Sunday, March 27, 2005

President's Fitness Challenge

I came very close to letting the entire month of March pass without so much as a bleep posted on my blog.


I am running anew. Training for, gasp, a timed mile. No race. No competition. No daunting goal.

Picture this. I'm 8. Ronald Reagan is president, and I'm politically engaged enough already to know that he's bad news. My least favorite of his policies: forcing children, such as myself, to run a timed mile once every year as part of the "President's Fitness Challenge." Pull-ups, a weigh-in, and other tests are part of this as well, but I dread nothing more than the timed mile.

This year, I think maybe I've underestimated myself. So...My mom wakes me up that morning, smelling somewhat of the cigarettes she still smokes in the house, despite the frequent requests from me and my dad to take it outside. I eat breakfast and make my way to school, dressed in gym clothes for Tuesday and the Fitness Challenge. Classes are fun, I love playing with batteries and light bulbs in science.

I look up and realize it's almost time. Mary complains that she's not sure she can finish the mile. Even though Mary never really talks to me, I make secret plans in my head to be her friend, figuring that she'll want to talk to me once she realizes that I'm just as slow as she is.

We get to gym class and head outside. We'll have to run around the school eight times. Our gym teacher, Mr. Neil, has measured the distance with a round spinny thing attached to a stick. Right now I hate the round spinny thing attached to a stick, because eight times around the school seems like a lot, and Galen keeps saying that a mile is no big deal, but this seems like a big deal.

We line up, and Mr. Neil yells "Go!" The boys take off very fast, and a few of the girls do as well. I start running, and try going as fast as I can. Almost immediately, everyone has left a handful of us in the dust. I resolve to stick by Mary, and Samantha, and Katie, not to fall behind them. Because if I do, I realize, I'm going to be last. Mr. Neil tells us our time each time we pass him. I've run around the school four times, and some kids have already passed me twice. Mary, Samantha and Katie seem to be holding up okay, but my side stings like nothing I've ever felt. I can't get enough air into my lungs - I keep trying to get taller, to make more room, but it feels like I'm drowning.

Two words run through my mind: This hurts. Again and again. This hurts. This hurts. This hurts.

I give up. I start walking. As I round about my fifth, sixth, and seventh laps around the school, the group of finished kids grows. They are resting on the grass, in the sun. I keep walking, except during the times when I pass them. I've heard that finishing in eight minutes is really good. Ten minutes is fine. Twelve minutes, well, that's slow. Except the thing is, it's already been more than twelve minutes.

I finally finish. Somewhere around fifteen minutes. I'm last. Mary finished long before me, and later that afternoon she makes fun of me for being so slow. So much for our new bond.

Fast forward. I'm nine, then ten. Both years, Mom and Dad, knowing how miserable this experience has been for me, generously write me a note, trying to get me out of the timed mile. It works when I'm nine, much to my great relief. But when I'm ten, no go. I'll save the full story of that year's mile for another time, but needless to say, I finished feeling just as humiliated, and was teased even more than I had been before.

So. Now I'm twenty-six. Married. Trained for a marathon last year - finished all of my long runs beautifully, running the whole way. After months of winter training, finished the marathon itself on an 85 degree day - that took some walking. From time to time, still find myself replaying elementary school and the Fitness Challenge in my head.

Except recently, I had a revelation. I was lying in bed, remembering the humiliation, and wishing that President Reagan hadn't been such a cruel man. Then I gratefully remembered that I am an adult now. An adult who learned how to train. And well, if I'm feeling embarassed that I can't run faster now, I don't need, or want, a get-out-of-gym note. In fact, that's the last thing my parents should have been giving me back then.

What I needed then, and have now, was a training schedule and some encouragement. So. Bob made me a schedule, and now it's my job to stick to it. I started two weeks ago. In eight more weeks, the kid in me is hoping to run the fastest timed mile of my life. With the adult in me there to cheer her on.

Wish me luck.

(BTW, the Fitness Challenge is still around, but a little different these days... if you're interested...)