The Slowest Runner

proof of my first half-marathon

I’m the most non-athletic athlete you’ll ever meet. I don’t lift weights. I don’t do hundreds of sit-ups. I cannot do a single pull-up — not one. I can maybe manage 10 push-ups or so, until my arms will no longer cooperate, and I will inevitably collapse into a pathetic pile on the floor.

With all this though, something unnerving has started happening during the past year of quarantine. I have started running. You might be thinking to yourself right now: oh, no, another post about a middle-aged woman who started running and discovered herself, blah blah, yawn, where is my iced latte…? Allow me to offer some relief — although I am firmly bumping up against middle age (my older child is about to start high school), I have not discovered myself through running. Sigh. I have not come to any sort of deep realizations by running. I have not found the higher power; I have not become “woke;” I did not come to appreciate the depths of the universe.

To back up for a minute, I want to define what I mean by “running.” My running is very very slow. I am the slowest runner you will ever see. I won’t bore you with pace times (mine is roughly 7 min. 25 sec./km), but believe me when I say that what I consider “running,” most people can achieve by simply walking quickly down the cereal aisle. Let me paint a picture. Imagine you’re in the grocery store with two kids and a full cart that you have been filling up for the past hour with all the organic produce your kids probably won’t eat. Then imagine, if you will, that one of your children suddenly must go to the bathroom, so there you are — full cart, two kids, one has to go. After three seconds of mental math, you wheel the cart as quickly as you can toward the bathroom, while dragging both kids behind you. You’re speed-walking, while pushing the cart. Get it? Pictured it? That’s about my running pace!

During the past 14 months, I have started my very slow running (jogging?) journey, accompanied by my husband, who, although is a much stronger and faster runner, somehow still chooses to easily jog beside me during these sweaty excursions. Other than speed, my issue has always been breathing. If the few 5Ks that I have done over the past few years have been any indication, I could barely run 10 minutes without slowing down to a walk, simply because my heart was beating like a drum at a reggae party.

Yet it’s odd what a year of home-isolation, a supportive spouse, and an even more supportive bra can do for you, and little by little I started stretching out my distances of actual running (no walking!). First, I ran 1km, thinking of nothing but vacations, going shopping, and how much chocolate I can eat, now that I’m a “real runner.” Distracting thoughts help me pass the time. The next day, I bumped the distance up to 2km, feeling mighty proud, wearing a real running tank top — the works! A week and a half later, I could somewhat huff and puff my way through a 5K. It’s wasn’t pretty; I didn’t look like any of the models in my Athleta catalogs. But I was running. Albeit, slowly.

That was over a year ago. This is the part of the movie where fast music comes on, while the protagonist is shown aggressively working towards her goal, not giving up, not giving in, putting in blood, sweat, tears, and lots of cursing. Think Demi Moore in “GI Jane” — an awesome woman on a mission. Believe me, though — that’s not me. I have neither the willpower, nor the military buzz cut.

However, over the past year, I have continued to run, sometimes in the early morning, sometimes during lunch breaks, often in the evenings. I have acquired proper running shorts, more sports bras, and at least four questionable blisters that won’t go away. I have learned to pace my breathing, to inhale deeper, to exhale stronger. I figured out which music makes me run faster (’80s European pop hits). I have been caught in heavy rain at least twice. Once, I stopped to help a woman who was not feeling well and was sitting on the ground (she was OK). I have started recognizing other fellow runners on the trail, giving a small, almost imperceptible nod to them, as we pass each other.

So what, you might think. Tons of people exercise — we all need a way to keep our sanity and make difficult times somehow worthwhile. I’m not that special in the grand scheme of the world, I agree. Yet, something has changed in me with each kilometer covered — I have realized that I am stronger and that I am capable, physically, of certain things I’d never thought I could do before. My longest stretch of running so far has been 21km – a half-marathon. At the time of this writing, I have ran this distance once, coming back to my car drenched in sweat wet-t-shirt-contest style. Twenty-one kilometers is approximately the length of Manhattan, to put in different terms. It’s roughly 223 football fields. Twenty-one kilometers has been my Everest… so far.

Something strange happens to you when you conquer a goal you never thought was achievable. That is — you start thinking, what else can I do? Despite the fear of sounding like an office building motivational poster, I will say that putting yourself through a what often seems like an unendurable climb is worth it once you’re at the top. Metaphorically. Literally. Ever which way. The view is better; your outlook is clearer; your thighs are slightly shaking; and you can’t really walk up or down stairs, because you can’t feel your knees.

Yet a cool shower has never felt so refreshing, ice water has never tasted so divine, air conditioning was never so appreciated for the first-world perk that it is. No amount of chaffing or hideous blisters from improper socks can take away the pride you feel for accomplishing something, seemingly small, yet the length of Manhattan. Considering you’re the slowest runner anyone has ever seen.


About the Author
Alla Umanskiy is a writer, Jewish mother, wife, an amateur runner, and a mediocre figure skater, living, working, and raising a family in the Atlanta area. Alla holds an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Georgia State University and a graduate degree in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University. She's been published in various local and national publications, and recently finished translating a book from Russian to English.
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