Five months ago, I couldn't run around our cul-de-sac without feeling like my shins might crack. Pain pierced my ankles and knees after a block of hitting the pavement.
I refused to even describe my efforts as "running." I practiced a sort of continuous forward movement that seemed several degrees shy of a run. I prefaced any conversation about my training by announcing: I'm not a runner.
Under the influence of proselytizing "real" runners, however, I signed up for a half-marathon. I printed out a beginner's training schedule and committed to three times a week of continuous forward movement, plus at least one yoga session during the week.
And so began four and a half months of self-punishment.
The first few weeks, my workouts left me so sore I could barely walk the next day. I really wanted to quit, but I had told nearly everyone I knew that I was going to do this race, and I was too embarrassed to back out. People much older and larger than me lapped me around the neighborhood.
My children asked if I thought I might win the race I was planning to run: Not a chance, I told them. I was trying avoid finishing last.
It's hard to break out of decades of mental conditioning. My parents raised us to compete hard. If there was a measurable standard, we were expected to do far better than average. That easily measurable standard in running -- time -- forced me to confront that I was going to publicly compete in an activity in which I was certain to perform below the curve. That hurt much worse than my blistered feet.
Gradually, a strange thing happened. The distance I could cover with my continuous forward movement got longer. I began to learn what kind of aches and pains I could tolerate and keep moving through, and which meant I needed to slow down. I realized how much was out of my control every time I stepped outside the house to attempt a certain number of miles. Anything from the weather to road construction could impact how long it might take. I asked the experienced runners I knew for advice and shared my frustrations when it felt like I wasn't making any progress.
I didn't have the time to train like I would have wanted, but I did the best I could given my circumstances.
As my race rapidly approached, fitness blogger and mother of three Maria Kang blew up the Internets with a picture she posted of her very fit self in a sports bra and undies, surrounded by her three young children.
Judgment dripped from the "What's your excuse?" caption on her poster. There was an explicit message that anyone who doesn't work out (or look like her highly toned self) was just making excuses. Those of us living outside the fitness bubble know that is far from true: Not everyone has the support to be able to take time for themselves when they have the constant responsibility of caring and providing for young children.
Even though I had made exercise a part of my life since college, I took a complete hiatus for six years when I was pregnant, nursing and taking care of babies.
Those early years of having a newborn, nursing, expecting another child, and then taking care of both a newborn and a toddler left me barely enough time to shower, let alone hit the gym.
My husband worked long hours, and I didn't have my family in town to watch my children at a moment's notice.
Those weren't excuses, Kang. That was my reality.
It wasn't until they were both in preschool that I found my way back to the gym. It was difficult and painful to try to build up the stamina and strength I had lost.
And even after several years of consistently working out, the impending half-marathon filled me with nerves and apprehension.
The day of the race, I saw the thousands of people of all ages and abilities show up at the starting line. Who were these amazing, ordinary people about to push themselves so hard mile after mile?
And who were these thousands of amazing people volunteering along the route, handing out water and snacks, ringing cowbells, cheering and shouting encouragement? There were rows of strangers holding their hands out for high-fives and waving signs that made me smile: "You run better than the government." "Getting up early to make this sign wasn't easy, either." "When do we get to see the bulls?" "Strip tease by Channing Tatum ahead." (That was a lie, for the record.)
I had been wrong to worry about finishing last. As much as I admired and was in awe of those elite athletes finishing in front, I was inspired by those bringing up the rear. I have no idea what their journey was to get to that finish line.
But I knew where I had started, and I knew what it took for me to finish -- to run -- 13.1 miles.
Approaching the finish line, I spotted my favorite sign.
It read: "I'm proud of you, perfect stranger."