It was five years ago that I pinned on my very first racing bib, lined up in my first corral, and ran my first race.
On Sunday, Oct. 7 when I toe the line at the Staten Island Half Marathon, I’ll be starting my 50th race. It’s a milestone I never could have imagined in my previous life as a person who hated running.
Over the course of those 50 races, running has become one of my passions—not because I’m great at it. I’m only slightly better than average. But because it’s something I couldn’t even conceive of doing for many years. Being able to run now feels like a gift, even after five years and 50 races.
My first road race in 2007 was a return to competitive life for me. As a child I was a swimmer. I was a Chicago district champion, placed in the top 10 at the Illinois state meet a few times, and have a storage bin full of blue ribbons, trophies and medals to show for it. Swimming taught me what it felt like to win.
In college, I rowed. Along with my teammates, I competed at big events like the Head Of The Charles Regatta. We weren’t the best crew in the world, but we weren’t the worst either. We won some small head to head races, and placed somewhere in the middle in the big ones. With rowing, I learned what it meant to work as a team.
But running was a new beast altogether. I’ve never felt the thrill of a win. The highest I’ve ever placed is 10th amongst 65 women at a small 5K (race #31) and 1,456th out of 15,806 women at a large half-marathon (race #45), just cracking the top 10 percent. And much of the time, I’m going it alone, training and racing by myself. Sure, I train with a team once a week, but it’s more for camaraderie than anything. Running has just been different that anything I’ve challenged myself with before.
For starters, I wasn’t immediately good at it. With swimming and rowing, I was a natural, using my tall frame to my advantage. Running, on the other hand, felt anything but natural.
Thanks to a slow-growing bone tumor in my leg that sat right at the knee joint, running had been a painful endeavor for more than a decade. I avoided it at all costs. I walked with a limp, lived with constant pain and stuck to low-impact exercise until any exercise at all was too painful to contemplate. Eventually, even riding the elliptical machine and walking was sheer pain.
That is, until surgery changed things. It was a long road to recovery—three months on crutches, three months of no activity whatsoever and six months of only the gentlest low-impact activity.
But one year post-surgery I was largely tumor free and my doctor told me it was time to start rebuilding the muscle and bone-density in my leg. The quad muscles in my “bad leg” had shriveled after years of limping and disuse; I even used to row one legged by anchoring my stroke with my “good leg” while the bad one just came along for the ride. My right leg was at least two pant sizes smaller than my left one. I looked like a healthy athlete from the left side and an anorexic model from the right.
But when my doc suggested running as the perfect bone-building exercise, I scoffed. It had been the single most painful exercise pre-surgery. Once upon a time, I’d loved to run. As a kid, I’d run to swim team practice as my best friend bicycled by my side and I enjoyed hitting the track for “dry land” workouts. But as the mystery pain in my knee crept in, so did my fear of running.
But I’ve always been the person who follows doctors orders. So one day, I laced up the only sneakers I had—a pair of cross-trainers—and I hit the sidewalk. It was some ugly business. After 12 years of avoiding running at all costs, I lasted three blocks before I was completely out of breath. There wasn’t exactly pep in my step. Instead, there was lots of sweating, heaving, huffing, puffing, and, oh yes, walking. But I stuck with it and three blocks turned into five, which then became 10, and eventually stretched into a mile.
I soon felt my well-worn hatred for running morph into something else—joy. Sure, it hurt. But it hurt in a different way than it used to. Instead of the usual searing pain shooting through my leg, I felt a familiar burning in my lungs—a burn I recognized from swimming and rowing. It was accompanied by that familiar burst of energy that comes with an endorphin high, which was doubled when I made the startling realization that I could run at all. I was free from the pain that inhibited me all those years. Free from the fear. Just free. The athlete within me had been reawakened and given a new lease on life. I felt pure, unfiltered joy.
Before long, I was ready to tackle my first race. It was a 4-miler in New York City’s Central Park. I finished in 46:19 at an 11:34 per mile pace. It was a start.
Now five years later, I’m staring down my 50th race. I’m fitter, I’m faster and I espouse the wonders of running to anyone who will listen. I can run a marathon at a much faster pace than I raced those first 4 miles. The half-marathon I’ll run for my 50th race? I’ll likely run somewhere around a 9-minute pace per mile. And I can run a single mile in 6:46.
But I’ve always held the belief that it’s not how fast you run that makes you a runner. It’s how much you love it.
I love running. And I love that there are millions of other people out there, like me, who love it too—fast and slow, lifers and newbies. I love that all I need for a run is a can-do attitude. Heck, I don’t even need a pair of shoes. Running is with me every where I go, and many of the places I go, I tackle with a run.
So here’s to 50 races gone by, and another 50 yet to come. Happy running to you!
Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runner’s weekly lifestyle web show about running. She has completed four marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.