When I was a kid, there were four words that were sure to strike fear into my heart: Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Thankfully in 2012, President Obama got rid of this evil inflicted on America’s youth.
For those of you fortunate enough to be young (or Canadian), here’s a little history. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson created the Presidential Physical Fitness Test as a way to motivate American kids to exercise. School gym teachers across the country forced elementary school kids to perform such tasks as the sit-and-reach, sit-ups, flexed arm hang, and the mile run. Kids who scored in the top 15% received a special accolade …
Or so I’m told. Not only was I never in the top 15%, but I couldn’t even reach the end of the box in the sit-and-reach. But neither the sit-and-reach (failed) or the flexed arm hang (couldn’t even come close, had to do them modified in a room by myself) brought me as much distress as my least favorite aspect of the Fitness Test: the mile run.
I vividly remember emerging from the middle school locker room as an awkward sixth grader. Wearing green gym shorts, a goldenrod cotton gym shirt, long white socks, and the Payless version of Converse All-Stars, I heard the booming voice of my gym Führer over her megaphone, “We are going to the high school track to run a mile!” I recoiled and immediately began to think of ways to get out of it.
Claim period cramps? No, I’d done that last week. Collapse and claim I sprained an ankle? Hide in the locker room? None seemed convincing enough to get me out of what was sure to be many many minutes of torture.
To paint you a clearer picture, “athletic” was the last word anyone would have used to describe me in middle school. I’d had the misfortune of getting my period when I was 10, and as a sixth grader, I had developed in a way that my classmates hadn’t. Combined with the boy-short haircut I begged my mom for and then immediately hated, my rheumatoid arthritis, and my general all-over awkwardness, you’d be much more likely to find me on the couch than on the track.
Back to the test: my classmates and I shuffled across the street to the high school with the enthusiasm of a female reporter heading to the Oval Office. Once there, our teacher explained that faster runners should stay on the inside lines, while slower runners (pointed look in my direction) should stay in the outside lanes to stay out of the way. “On your mark, set … [shrill whistle]!” and we were off.
I set off on my first lap, shuffling like The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man making his way through New York City. Stopping to walk after the 100 meter mark, I questioned how it was possible to run another 1500. Thin, athletic classmates whizzed by me like I was standing still, which by that point I pretty much was. Slowly and painfully, I finished the first lap, and then the second. By this point, some of my classmates who were obviously on track to earn their top-15% accolades had finished their mile. They took drinks of water from the water fountain and gave annoyed looks to those of us still shuffling. I set off on my third lap, panicking that not only would I finish last, but I’d finish last by a lot. And so I made a decision that I’m still not proud of: I stopped after the third lap and told my teacher I was done. (My time for the 1200: 9:30.)
As I was finishing my ladder workout this morning on the track, I remembered that shuffling quitter of a child. Meanwhile, the high school JV cross country team was running a two-mile time trial. As I started my cool down, I locked eyes with one girl who was walking while clutching her side and making eye contact with her coach — the universal sign for “Pity me! I’ve got a cramp! I’m totally not faking this!” I gave her a look of sympathy and an either encouraging or annoying shout of “You’re doing great!” She rolled her eyes back at me, and I can’t say that I blame her. But here’s what I would have told her, and what I wish I could have told myself back in sixth grade.
You might not always hate this.
This thing that seems totally impossible and terrible for you right now could turn out to be one of the greatest gifts of your adulthood. Right now running is only giving you shin splints and side stitches, but one day it might give you a self-esteem boost, a few hours of peace and quiet, and a stronger body than you could ever imagine.
Or, you might end up hating running as an adult and that’s fine too.
This mile, or two miles, that you’re in the middle of right now will be done in a few minutes, and will never ever matter again. You’ll either go on to run another day, or you won’t run anymore, but you’ll find something else you enjoy. This event that seems so astronomically important right now is such a tiny blip in the background of all the other important events that are yet to come in your life.
Who you are as a kid has no bearing on who you are as an adult.
I was a liar, a person who “ran” a 1200 in 9:30 and dramatically thought I was going to die. I’m not a perfect adult, but I’m not a liar, and I just ran three 1600s averaging 6:03 for the workout.
I was a mean girl in middle school who would gossip about my friends. Now, I value my friendships and I teach my own kids how important it is to be kind. We can rewrite our own narratives as many times as we want. That’s the beautiful thing about growing up!
It’s funny to look back and see how your life turned out differently than how you pictured it as a kid. I never in a million years guessed that running would have been part of my life as an adult, but I’m so thankful that it is.
How are you different now from who you were as a kid? Have you always loved running?