reached its golden precipice, however, I discreetly stuck out my foot and tripped her. I assured Paul that I would think about his offer and moved on, head tingly (and only slightly aghast) with the suddenly more real possibility of becoming a genuine, race-participating runner.
And think, I did. As Friday night elapsed into the wee hours of Saturday morning, the likelihood of sleep and participation in a full marathon were synonymous (i.e., not happening); therefore, and in typical millennial fashion, I turned to the distraction of my cell phone and decided there would be no immediate, breath-snatching harm in simply researching the half-marathon Paul had mentioned. So, right ear to pillow, iPhone positioned four inches from my contact-less eyes, I gingerly thumbed my search into Google.
The “Harvest Half,” as it turned out to be called, would take place on the first day of 2016’s October with a course that looped through and around Cherokee with a stint in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its website was quite simple and to the point – this is where you’ll be running, this is what time the race starts, and here is the link to register, if you are so inclined.
Perhaps it was a result of being sleepier than I thought, or perhaps there was a residual shot of graduation adrenaline pumping through my veins. Whatever the case, I found myself clicking a yellow box with the words “Online Registration” emblazoned across in black. This led to yet another “Registration” button, an orange box this time, and I felt as Alice must have as she followed the White Rabbit down, down, down the rabbit hole. I tapped my phone screen to place a checkmark into the Half-Marathon box, electronically initialed a waiver indicating that I “deprived myself of the ability to sue certain parties,” clicked “Continue,” and moved on.
My name. My age. My gender. My address. Simple requests and, though I was slowly succumbing to the beginning whispers of sleep, things I could rattle off with robotic ease. Soon, however, I encountered a sentence that jolted me back towards awake: “Please indicate your estimated time of completion.” And to my dismay, the maximum answer accepted was three hours, not a single second more, thank you kindly. I opted not to dwell on it—if some part of me was invested enough to pursue the venture to this point, too much thinking would be a sure-fire way to knock it out. I typed “3:00” in the box and scrolled on. Payment information was up next, an obstacle no more challenging than my name as online bill-pay (truth: online shopping) has left my debit card information deftly impressed upon my mind.
Fifty-three dollars. Confirm Registration. A brush against the touchscreen. Thank you and good luck.
Reality this time, as to not be deterred again, walked arm-in-arm with Truth, and they crept deliberately towards my cerebrum in the days following my brash decision. A half-marathon is 13.1 miles. Thirteen point one miles. More miles than lie between Brooklyn and Times Square. More miles than I have fingers on two hands. And at this point, the most I had consecutively run was four miles. On a treadmill. Yet there I was, somehow feeling as though my mediocre activity level qualified the audacity to register for those four miles plus nine point one more. I found solace, however, in Time — that tricky magician who can be both the giver and taker of comfort. Five months separated present-day me from race-day me, and in theory, future me is always superior. (Though proof of this is…inconclusive.) Five months’ worth of days loomed before me like an endless meadow of butterfly-tipped wildflowers, and I used this expanse to squelch the flow of my ever-pessimistic thoughts. There was a chance, after all, that one of my ancient ancestors was a long-distance message-carrier, and perhaps my body had simply failed to yet activate those superior genes of endurance.
On the initial gym visit following my registration, I ran five miles on the treadmill, and my almost-31-year-old left knee put up the first physical fight. In response, I bought a brace to pacify her twinges and screams. The day I made it to six miles, my right femur expressed solidarity with her counterpart’s joint and threatened to disarticulate from her acetabulum. I reluctantly conceded to their demands and took a few days off.
But ultimately, I knew running on a treadmill would only be so productive. I needed to be outside, running without the comfort of the air conditioning, without the push of the treadmill belt.
So the next morning, I went out early. My little town has a trail called the Riverwalk that consists of just enough length to feel like an accomplishment without the daunting distance of impossibility. I walked for a bit first, but impatience coupled with an urgency to see just how far I could go coerced my legs into a jog less than a quarter of a mile in. The air was cool for a southern May morning, and filtered through the blossoms of honeysuckle and magnolia, it felt sweet in my lungs. The first couple miles passed enjoyable in this setting, and I began to imagine how many cartwheels I might turn through the finish line of the half-marathon.
By the fourth mile, the smell was sickening, and mocking the efforts of my lungs to successfully respire through my nose and mouth. My legs were moving but seemingly going nowhere, and unlike on a treadmill, where going nowhere is acceptable—preferred even—going nowhere outside moved me no closer to my vehicle, my blessed, air-conditioned, engine-powered vehicle, that existed to take me any place my heart desired. My resolve began to falter, doubt creeping up the axons of my brain cells, when I heard the automated voice from my running app announce the completion of five miles. I stopped for a celebratory inhalation; I can do this, I thought. I am doing this! Look at me out here—running! Like a runner! I’m kind of awesome….
This was too much confidence, too soon, because I was also kind of clueless. It would have perhaps been sensible to take Paul up on his training offer, but I’m not always in the business of being sensible. Paul never even knew I registered for the run. I wish I could say this stemmed solely from a desire to prove something to myself, to prove to myself I could do this on my own, but in truth, my decision to not reach out to him stemmed mostly from the fear that I would embarrass myself. There was nothing running-elite graceful about my fly-catcher breathing, and I’d be damned if I let him see me struggle. Stubborn—at least I had that going for me.
By the middle of June, I had increased my treadmill distance to seven miles and my outside distance to six, but the reality of doubling those distances started to seem a little daunting. But the race was still four months away, and in the month I had been diligently running, I had added four miles to my running distance. That math seemed foolproof, and I placed the burden of actually achieving success on my future self. By July, however, I had hit a wall. The heat was relentless, and because I couldn’t manage to wake up early enough to miss its bake, I found myself back on a treadmill. The monotony was twitch-inducing, the four walls suffocating, the music I had once relied on to distract me—infuriating. I spent more time skipping songs than I did listening, and when travel took me away from home for two weeks, the ease with which I abandoned the gym was significant. I felt guilty about the lost time. I also felt relieved to have a reason away. It’s only two weeks and I still have months and I can make up for this, I thought. I’ll hit it again when I get back and it’ll be better—I’ll be refreshed, renewed, recharged!
It’s too easy to think that. It’s too easy to think future me will give more of a damn.
When I returned home at the beginning of August, I came back with the half-marathon looming. My desire to do it had lost its dazzle, leaving grit and determination to pick up the slack. But I had set a goal for myself, hadn’t I? And I had told people about it, throwing out the “Oh, yeah, I’m running a half-marathon soon” with all the nonchalance of a hair toss. I had to do it, I thought. I didn’t know how. But I had to.
On the last morning, I went out around eight. I started at the Riverwalk again, jogged back through downtown—six miles—and followed the sidewalk to the outskirts of town. By this time, any suggestion of morning’s airiness was drowned by humidity; every inhale deposited itself in my lungs like a bowling ball. I crossed over the bridge and into the shade of the Bradford pear trees that lined the sidewalk, and finally slowed to a walk. The sidewalk curves outward here, shouldering the incoming edge of the four-lane, and ends at the entrance of a Baptist church, one that sits on a hill overlooking a McDonald’s and a traffic light.
I stopped there, at walkway’s end, and checked my phone for distance. Seven miles. I propped my hands on my hips and squinted into the golden arch of the McDonald’s sign, and a realization dawned with so much certainty it was gentle, as if it had been there all along, only concealed: I didn’t want to run an inch further, much less thirteen point one miles. And if I didn’t want to run thirteen point one miles, I didn’t have to run thirteen point one miles.
Self-given permission. Had I ever given myself that before? So many of my decisions were typically dictated by fear or doubt, but this felt different. In this, there was no ambivalence, no longing, no questioning; it was fuller than the giddiness of registering for the race, wiser than the tenacity of running myself ragged. Registering had been wild and restless, a whirlwind fed by starry-eyed intention and a notion that mileage could compensate for something I felt I lacked. But whatever that was couldn’t have been fulfilled by distance—what I needed was the discovery of a little self-possession.
And I recognized it then, settling the pace of my breathing and the beat of my heart as I walked back to the car, released.
Tiffany Goebel lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband Shane and rock star pup Juniper. She teaches English at a local community college, and though biology claimed her bachelor’s degree, she recently received an MFA in creative writing from Ashland University.