I’m just about the biggest wimp you’ll ever meet when it comes to exercise and sports. I’ve been in lousy shape pretty much my whole life—even as a young kid. In addition to being asthmatic and out of shape all my life, I’m a klutz, and I find the rules of sports hopelessly confusing. I was the kid who was picked last for all the teams in school.
I’m not sure why I’m so pathetic, because I’ve sure tried. One summer during my high school years, I got all determined and went to the pool and swam a mile, every single day. At the end of the summer it was just as hard as it was at the beginning, and I hated it just as much. I’ve been trying to become a runner since college, but I could never get past taking about half an hour to go a mile and change. Some years back, a pulmonologist did a gazillion tests, found nothing in particular wrong, but saw the limitations I was complaining about. He concluded that I was just an odd case of somebody who couldn’t train up. He advised patience and keeping at it no matter how little I seemed to progress, and I assumed that meant that if I couldn’t do much, I at least needed to do the tiny bit I could.
Last February our new chocolate lab puppy was finally big enough to start jogging with me. She needed outlets for her manic puppy energy as much as I needed to get in better shape, so we started doing the Podrunner “First Day to Five K” interval training series, where awful house music establishes the tempo for your feet and guides you through a well-designed interval program for going from couch potato to running a 5K. My expectations were low. It was easy to see that I was never going to be a real runner.
But Podrunner was incredibly helpful for me. I knew the principle of run some, walk some, and try gradually to increase the running time and decrease the walking time, but I never seemed to be able to do more than a tiny bit of running with a lot of walking. What I discovered using the Podrunner series was that I was trying to run too fast, and I was walking too slowly. The walking segments on Podrunner were more like a slow jog than a quick walk. It just about killed me to keep up at first, especially since I was also dealing with the steep hills of our neighborhood and the lateral forces exerted by a strong puppy determined to sniff things along the way.
Our progress was really slow—I had to stay on each week’s interval for 3-4 weeks before I could complete it as directed—but I decided not to worry about that, figuring that if we just kept at it, whatever we COULD do would be better than my usual, which was not doing anything. It was just starting to get manageable this spring, when my knee started bothering me—a lot. I’d mangled my right knee in college (ruptured PCL), and it’s given me some trouble ever since, but generally speaking if I keep my weight down and do some kind of weight-bearing exercise to keep the muscles around it strong, it’s okay. Running, though, is notoriously bad for knees, and I was bumping into that.
When I got tired enough of taking all the ibuprofen and using the dreaded icepacks, I got a referral to an orthopedist. He took X-rays, showed me my arthritis, and suggested that I probably shouldn’t be running. He recommended swimming and biking—”but how do either of those help me with my manic puppy?” I wanted to know. Plus I hate swimming, and biking in these hills is even harder than running. He just looked at me and said he didn’t think I’d be comfortable running. Fortunately, he also prescribed some PT, and then he repeated that I probably would never be comfortable running, and muttered a few things about knee replacement someday.
I found out later, from someone else, that the guy’s an ultra-marathon runner himself. You’d think he’d have had some interest in working with me to make running work, but no! I think he just looked at me, saw mid-40s and overweight, heard “non-athletic,” and decided that the problem wasn’t my knee but my expectations. I’m not an elite athlete, so why should he bother helping me become a less pathetic athlete? He easily established his expectations that I was a sedentary old woman and would or even should stay that way.
I started working with the physical therapist, who was considerably more helpful. She listened to and also heard what I wanted (as Mira and I keep discussing, listening and hearing are not the same thing): to work out with my dog and not to go to a gym. She put together a program I could do at home with almost no equipment. The general theme was that I had overdeveloped quads (because old-school PT was all about overdeveloping my quads to compensate for my useless PCL) and underdeveloped all the other funny little weird muscles that were important for the stability of my knee.
It didn’t take long for the updated PT to start helping with my knee, a lot. But then my hips started hurting, and as we worked on that problem, my lower back started hurting, and as started working on that, I wondered where it would stop. I learned some yoga tricks for stretching, which helped, but that too was opening some cans of worms. About then, I had major nose surgery and was forbidden to do anything strenuous for several months. I stopped running, I stopped doing PT, and I took another month off out of laziness.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten curious about the barefoot running trend. I’ve had a basic pair of Vibram FiveFingers shoes for a while now that I’ve liked, and I liked being barefoot as a kid, so I was curious about FiveFingers running shoes. After reading a bunch of articles (always the researcher!), I concluded it was worth a try. If you run across the room barefoot, you’ll notice that you don’t slam down heel-first, because it hurts—yet that’s exactly how everybody runs in their expensive running shoes. And, although shoe technology has improved tremendously in recent decades, the incidence of running injuries has continued to rise.
So I asked my PT about barefoot running. She urged caution and a slow transition, since FiveFingers would be a huge change from serious running shoes and orthotics (which I’ve used for ten years, after a bad case of plantar fasciitis). I could tell she didn’t think it was a great idea, but she was open-minded, and I decided to give it a try.
This fall when I finally got going again, I started back in with Podrunner. I had to resume near the beginning of the program, which was depressing, but I was able to ramp back up to where I’d left off fairly quickly. I also picked up a pair of Bikilas, a Vibram FiveFinger model designed for running, and I eased into wearing them around the house at first, then on short walks, then at a few dances. I tried a few short jogs in my Bikilas, and noticed something interesting the next day: my knees and hips felt fine, but all kinds of weird little muscles I’d never noticed before were stiff. Not particularly sore, just stiff and tired, like they’d never been used before. This kept happening—the day after I ran a bit in my Bikilas, weird little muscles would hurt, but the big ones were fine.
That’s when I realized that those weird little muscles felt familiar. They were the ones my physical therapist had been having me strengthen. Hm.
Finally I wore my Bikilas for the first long run. I felt great. I ran further than I’d ever run before, without feeling as tired. My feet got a little cold and numb, but they didn’t hurt. The next day, I felt fine, so I kept it up. I’ve been running exclusively in Bikilas ever since, and I’m a convert. Running is easier, partly because they weigh nothing and are small. I’m not tripping on my own shoes anymore, and when I step on an uneven surface, my foot seems to know how to handle it better. My knees have been fine. My hips have been fine. My back has been fine. I’ve gone from a several-times-a-day Ibuprofen habit to not remembering the last time I took any. I’ve graduated from the “First Day to 5K” podcasts to the “Gateway to 8K” podcasts, and fairly often we do two podcasts in a row. (That seems better than skipping ahead, because the speed increases feel about right. Endurance is improving faster than speed.)
I was pretty sure I’d never be a decent runner, and I knew for a fact that I’d never actually like it. I just went with running because it’s convenient; I didn’t need a gym membership or a bunch of gear or a piece of equipment or a team or even a partner. I just needed a good pair of shoes. I also knew my knee would probably limit how much I could do, but I figured if I were diligent about the PT and lost some weight, my knees would probably come out even.
I had easy expectations: get in slightly better shape, get my stress under control, lose some weight, wear out the dog a little. Turns out those easy expectations got a few things wrong. I’m actually getting into much better shape. I actually look forward to it and enjoy running alongside my furry brown love, who pulls me along with her huge, encouraging smile. And I’m better off without the shoes.
But isn’t that how it is in life? The easy expectations—the stuff we’re just sure we know—turn out to be where we’re wrong.
I thought I was going to be a professional horn player, playing principal in some orchestra somewhere, but a Rottweiler rearranged my face and my career plans, and I ended up staying in the statistical software field that I thought was just how I was paying the bills.
And statistics! I hated statistics, so I went to some trouble to design a mathematics major that avoided stats. And then I ended up working at a statistical software company. And another. And another. And then starting my own. I thought the one thing for sure I’d never want to do is run my own business, and now I’m running my own business.
I have never liked dancing, so now I’ve got two dance bands, and one of my bandmates even tricked me into liking contradancing. And I married a dancer, many of our best friends are dancers, and my wife is probably going to succeed in dragging me to an English country dance tomorrow night—she got in a wreck and disabled her car so that she’d need a ride, which I think is a pretty extreme measure to take just to get me to a dance, so I’d better cooperate.
I thought I was done with studying religion when I met the requirements of the mandatory religion minor in college, and now here I am collaborating with a comparative religious studies prof on a project related to Jewish bereavement ritual, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
The easy expectations seem to be the ones that we end up leaving behind when life’s big chaos asserts itself and everything changes.
A Kaddish for easy expectations.
What were yours?