From the archives: September 19, 2012
I am not a runner.
When I was little, I wanted to be a runner. I was super jealous of the kids in gym class who could run The Mile in under 7 minutes. You know, the kids who would hear the whistle and take off at a graceful lope, navigating the rocky terrain of the elementary school soccer field like a gazelle navigates open fields, grass billowing like the hair in an Herbal Essences commercial. (If you listen, you can almost hear the exhilarating screams of “Yes! Yes!”)
But running didn’t make me feel like a gazelle. Running made me feel more like tiny elves with hammers were trying to escape from a rib-lined dungeon. It didn’t help that my coach would jog easily beside me, yelling, “Come on, Emers!” cheerfully as I gasped for air.
When I was growing up in Texas, all public school kids had to take the Presidential Fitness Test. To pass—and be declared “healthy”—one had to perform a certain number of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, etc. within a given time. I’m a competitive, ambitious freak, so I tried to go above and beyond. I did twenty more sit-ups than necessary. I did fifty extra jumping jacks. I could even do three pull-ups (as a girl!).
I was on fire. I was ready to conquer the final obstacle. Then, the coach announced that we would be running The Mile in under ten minutes.
I freaked. Deep, even breaths became terrified gasps. Then, I steeled myself. I would finish The Mile. I would.
I didn’t. Not the first time, or the second time, or the third. Finally, my coach asked my mom if I could stay after school so I could have a one-on-one running session. My cheeks burned with embarrassment as I stepped onto the soccer field at 4:35 PM. Kids asked what was going on. My coach responded that I was just “a little slow” and needed “special encouragement.”
(For the record, I’m an honors student. This was both my first and last encounter with the words “a little slow.” They were beyond mortifying.)
The coach hit the stopwatch, and we began running. I tried to take it at an easy lope. Then, my lungs caught fire, and my ribs began shrinking, and my stomach began churning in protest. The tiny elves abandoned their hammers for pickaxes. My steady mantra of “You can do this” quickly became “You will NOT cry.”
To add insult to injury, every few feet was punctuated by my coach’s cheerful shout of “Come on, Emers!”
(Seriously. What kind of nickname is Emers?!)
We finished in 9 minutes and 19 seconds. I should’ve felt triumphant, or proud, or something. Instead, I felt empty and achy. The coach’s happy back-slaps of encouragement landed on stiff, sore shoulders.
“Aren’t you glad that’s over with?” my mom asked as I climbed into the car.
I didn’t reply. Two weeks later, the allergist diagnosed me with severe asthma. I was given an inhaler for attacks. It was supposed to help with exercise.
I still refused to run. When I went to the gym, I glared at the treadmills with as much anger as my tiny frame could muster and made my way to the elliptical machines instead. I rode the bike. I did weights. This worked until one day when, to my gross astonishment and horror, the elliptical machines and bikes were all taken.
Of course, the treadmills (in their menacing row of metal) were wide open.
You have a college degree, I told myself. You can get on a treadmill.
Tentatively, I mounted the titanium beast and squinted at its handles. For a moment, we were at a stand-off. Its flashing LED lights enthusiastically lapped the digital track, mocking my inadequacy.
Four laps meant a mile. Four letters screamed “FAIL” to a soundtrack of thumping hip-hop beats and the distant strains of an aerobics class.
I pressed Start, and the belt began to move. I walked. Then, to make myself feel better, I increased the incline.
The next day, I returned. I increased the incline a bit more. I increased the speed again and again…but only to walk. I did NOT jog.
On the 4th of July, I walked four miles at intervals of 4.0 and 4.5, inclines of 15-21. When I crossed the 4-mile mark, I peered at the LED screen with new eyes. Stoned on endorphins and euphoria, the tiny mouse in my brain went, “Hey, what if you ran The Mile?”
At 60 minutes, I cranked the speed up to 6.3, dropped the incline to 3.0, and began running. The tiny elves began hammering. My lungs burned. But I didn’t stop—I increased the speed.
At 69 minutes, I was done. Dripping. Gasping for air. The total opposite of a gazelle. I was also completely and totally dumbstruck.
I ran a 9-minute mile!
All of that triumph that I was supposed to feel when I was 7? I felt it. In spades.
The LED lights weren’t mocking me anymore. In fact, they kind of reminded me of Christmas.
I’ve run The Mile almost every day since. Every day, I clock in below ten minutes. Lately, I’ve been clocking in at 8:15. In fact, just the other day, I ran two miles, both under 9 minutes.
Maybe I am a runner now, but that’s not the point. Here’s the point: We’re a society of instant gratification. We’re used to getting what we want, when we want it. When I was 7, I really, really wanted to run The Mile in under 10 minutes. I didn’t get it, and I gave up.
Now, it’s easy…but only because I’ve spent years building stamina. Walking faster. Walking higher. Walking longer. I wasn’t making progress with a goal in mind, so I didn’t think to track the progress, but I was making progress. Slow progress is still progress.
We forget that so, so easily.
Take a second today and stop berating yourself for the ground you’ve yet to cover. Instead, take a look back at the terrain you’ve already conquered. You might be surprised by how far you’ve come. You might be more surprised at the degree to which things that were insurmountable suddenly seem small. Miniscule, even.
I work in the entertainment industry, where people measure success not in individual records sold, but in millions of records sold. That’s a daunting figure. In many instances, it’s a figure that dwarfs me and artists like me.
I know I’m not alone. I know that many of you also work in places where your progress is measured in enormous amounts. I’m here not to perpetuate that pressure, but to offer an alternative perspective.
Maybe success isn’t about leaps and bounds. Maybe success is about doing what you need to do, and doing it better. Slowly, but surely. One day at a time.
Today, be the best that you can be. Tomorrow, be something better.
Who knows? In twenty years, you might be the standard by which other people measure their success.
As long as you keep moving, you’ll keep covering ground. You’ll keep making progress.
And isn’t that the whole point of success anyway?