Archive for July, 2011

Do you remember your first run? Did it go as you imagined? Mine was a total failure. I recount the experience here as a reminder that we all have to start from somewhere. What we do next with our perceived “failure” is the key to any future success.

It was September in 1975 and I was a senior at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. I was under much pressure at the time. I was overly responsible, a perfectionist and an over-achiever. I was working 25 to 30 hours per week as a bookkeeper in a jewelry store, carrying a full class load, traveling frequently with the speech and debate team and I was married. We were both full-time students and both worked but we barely had enough to live on. In those days, it was expected that the woman carry the burden of the household and being a career woman was rare. I resented the fact that my husband, Greg, refused to help around the house. We fought bitterly and he was verbally abusive. I suffered from anxiety attacks and had chronic sinuses trouble. I was wired all the time.

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It was 4:10 when I turned into the drive leading to my apartment. My shirt was stuck to the car seat when I stepped out of the car onto the hardened dirt drive. Damn air conditioner. I turned the key in the lock and noticed a big roach scurry into the big crack on the front step. It felt like it was at least 100 degrees in there. I looked at the pile of books that Greg threw right smack in the middle of the room. Then I glared at the kitchen sink piled with dishes. I could see the pan with caked-on pasta sauce from where I stood and I heard a fly buzz by. Uhggg, it smelled like rotten milk. Greg was a slob and he was worthless around the house. I told him it was his turn to do the dishes. But no…after all he was a man.

Work was drudgery that day. Vera, my boss, insisted that the accounts receivable subledger balance to the penny to the general ledger. She made me nervous. All I can say is that my speed on the ten-key adding machine was blazing fast.  My head hurt thinking of all the crap I had yet to deal with. I could feel the pressure and I rubbed my eyes. I couldn’t relax. I felt that old familiar anxious feeling like something bad was about to happen…

I turned and looked outside the front door to the track about 200 feet away. It looked inviting—like it was calling out to me. I wanted to run. I had not exercised since high school when I bought a 10-speed bike. Now I was a senior in college. Okay…why not.

I put on a pair of Reebok’s and shorts and ventured outside toward the track. I squinted into the sun. The air felt heavy and humid. I didn’t understand why the college took such great pride in its history— maintaining the first building constructed in the 1930’s which stood as a proud monument to the school—but utterly ignored the married student apartments and this track. It was overgrown with weeds and the little grass that was in the field was burnt by the sun.

I waded through the weeds and shooed the bugs from my face. I stepped out onto the dirt track and eyed the ruts and holes in the hardened dirt. I never saw anyone on this track. Bethel was a football school. It looked like bleachers once stood on the side, but it was obvious that years had passed since any events were held on this track.

I took my first few steps. So far so good. I smiled and quickened the pace as I jumped over the first crevice. This was fun. I can do this—no sweat. I lunged forward and started running like someone was chasing me. By the time I got half way around the track I was gasping. I couldn’t get any air. My pace slowed to a crawl and I focused on my breath. Breathe deep—breathe deep. I just couldn’t get enough air. When I got to the end of the first loop I was finally breathing.

I walked a few steps. The sweat was trickling down my forehead and my left eye was starting to sting. I squinted and pursed my lips as I stared down the track. Loop number 2. It was damn hot. I stepped over another hole in the track. I took a deep breath and I started running again. I took off like I was racing a 50 yard dash.

What was I thinking?

Halfway around the track I was sucking wind again and I slowed to a crawl. Now both eyes were stinging and I wiped my forehead with the end of my shirt. I thought I might pass out. I tripped in a hole in the track and I felt like crying. I was 100 yards from the end of my second loop. I started to walk again.

Pathetic, I thought. I don’t have time for this. Two loops around the track—that’s one-half of a mile. I was 21 years old and couldn’t even run one-half of a mile.

Stress will make you old.  There are very few people who will disagree with that comment.  Just look at a recent picture of President Obama and compare it to when he was running for office…  Most of us will also agree that being President of the US is a stressful job so the connection between stress and aging seems real.  Now, however, a scientific study has linked chronic stress to cellular disintegration.  It is always nice to have scientific evidence of something we already know is true.

‘Stress’ is a word that conjures up so much stuff in us.  What does it mean anyway?  Is it a disease, a condition…a state of mind?  Whenever something feels bad, we call it stress.  But what is stressful to me may or may not be stressful to you and certainly not to the same degree.   For instance I feel some stress before I speak before a group but I know a couple of deep breaths will calm me down,  while someone else’s experience of public speaking is much worse and they make themselves sick thinking about it—to the point of not speaking at all.

The term “stress” was coined by Hans Selye back in 1936 who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  Selye made the connection that most diseases were not caused by specific pathogens (like Tuberculosis is due to tubercle bacillus), but instead that many different insults could cause the same disease.  We all feel stress on an individual basis and it manifests differently in all of us.  I get sinus infections and someone else has a heart attack.

So the key, it seems is to manage our stress.  There is also scientific evidence to support that exercise is a great way to manage stress.  First of all it can release pent up emotions (anger) and it decreases ‘stress hormones’ like cortisol and increases endorphins.  Exercise increases our physiological reactivity toward stress.  I feel more relaxed and at peace after a run or workout.

I have a close friend who is athletic and regularly exercises.  However, over the past two months, he has allowed other factors in his life to take priority like work, kids, and issues with his ex-wife.  He has tough issues to deal with right now and has not exercised on a consistent basis.  I have seen his demeanor change and I think he might blow up.  Think about it, have you ever made a wise decision when your thoughts are racing?

There are many ways to manage stress but I have found exercise to be a major factor in my ability to stay healthy and centered.  It was not until I started running in my mid-twenties that I began to better manage my life.  I had a nervous breakdown in my early 20’s and suffered from anxiety attacks (see My Story).  I still deal with ‘crisis’ in my life like the ability to make a living during the recession and a dysfunctional love relationship, but I assure you, I can manage myself though these situations and come out a better person on the other end.  After all ‘crisis’ or ‘stress’ is a state of mind.  One advantage of getting older and wiser is that we realize it really isn’t worth worrying about.  Tomorrow is a new day and a new beginning.


Speaking of motivation, I drug myself out to run yesterday morning.  Part of the reason I had to drag myself out is that I had 2 crappy runs in a row the prior 2 days.  Why were the runs crappy?  I am recovering from a sinus infection so I’m feeling tired and it is hot.  Most rational people run early in the morning or early evening, but not me.   I ran right smack in the middle of the day.  Part of my nature, however, is to overcome anything I perceive as challenging.  So the day after crappy run number 1, I completed crappy run number 2…feeling, well, crappy.

It was a holiday, so I got out of bed at 10am. Since I was seeing an Angel’s game in the evening, I needed to do my run in the heat of the day.  I must admit that my motivation was high to skip the run but I had skipped three days last week due to being out of town.  I know from experience that not staying on a consistent routine will hurt my future running performance.  Not only that, but I will not feel as fit or energetic and my weight will creep up.  I also feel that exercise is healing for the body.  Getting back into an exercise routine is harder than staying consistent and keeping at it, so I try to stay consistent.

Out the door I went because I made up my mind and chose the thought, “I can do this.  I will have a strong run.”  I could have chosen the thought, “I can’t do this.  I’m tired.  I will exercise tomorrow.”  But that thought would have created a different experience.

So I took that first step out the door.  It was over 80 degrees outside.  Even walking down the stairs took a mental push, “Yes, this run will be easy.”  I dare not allow the other thought to creep in.  The beginning of my course is uphill.  I turned up the IPOD as Huey Lewis and the News broke into “I Want a New Drug”.  Yes, that sounds good to me…

I glanced at my Garmin GPS and noticed I was running a 12 minute pace.  Yep, this 7 mile course was going to take me—I decided not to do the math.  “This run is tremendously easy.  This run is tremendously easy.”  It became a mantra.  Soon I was listening to “Build Me Up Buttercup.”  I decided to sing along.

My course runs along a path with hills and trees and flowers and a beautiful lake with a golf course.  It is also hilly.  But I began to notice that my pace was picking up and I could feel a cool breeze.  Yes, this run was actually getting easier.  I started to notice other crazy people on the course battling the heat.  Yep, even one of them smiled at me when she ran by.

When I got to the 3.5 mile mark to turn around, I rejoiced.  Now I was committed.  I was in my stride plus most of the way back was downhill.  For a second I felt really hot, time for my mantra.  “This run is tremendously easy.”

I finished the course—as I knew I would.  Was it really that hard?  No, it wasn’t.  I felt bad for a good mile and a half.  But as I expected, my body knew what to do and the run got easier and easier.  When I finished, I was hot and tired, but it was a less crappy run than the other two days. Goal accomplished.  I feel good that I exercised—I have never regretted taking that first step out the door.  In fact, I am always grateful that I am healthy and fit and able to get out and enjoy whatever the weather may be.  It’s always a thought away.