Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In through your nose, out through your mouth

Forget “Couch 2 5K”—how about “Heart Attack 2 Half Marathon”?

People who’ve known me a long time undoubtedly are surprised to be getting emails from me about my half-marathon training. I was not exactly an active child.

I’ll never forget when my middle school gym teacher began lecturing me one day about why I should quit smoking, and she seriously didn’t believe me when I insisted I did not smoke. “I’ve seen you run,” she explained. She was probably referring to the multiple times I’d stumbled off the track, clutching my chest, wheezing, “I’m having—gasp—a—gasp—heart attack—gasp. Help.”

When I was a few years older, I lost my “body image virginity.” Every woman knows what I’m talking about: the moment it suddenly dawns on you that your legs are paler, thicker and squishier than the legs of all the models in Seventeen, and the word “diet” becomes part of your daily lexicon (and sadly for most of us, never leaves it.)

I immediately stopped buying pizza, French fries and Tastykakes at the school cafeteria (choosing an orange and a giant hot pretzel instead; my nutrition knowledge was very limited then), and because I’d heard thin people ran, I started waking up early, well before the 7:15 school bus came by, to run outside. I would run until my “heart attack” came on, which at first was about three or four minutes after I started.

So for three or four minutes every morning, I’d run halfway up the street and walk back, my throat sore from the cold and my whole body shaking. This lasted a month or so, and soon I could do seven or eight minutes without feeling like I was going to die. Then I was running up the whole street—and back again. I’d always stop right when I hit that “heart attack” feeling. I usually got to listen to one side of a cassette in my Sony Walkman.

That summer, I went to sleepaway camp and tried to continue my running routine—which was by then up to 15 minutes—by jogging halfway around the lake before breakfast. Leaving me in their dust was a pack of “real” runners, including one of my counselors. One day she was kind enough to observe that I wasn’t breathing correctly and taught me the in through your nose/out through your mouth technique that is useful whether you’re running, doing Pilates or going into labor. “Your legs are strong—it’s your heart you need to strengthen,” she explained. She was right. I was able to go four times as far when I changed how I breathed.

I’d like to say I became an athlete after this, but when I went to college, I outgrew my fear of not looking like a Seventeen model and became so involved in other things that mattered to me that I gave it up. I did eventually become a regular exerciser again—mainly again for weight loss purposes after my children were born—but it wasn’t until recently that I resumed running.

Amazingly, I really did pick up right where I left off—this time running for 45 minutes and then an hour at a time without stopping. No more “heart attacks”—in fact, my 35 year old body could go further and faster than my 17 year old body had been able to run.

The last time I was back in my hometown outside of Philadelphia, I decided to run down the same street that had once been such a challenge to me. I’m sure I’ll feel great when I pass the finish line in Miami in January, but I’m not sure it will be quite as significant an accomplishment as racing down Woodbine Avenue, feeling stronger than I ever did during the years when I presumably should have been in prime physical condition.

At the rate I’m going, maybe I’ll hit my peak when I’m a senior citizen. I’d love to have my grandkids cheering me on at my first Iron Man!

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