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How I Became a Runner, One Step at a Time

How I Became a Runner, One Step at a Time

When I was a girl my family lived next door to the high school track coach. Each afternoon his twins, a boy and a girl just two years older than me, would run up the hill, around the block, and out of sight. Thirty minutes later they would reappear at a steady clip and disappear back down the hill to their house.

From time to time I’d decide that I, too, would become a runner. I would put on my athletic shoes and set off, but barely half way around the block I’d feel a cramp in my side. Rather than push through it, I’d turn the corner and loop back to my house. Within five minutes I was inside, shoes cast aside, and I would declare, “I cannot run.”

My sister and I were dancers. We took both ballet and jazz classes and participated in the studio’s dance company. That was our “exercise.” However, once I graduated from high school, I left my dancing days behind. Exercise became seldom, with the occasional step aerobics, kickboxing, or spinning class.

When I was in my mid-thirties, after having two children, I decided that I wanted to run. History told me that this was not going to be a successful enterprise, but for some reason, I was optimistic and determined. A close friend and I found a 5-K four months in the future, and we decided to work toward that goal.

Each morning she would drive to my house after dropping her children at elementary school, and we would set off on our three-mile route. The accountability was critical. On the mornings she didn’t want to run, she knew I was dressed and waiting. On the mornings I wanted to cancel, I knew she was already on her way.

History told me that this was not going to be a successful enterprise, but for some reason, I was optimistic and determined.

We would warm up by walking down the big hill in my neighborhood (chatting and catching up on news while we walked). Then, when we reached the entrance to my neighborhood, we would start running. In the beginning, we could only run to the first light pole before we had to walk. We would run from light pole to light pole, taking walking breaks in between.

In time, we could run the distance of two light poles before walking. Then, we could run the distance of three. Eventually we were running more than we were walking. The week before the race we ran the entire distance of 3.2 miles without stopping to walk. During that run each of us wondered when the other would pause to walk, but when neither did, we kept running.

On race day, we gathered with the throng of runners, and our adrenaline began to surge. The pre-race energy was electrifying. When the starter pistol fired, we began to shuffle along with the other runners until the crowd thinned and we could run. We had decided upfront that we wanted to run every step of the race and that we would stay together. This strategy lasted until the final half-mile.

Suddenly a woman pushing a baby stroller passed us, running and drinking a Starbucks. My friend looked at me and smiled, and that was the last time I saw her face until the finish line. She took off, unwilling to be outpaced by a coffee-drinking, stroller-pushing mama. I kept my steady pace, and soon the finish line came into view. I crossed it, weeping with pride.

Now, nearly a decade later, my family participates in this same 5-K each Thanksgiving. Some run, and some walk. I’m in that latter group. However, I would love to run it again, yet it feels like an impossible goal. Then I remember that it felt impossible that first time too. So, I give myself grace and do the only thing I know to do: I put on my running shoes, and I start running. Today I may only be able to run to that first light pole. But tomorrow? I will run to the second.

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Susan cherishes the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, the bloom of a Dogwood tree, and the taste of her mother’s pound cake. She betrays her roots by taking her tea “unsweetened.”

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