One frozen January evening in 2010, I shoved a pair of pajama shorts, a decade-old sports bra, worn-down sneakers, and an 8-year-old tee shirt from a dorm dance into a backpack and trudged through the Chicago winter to the nearest gym. I mounted a treadmill, suddenly aware that I’d never been on a treadmill before. I ran to the point of total physical exhaustion: two miles.
My paternal grandfather had died suddenly the previous August, and I did not take it well. For several weeks, the only thing I could bring myself to do after dragging my carcass home from my unpleasant subordinate finance job was go into my bedroom, draw the curtains, crawl into my bed wearing all of my clothing including my depressing suntan colored nylons, and watch old David Lynch stuff until I passed out. Every day felt like I was being cruelly and arbitrarily strung by an indifferent musician. I felt passive and replaceable. Things were happening to me; I wasn’t making anything happen. I wondered what it would be like to slip on the ice and hit my head and gently fall into a coma, or to just flicker out of existence.
Walking home alone in late December and feeling even more disposable than usual, I got the incredibly basic idea to fix myself the way depressed people in movies do it: I was going to do something physically difficult. I was going to run a whole marathon. 2010 was going to be a montage! I was wearing bulky boots and tried to halfway jog the last block home. Imagine doing that 1000 times, I thought to myself.
I’d run in high school and jogged rarely (and begrudgingly) since. In the intervening post-collegiate years, I’d spent more time poisoning my body and lungs with various drinkables and inhaleables than taking care of myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually gone on a jog. My diet consisted of melted cheese and Diet Coke.
I was going to do it. That was settled. I was going to rearrange my entire life around a thing that I wasn’t sure I even liked.
I didn’t make the first move lightly. Before I put shoes on and punched the treadmill buttons like a curious baby monkey that January night, I followed these maybe-not-that essential preparatory steps. You can follow them, too, if you, like me, are fond of talking yourself into crazy shit.
No matter what clothes you already own, chances are they aren’t good enough to run in. This thought isn’t based on anything real; this is based entirely on your neurotic visions of a gym populated by people in Outfits, matching tops and bottoms and maybe even sweatbands, judging you in your ratty clothes. They’re committing your face to memory, the Sexy Gym People, so that the next time they run into you, they can laugh in your face.
Clearly, you need new clothes. While limping into Lululemon and dropping hundreds on stretchy candy colored tank tops you’re just going to sweat in might appeal to your wallet’s death wish, head instead to Old Navy, where there is plenty of perfectly good workout gear that costs a lot less. Which means you can buy about five shirts and three pairs of stretchy leggings and maybe even a sports bra for the cost of one pair of Lululemon pants. So you buy 10 of each, saving yourself no money and progressing toward your destiny of eventually drowning in your own crap.
On the walk home, you remind yourself that a jog isn’t a catwalk and a treadmill isn’t a runway. Gym people are too focused on themselves to compare themselves to you, and the only people out during prime jogging time on weekend mornings are people who who have spent the previous night making very bad decisions, serious church people, and other runners, and none of those groups is particularly known for being fashion forward. Oh well. At least you own something that isn’t coffee stained.
Next, toddle into your kitchen, ever aware of the radiant presence of your new workout gear in the drawer, tags still on. Open your cupboards and throw out all of the three year old couscous and make a grocery list labeled “Running foods.” Stare at it for a minute before writing “bananas “ and “energy bars” on it. Realizing you know nothing about what runners eat, walk to the nearest newsstand buy a Runner’s World magazine, reading the food and recipe section as you walked home. Make a mental note to learn what “faro” is.
Go to the grocery story and purchase some “faro” and about 15 Clif Bars and a pouch of running “gel.” Eat the gel on the way home. It tastes like frosting. It is one of the worst things you’ve ever eaten. You hate running.
Wow. Inspiring. You can totally do it. Listen to that music!
Reminder: at this point, you have run zero miles.
OK. Never mind. You’re not going to try a marathon. And why even try if you can’t do the hardest version of the thing you’re trying?
Decide you need professional advice. Throw away the half of the Clif Bar you just stopped eating on account of the poop footage.
Step 5: Randomly text your runner friend whom you haven’t spoken with in years for advice on getting started.
Seems reasonable. Lots of walking. Nothing insane. Bookmark it.
That’s, what, five miles? There’s your confirmation email. You’re registered.
This is very important. If your playlist isn’t completely intact, you will fail at running. The list must contain every party jam from the last five years of your life and must not be self-conscious in the least; when it comes to running songs, there’s no accounting for taste. Be obsessive about this.
Trying to run with a bad playlist is like trying to get into heaven with a bad soul, you convince yourself, three hours into rearranging tracks in a darkened apartment. You eat another Clif Bar.
Rest is essential, according to the copy of Runner’s World you just bought.
It’s dark out. You’ve wasted your Saturday. You don’t have time to run now. You can do it tomorrow.
You feel like a dork. An impostor dork.
You can take it as far as you want. Get to the point where you drink a bunch of water in preparation for your aborted run. Keep your gym bag packed, and move it closer and closer to the door. Bring it to work. Forget it at work. Get home all ready to run one night only to realize that it’s sitting there under your desk.
Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now can say with confidence that the most efficient and least whiny way to become a runner is to wake up one morning, lace up a pair of running shoes, don appropriate clothing and slowly jog a mile or five. Then, do it again the next day (or later that week, or whenever you can take time out of your normal schedule of television and despair). And then do it again, etc, as health and fitness levels allow, gradually increasing with time until reaching a point with which you’re satisfied. Along the way, it helps to be realistic and unafraid to slow down even more or walk if you feel tired; nobody is going to ridicule you for it, even if you’re running with your elbows out and knees together like a real dork, your face tomato-red with exertion; nobody else out on a run will even remember or care. Boom! You’re a runner! You did it!
Some signifiers we’re born with, others we choose. I didn’t pick my name or my hometown, my hair color, my height. But almost six years ago, after much hemming and hawing and comically avoidant procrastinating I chose to become a runner. Nine months later, I finished my first Chicago marathon. I ran it again two years ago. And I’m doing it a third time in two weeks. I’m never going to win a race; I may not even qualify for the Boston marathon, but I can say with confidence that training for a marathon beats lying in bed and crying.
You can do it, too. Just use cloying energy Gel and poop-related YouTube videos sparingly.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby.