Ode to my 17-year-old Self: The Mile

>> Thursday, January 14, 2010

At seventeen, the fastest I could run a mile was in 9:18—not that I particularly cared or kept track. Mrs. Webber, my gym teacher, made me run one each spring as part of the Presidential Fitness Challenge. Other tests included the V-sit reach, shuttle run, pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups—all culminating with The Mile, an unfathomable distance event dreaded by band geeks, theater freaks, and other likes of sedentary teens like me. At the time, four laps around the track seemed an unreasonable—no—an absurd distance to demand of someone my age. “Doing anything special at school today?” I remember my father asking me one morning. “Running THE MILE,” I replied, my face slackening to a grave stare, searching for pity and perhaps a note excusing myself from the whole ordeal.

Looking back, us soft-bodies who didn’t participate in sports were at an extreme disadvantage for this ultimate measure of fitness. My class was made up of twenty or so girls, four of whom were track and cross-country stars. They excelled at everything from running, to basketball, to gymnastics. The list goes on. Some others were in softball and volleyball; a couple played tennis. The rest of us got the bulk of our exercise running our mouths, making out with our boyfriends, or walking formations during marching band practice. (In all fairness, tooting a trumpet to the tune “Eye of the Tiger” in a thick polyester suit and heavy plastic hat helps one work up a good sweat no matter his or her fitness level.) Bottom line: Running, to us, was a cruel requirement, and we—by principle—hated every minute of it.

In the month before the challenge, Mrs. Webber tried preparing us by starting each class with a jog around the track. One labored lap at first. Then, despite much protest, she increased us to two. We even completed three on one wild occasion. However, I always thought her “training program” was a prime example of too little, too late. We never did much running in class. In fact, in the months preceding, we practiced a regimen of mostly coed battle ball and shuffleboard—activities that simply did not promote the cardiovascular endurance necessary to succeed in a feat like The Mile. Certainly the school’s driving instructor would not expect me to pass my driving test after only a couple times behind the wheel. Why should this situation be any different?

I remember my senior year Mile better than all others because it would be my last. It was a Wednesday afternoon mid-May, and our school had just begun to inhale the heavy and hot breath of summer. My gym period fell directly after lunch, so I chose to skip my meal to avoid the acute side-cramps I’d experienced the previous year (a study hall buddy told me an empty stomach is the best method of defense). To be extra careful, I didn’t eat anything at all that day. Head buzzing, I grabbed my gym bag and proceeded to the locker room to change into my usual uniform: an oversized cotton T-shirt (bearing each shaggy-haired member of the Fab Four from the cover of Let It Be) and a pair of blue mesh basketball shorts. I’d forgotten my socks.

We lined up at the start, creating a veritable timeline of who would finish first to last—lean-muscled bodies in front, a sorted crew of gangly and plump in back. Mrs. Webber blew her whistle, and we were off. One lap. Two. My legs grew heavy at the start of the third, which, as I mentioned before, I had only attempted once that season. I trudged along, desperately gasping at thick air, stopping for brief moments of respite from the pain the state of Pennsylvania required of me to graduate. After nearly finishing three lengthy laps, my sockless feet—now soggy inside my sneakers—began to scream with cuts and blisters. The athletes of the class were on the home stretch, passing me, and I could hear my teacher praising their sub-7 minute times. They continued on for a cool-down lap—their golden ponytails energetically bobbing with each smooth stride. In that moment, I hated them more than anything; but that didn’t change the fact that I still had an entire lap to go.

I struggled through that last quarter-mile, blisters bleeding through my sneakers, until I finally finished. Lightheaded, I languidly staggered along the field in search of water or anything else that could wash the horrible experience from my memory. “Mosher: nine minutes, eighteen seconds,” Mrs. Webber yelled at me. I had survived another year, but a part of me had been taken against my will—and violated. I spent the rest of the school day in a blur perhaps brought on by trauma, or maybe dehydration, and undoubtedly exacerbated by a severe lack of calories. That night, I insisted my parents order pizza to celebrate. If anything, my heroic exertion had earned me that small reward.

Thankfully, I would never have to run The Mile again. Never, ever again.

* * *

At twenty-six, I can now run a mile in under seven minutes—just like those athletic girls I so resented that fateful day. I’ve participated in countless 5K, 10K, 15K, and half marathon races. I even recently completed my first marathon, an exploit my younger self would have thought mad, and one that has also caused my mother to question my sanity. It was at some point during those four hours of pounding the Philadelphia pavement that my mind wandered back to my senior year Mile. Then onto all the training I’ve done in the past seven years that has brought me to the point at which I find myself today. A single mile—even 26.2—no longer constitutes a harrowing experience for me. Instead, I love every minute of it. Thanks to my teenage ritual, I still celebrate my big accomplishments with a generous slice (or three) of pizza. Some things never change. But, then again, some things do. And for that, I'm grateful.

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