Couch to 5K: I Think Maybe I Can Actually Do This

Couch to 5K

Me, looking down at my feet, clad in my snazzy new running shoes

I’ve never been an athlete in the way most people – including me –  think of athletes. Growing up, I was very physically fit and active, but instead of playing in the local youth softball league, my daily exercise involved things like swimming in our pond, climbing trees, chasing my siblings and cousins around, and jumping out of haylofts

Throughout all 12 years of elementary, middle and high school, I never really had any interest in playing team sports, instead preferring to write for the student newspaper and act in school plays. While I am very competitive by nature, as a teenager, I expressed my competitiveness not on the playing field, but in debate tournaments and student elections.

According to my high school yearbooks, I did rather inexplicably run one season of cross-country, and I played on the tennis team during my junior year. Having never really played an actual  game of tennis before walking on the team, I was obviously a completely useless addition to the group. However several of my best pals – girls who actually were good tennis players – were on the team, so it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. However, these brief adolescent forays into cross country and tennis were it; I just had no interest in organized sports.

The only generally recognized athletic endeavor in which I have ever been actively involved was equestrian in nature. Since babyhood, I have been horse-crazy (I still am), and luckily enough, my parents relocated our family from the city to a farm when I was about 6 years old. That move allowed me to receive a very cranky, mean-tempered Welsh pony for my 7th birthday, which I still recall as one of the more thrilling moments of my life. I did not, however, receive a saddle (!!) along with the pony, so without any adult assistance, I learned to ride bareback on this very grouchy pony, and in the process, I discovered that I loved to ride and was pretty darn good at it. It came easily and naturally to me.

I eventually acquired a saddle, and another pony, and then a horse of my own, and by middle and high school, other people were actually paying me to train their own ponies and horses. I used the money I earned to fund much of the cost of competing in horseshows, something I did happily and successfully throughout my teenage years. I even rode on my college’s varsity equestrian team during my freshman year before lack of dollars and time led me to give up riding. I always figured I’d pick my chosen sport up again when I graduated college and had a job, but life and early motherhood intervened, and it’s now been two decades since I last rode regularly, much yes competed in a horseshow.

So that’s my sports history in a nutshell. Not much to it, huh?

As I’ve mentioned a few times on my blog in recent years, I know very well that I am at a point in my life where I really have to start exercising – both to remain healthy and to stop the slow creep of middle aged pounds that now want to settle permanently around my waist. But as someone who has never seen herself as an athlete or even as athletic, and someone who also knows that other people don’t see me that way, I have just always found  it bizarrely challenging to figure out how to begin exercising regularly in a way that’s enjoyable enough that I don’t dread it.

So I’ve put off figuring this out, and despite a few false starts over time, I’ve put off starting to participate in some kind of athletic activity….and put it off…and put it off…

But lately, something has changed for me. And I am cautiously optimistic that the change is going to stick around. I am running. Yep, that’s right, I am actually going out for a run at least three times a week. I almost can’t believe it myself.

When I first met Jon, he ran regularly, but over the next few years, we got so busy with work and family that he stopped altogether, and he didn’t run even once for 5 or 6 years.  But he often spoke wistfully of how much he missed running, something that completely baffled me since I have always hated running every time I’ve ever given the activity a feeble try.

Then about 4 months or so ago, Jon came home one day with a new pair of running shoes that he’d acquired for himself. And then he went running. Just like that. An hour later, he returned, grinning from ear to ear. He’d gone a mile or two, with some walking, and he felt elated.

Yesterday, only 16 or 18 weeks after he re-started running regularly, Jon ran eight miles. And he came home grinning the same way he did that first day. He absolutely loves it, and although he wasn’t in any way overweight when he started running again, his body has changed. He’s leaner and has more muscle definition. And he says he sleeps better and is just more relaxed in general since he laced up his running shoes and hit the road.

After three months of watching Jon fall in love with running all over again, and after seeing how much joy it gives him. I decided that maybe I would try running one more time. I’ve given running a chance several times since becoming an adult, and frankly, I found it just awful in every way. I hated it. However, I realized that if running makes my husband feel that good (and look that good!), maybe I needed to give it another try. Nothing that makes someone that happy can be that awful, I told myself.

So with Jon’s encouragement, I went to the good running store in town and was fitted for real running shoes that actually fit my (wide at the toes) feet. And then I went looking for clothing I could run in now, at 20 or 30 pounds over my best weight, and still feel like I look kind of like a serious runner and not like the chubby fraud I’ve felt like when I’ve tried running in the past wearing baggy gym shorts and a big cotton t-shirt. Last but not least, I tracked down and bought a few critical accessories (more on that in a moment), the absence of which has played a not insignificant part in my previous lame excuses for quitting running after only a few days.

Then, instead of just going out to run without a plan, I decided to do a little research on how best to start as a beginner. Thus, the Googling of terms like “how to become a runner”  began, and one of the first things I found was this AMAZING “before and after” story from a blogger who didn’t think of herself as an athlete, but who has transformed herself through running.  Her photos are so inspiring. Before she began running, she was – judging by her photos – curvy and kind of plump as opposed to seriously obese. Most people probably wouldn’t have called her “fat.” But she didn’t like the way her body felt, and in the photos she’s shared after running for a year or so, she looks so much healthier and fitter and stronger. And her love of running, and the joy it gives her is just oozing from every word and photo on her blog.

“I WANT WHAT SHE”S GOT,”  I thought to myself as I read her story. I want both the body changes and also the sheer enjoyment that this blogger, just like Jon, now clearly takes in her running.

In reading through this runner’s blog, I noticed that she mentioned the “Couch to 5K program” as having provided her initial running jumpstart . I’d heard of Couch to 5K, but didn’t know much about it, so I then began Googling  that specific phrase.  I realized pretty quickly that if what I was reading from other runners online was to be believed, this Couch to 5K thing was a program that might actually turn me into a runner. It seemed like something I could do.

So a few weeks ago, I began the Couch to 5K program. I went out for my first run one evening after work, with Jon cheering me on as I headed out the door. One of the problems I have always had with trying to exercise regularly is that I would prefer to do it alone – meaning, not in a class setting or at a gym. However, when I am alone, I am also lacking any sort of instruction or coaching from anyone, and this leaves me feeling a bit aimless in my efforts, which has definitely played a role in my failure to stick to running the few times I have tried it in years past. But this time, I took the recommendation of many C25k graduates sharing their stories online, and I downloaded one of the several iPhone apps available to “coach” new runners as they complete the eight week C25k program.

The app I decided to go with is called 5k Runner, and from day one, I have loved it.  I can listen to podcasts or music with the app running in the background, and it will pipe up when it’s time for me to walk, run, warm up or cool down. With someone actually telling me what to do – speaking the words into my ears through my headphones – I don’t worry or fret about whether I am “doing it right” or whether I miscounted how long I ran or walked on a certain day of the program. This app tells me what to do,  when to do it, and for how long. After I finish each day of the 8 week C25K program, I check it off using the app’s special calendar so that I can see my improvement over time. I LOVE THIS APP.

Within only three runs (okay, walks + runs, because that’s how you start the C25K program), I knew that something was fundamentally different this time than in every previous attempt I have ever made to take up running, or take up ANY exercise program. The difference was that I was actually enjoying myself. With the help of the handy dandy 5k running app, I immediately felt a sense of progressive accomplishment, rather than feeling like I was just floundering around like a big sports loser.

The other thing that I think has made a big difference in starting me off right with a new exercise commitment this time around has been making the upfront investment in good running shoes and real running apparel. For starters, I bought myself a real sports bra instead of just wearing the stretched out cotton kind-of-a-sports-bra-but-not-really thing that I’ve had for years. Can I just tell you how much of a difference that makes? Amazing.

Also,  instead of just wearing my baggy, frumpy old gym shorts that ride up my inner thighs when I run, I found some really cute running skirts with built in compression shorts. I bought two pairs, instead of one, so I can’t use dirty running shorts as a reason to skip a day. I love these running skirts. I feel like a real athlete in them even if I am not, and they are super comfortable, meaning I am not thinking about/being irritated by my shorts riding up my legs when I am running. They’re actually quite cute, if I do say so myself.

Last, I invested in two essential (to me) exercise accessories: the first of these was a set of new headphones for listening to music, podcasts and my 5K app on my iPhone while I run (I hate earbuds; I wanted real headphones, but ones that would be relatively light and small ), and second, I bought a stretchy thing that reliably holds my glasses/prescription sunglasses in place when I run. As someone who is truly blind as a bat, running without my glasses (or doing ANYTHING without my glasses) is simply not an option. I’ve never been able to find anything that would hold them in place while I exercised, and I’ve used this issue as yet another excuse. But this time, I stumbled on some Croakies that really, truly work. I don’t even think about my glasses slipping down my nose or falling down my face when I am out running.

I have now been running every other day (Jon and I alternate days after we both get home from work, plus on the weekends) for several weeks. While that may not sound like very long to many of you, it’s by far the longest I have ever stuck with any specific athletic activity in the past 20 years. Far more importantly though, I am REALLY ENJOYING RUNNING! I can’t believe I am actually typing these words, but I honestly can’t wait to put on my snazzy running skirt, lace up my comfy shoes and head down to the greenway in our neighborhood to complete another day of my C25K training program. I really, really look forward to it, and I feel so amazing after I finish. I never knew that exercising could make me feel like that.

I am enjoying what I am doing so much, and I feel so optimistic, that I have already registered for my first 5k race, which takes place in April.  Although I am still very far from being ready to run a 5k as of today, if I just keep doing what I am doing, and if I don’t suffer an injury – fingers crossed – I absolutely should be ready to run that race by the time April rolls around.

If I can run that race – a real, honest to goodness 5K with entry forms and numbers for all the runners and everything – then maybe, just maybe I will feel a little bit like a “real” athlete for the first time in my life. I’m not sure about that, but I think I might. However, one thing I know for sure is that if I make it to the finish line , I will feel really proud of myself. And I’ll take that.

+++++

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