I run more than I used to. And much faster.
For the longest time, I had a set running scheme. Twenty jumping jacks, hop on the treadmill, start at 6.4 speed, increase the speed one tenth every half mile for two miles, slow back down to 6.4 for the third mile, speed up a decimal every quarter mile until I hit mile 3, then speed up to 7.0 until I got to 3.11 miles, or a 5k. Stop. Stretch.
I’ve always been sluggish. I’ve never been quick on my feet. My legs are disproportionately short and squat compared to my longer, leaner torso. I’m not built for speed. I was proud of my nine-to-ten minute miles, since 7th grade me could barely puff out a mile in 14 minutes and always had to stop and walk.
Then I had a conversation with one of our church teens. He’s a he, considerably taller than me, with long skinny legs and long flailing arms. He attends the school I attended when I was a teenager, and one of the features of their physical education program (as is the case with every phys. ed. program) is a regularly scheduled timed (and graded) mile run. We were comparing mile times; I rather proudly told him I could run a mile in about nine minutes.
He looked at me in wonder. “Nine minutes?” he said, almost pityingly. “That’s like, a D.”
Even though I know this boy well enough to know that he would never intend to hurt, I broke a little inside. I had worked hard for several years to get that fast. I was only able to make it to the three-mile mark in the last four years (my first time was when I was 20). I have managed very well for a person who is not genetically predisposed to athleticism. I’ve rarely even experienced “runner’s high”—running doesn’t feel good until I’m finished running. The act of running isn’t very fun, but it’s the most straightforward thing I’ve figured out to do that helps me stay healthy. As someone with no coordination, questionable depth perception, and a visceral aversion to group activities, sports are a significantly less enjoyable fitness option. Yoga, though and fun and challenging alternative, doesn’t get my heart rate up. I love feeling my heart thud confidently through the miles; I love the feeling of my springy knees; I love coming to the end of a few miles knowing I earned the warmth radiating from and through my muscles. So I run. Not fast. Just determinedly, and consistently: at least five times a week at varying distances.
I wasn’t about to take anyone’s pity for not being able to run fast. The following Monday, I started a mile at my usual finishing pace (7.0, or about an 8.75-minute mile) and sped up a bit every minute. I surprised myself with my first 8.25-minute mile.
Of course, I couldn’t let myself stop there. I had to get faster, and I had to be faster over longer distances. I kept my established pattern for 5ks, but kept increasing my starting speed. I would do 2-mile interval runs, alternating a minute of sprinting with a minute of running at an easier pace until I reached 2 miles, always finishing at my maximum speed. I would run a mile at a time, going as fast as my legs and lungs could carry me. I supplemented with weighted leg exercises, like squat jumps and calf raises and walking lunges and many, many more. I would choose my pre-run meals carefully, making sure that I would be full but not too full and sufficiently carbed up for my fastest and easiest pace.
Soon I could run 2 miles in 16 minutes, which quickly shrank to 2 miles in 15:23. My 5k time went down from 28 minutes to 25 and change. Occasionally I can go for 4 miles without killing myself (although my feet have taken a beating).
This week, I ran a 5k in my shortest time ever: 23 minutes and 58 seconds, or about 7 minutes and 45 seconds per mile. Today I ran 4 miles at an easier pace of about 8.5 minutes per mile, finishing in 32 minutes and 43 seconds.
All of this information is, I understand, more or less meaningless statistics on a runner who will probably never run in any race longer than a 5k. I realize that there are hundreds if not thousands of people out there who can run much faster than me and who probably think a 7:45 mile is embarrassingly slow. I understand that, so laugh all you like.
But I am proud of myself. I am fast, sort of. And I am getting faster.