If you had told me one year ago that I would run a 5K race this summer, I would have laughed in your face. But on Saturday, I ran the Burlington Butter Tart 5K.
I have never been a natural athlete. As a kid, I remember bitterly resenting the Canada Fitness Award Program, where I don’t think I was ever able to meet even the minimum standard for anything; in fact, the Program was discontinued in 1992 because it was deemed “discouraging to those who needed the most encouragement”, which reflects my experience of it to a tee. The worst was when we’d be sent outside to run a lap around the school perimeter. I always seemed to get a stitch in my side, and was always one of the very slowest ones (and sometimes dead last). All of my memories about running as a child involve shame, embarrassment, physical discomfort, and envying the kids who seemed to lope seemingly effortlessly around the school.
I tried running again during grad school, when many people in my lab were doing it. I found a training plan in a magazine for non-runners to get to a 30-minute sustained run in 10 weeks and decided to give it a try, absolutely determined that I would not quit before completing the plan. My friends assured me that by then I’d love it, but that didn’t happen. In week 10 I went out the requisite 3 times and indeed ran for 30m, but hated every bloody second of it. I got home after that 30m run, took my running shoes off, and never put them on again. I figured I had given running a fair shot, and it just wasn’t for me.
So what on earth made me take it up again 25 years later? In early October 2022, I met a friend for dinner at a conference, and she told me that she had recently started running using the Peloton app, and was really loving it. Now, my sisters-in-law had been singing the praises of the Peloton app for quite some time, but they are both exercise lovers by nature, so their endorsement didn’t do much to convince me. But when my friend told me that she, too, had previously hated running, and using the Peloton app and springing for a good pair of running shoes had changed her mind, I decided to give it a try. She sent me a 60-day free trial for the app, and I went home and I bought a pair of Hoka running shoes.
I started by going out once a week, Saturday mornings, using the Peloton Outdoor walk/run workouts. I think part of my ultimate success was the pure dumb luck of having selected exactly the right workout for someone who was a true beginner. One of the things I find frustrating about the Peloton app is that it doesn’t provide much info about the detailed structure of their outdoor running workouts, so I was fortunate to have chosen one that had short running intervals (30 to 60s) separated by a couple of minutes walking; if I had chosen one of the many marked “beginner” that had 3- or 4-minute running intervals, I think I probably would have quit. It took me several months before I could comfortably sustain a 3- or 4-minute stretch of slow running.
By February, I had been going out consistently every week, and one day, to my great surprise, I discovered I was actually looking forward to my next run. In March, once the days had started to get longer and it was still light out when I got home from work, I started going out a couple of additional times on weeknights as well. In April, I happened across an advertisement for the Burlington Butter Tart 5K (where you get a butter tart at the end), and the idea amused me so much that I signed up for it.
Running this time around has been an interesting and thought-provoking journey for me. I had a particularly important a-ha moment in February when I was out for a run and thought “I wonder how long it will be before I can just run continuously without taking walking breaks,” and then, my next thought: “it literally doesn’t matter if I never get any better at this. Even if I do walk/run intervals forever, even if I don’t extend the length of my running intervals, even if I never get any faster, it doesn’t matter at all.” That was an utterly transformative moment for me, and I’m still feeling the reverberations of it.
I think we are often such an achievement-oriented culture that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that we have to always be moving toward a goal of some kind to make our efforts worthwhile: to run faster, run longer, lose weight, whatever the goal is that is supposed to motivate us. For me, rejecting that achievement mindset was paradoxically motivating, and has allowed me to recognize that just getting out there and moving at any pace is worthwhile. I like the way I feel after a run, and I enjoy the little ritual I’ve built around my outings. Plus I feel like I’m making a good investment in my long-term health: I don’t give a rat’s ass about losing weight anymore, but I know that building stronger bones and muscles will be a valuable asset to me as I age (I turn 50 next year).
One of the things I found helpful was following some non-archetypal runners on Instagram (I’m a particularly big fan of Sandra at @bigfit_i_run and Martinus at @300poundsandrunning), who helped affirm that there is nothing wrong with being a slow runner, and that running with walking breaks (sometimes called “jeffing“) is a totally legit way of being a runner. In fact, a growing amount of research shows that running slower has some specific benefits that aren’t associated with more intense workouts.
I completed the 5K race on Saturday by alternating between 90s of slow running and 30s of walking for the majority of the race (except for the final 600m or so where I could see that beautiful balloon arch at the finish line and just pushed through to get there). My final time was 42m 53s, I am damn proud of that.
Although I’m very pleased to have completed the race, I don’t think I’m going to run another 5K any time soon. One of the things I realized while preparing for it was that I don’t actually like running for more than 25 or 30 minutes at a stretch, and because I’m slow, 5K takes me nearly 45 minutes. I persisted with it because I was determined not to back out of the race, but now that it’s done I think I’ll go back to 20 or 30 minute outings. And I also don’t really like “preparing” for something — it tends to puts my head back into the goal-oriented space (“maybe I can finish in under 40 minutes”, “maybe I can run for the whole distance without any walking breaks”) that my February insight helped me escape from. I’m going to go back to just running for its own sake where it literally doesn’t matter if I never get any better
Stacey Ritz is a faculty member at McMaster University in Hamilton, crossword fan, and is a strong contender as the Canadian record-holder for most repeated viewings of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.