Tonight, I felt like giving up. I was at wit’s end with myself, my eating disorder, and the world. I wanted to hide and never be seen again. I had to shower, but did not want to take off my clothes and have to see my ugly body. So I kept my clothes on. I cried some. I felt very, very cold. Eventually, I called Frank.
“Julie,” he said, “you just ran a 5k. You didn’t give up then. You didn’t stop running, did you?”
“Well, you just have to keep going on.”
“Then put something warm on.”
I did. I sat at the computer a while, feeling lonely, just thinking, feeling like a complete failure. How could I feel this way, when I had accomplished so much?
I am reminded of many of the times when I had accomplished great things in my life. Depression had frequently followed. Often, when a writer such as myself completes a major project, he or she becomes depressed. It is like letting a baby out into the world. You just have to let the child go and make her way into the larger universe.
So I went back and opened the file that Frank had sent me. He had so cleverly created this document: It was a listing of the 5k race results, with my name highlighted, with ribbons around it, and my photo next to it–the photo of me, crossing the finish line. And whenever I opened the document, I heard the theme from Chariots of Fire. I keep on going back to it, and opening it, and scrolling down to my name, and listening to the music, and crying, and crying, and crying.
I feel a great sense of loss now that it is over. An intense feeling of sadness. Over a month of building up my guts to do this, and a month of running 5k daily to get ready, and a week of a bad case of “nerves.” And then, 34 minutes, and it was over.
I am reminded of the stories about 16-year-old boys who go out on their first dates. Only theirs lasts less than 34 minutes.
I remember when I first decided to do this race. I first Googled, “How many miles is 5k?” I came up with roughly 3.1. The Winter Classic 5k was 3.12, so when I practiced on the treadmill, that was how much I ran. On the track, I ran 3.25, or 13 laps. But when I realized that I could actually run 5k, 3.1 miles, I Googled “5k races in Boston” and came up with the Winter Classic 5k in Cambridge, Massachusetts (which is right near Boston and one bus ride away from where I live) on December 19, 2010 at 10:30am. Perfect, I thought. Frank thought it was perfect, too.
I told a few people. Some were skeptical. “Are you sure you’re eating enough to do this?” they asked.
Yes, they had reason to be concerned. It had been only a few months since I had started eating again after a long period of self-starvation called anorexia nervosa. Surely, they thought, wasn’t I just finding another way to keep from gaining weight? But yes, I was eating enough, and gaining. Slowly. Bite by bite.
My therapist, too, was less than thrilled. She wanted to discourage me from doing this race. I had to reassure her that I would eat, eat, eat and that I was not “overexercising.” As therapy proceeded, she forgot about the race, and I stopped talking about it, only because I didn’t want her to bum me out about it anymore.
You see, I run for many reasons: I run because I find that I enjoy it. I run because running is being kind to your body. I run because running helps you live longer and gives you strong bones and builds your muscles and cardiovascular system, and every system of your body. I run because it improves my mood and my self-esteem. I run because it helps me feel better about my body, this vessel that I have treated so badly for so long.
For you see, I have had this eating disorder for 30 years. Sometimes, it has been very bad and other times it has been only there a little bit. But always, there has been this relentless desire to be ridiculously thin. It simply does not go away. I can choose to strive for thinness, or I can fight the urge to starve myself. At different times, it has gone either way. But the desire never stops. It is like running a race with someone following you–close behind.
Last summer, I only wanted to starve myself to death. I had no will to live. Then, I found Frank. Suddenly, I didn’t want to die. Frank and I started eating together via Skype. I gained back some strength. Whereas in August I was struggling just to walk across the apartment from room to room due to starvation, by October I was walking the dog for miles and miles, and my heart was filled with joy.
Frank encouraged me to try running, something I had done in my 40’s (I’ll be 53 in a couple of weeks) so I did. I found that because of all the walking I was doing, running came easily. Right away, I could run a mile. The next attempt I made at running, I ran a mile and a half, and then two and a half miles. The next time, I ran 5k, and have been running 5k ever since.
So when I found out about the Winter Classic, I made a point of running 5k daily. Even now that the race is over, I plan to run 5k daily, possibly increasing my mileage now that I am faster. I found that as I ran, my speed increased once every couple of days. It was amazing that this was happening. I kept turning the treadmill up a notch. On the track, my speed would increase on the third mile. I have logs of my daily progress in my journal. Sometimes, I timed myself. Other times, I didn’t. I tried out different music, and wrote about some of my runs.
Race day was rapidly approaching. I began to get very, very nervous. I practiced everything. I watched the weather obsessively. I wrote down what clothes I wore at what temperatures, and what worked best. I tried to pretend it was race day, and ran at 10:30 on the nose, waking up a the exact same time, eating the exact same foods I would be eating, and drinking coffee at the exact same time. It worked. I had it down. I knew exactly what to do.
I received an e-mail instructing me to go to the Asgard, a bar in Central Square, Cambridge, to pick up race materials, on Saturday, December 18th. Great. This would be my practice run. The commute over there. I took the same bus in there that I would be taking in on race day, the #71, and transferred onto the subway. Once I got off the subway, I found that I was walking in the wrong direction somehow, but got headed the right way, and found the Asgard okay. Fifty minutes. A bunch of drunken Santas walked out of the Asgard as I arrived.
The race folks were very nice. They handed me an envelope, a bag, and a white race shirt, size small. In the envelope is a hat that says “Winter Classic 5k” on it. Inside the envelope, I would find out later, are a bib with the number 167 on it, and a computer chip, which looks like an arm band. I assumed this was supposed to be worn on my arm. The computer chip is used to measure the time it takes to run the race. They also gave me some pins to attach the bib to my jacket. The envelope even had my name on it! It was official!
The night before, I had one last skype with Frank before the race the next day. He gave me his last words of advice, then we had a skype hug goodnight. We made plans that I would call him on my cell phone as soon as the race was over.
The one piece of advice I remember that just about everyone gave me was, “Enjoy yourself.” But this is something you can’t plan on. It just has to happen. I slept that night better than I have in a long, long time.
I awoke 40 minutes before my normal wake-up time, at 3:50am, not realizing what day it was. Suddenly, I knew. I am running the race today! I am running the race today! I am running the race today! I got up and got dressed. Brushed my teeth very, very well. Decided, contrary to plan, to have a morning cup of coffee. I took some aspirin. This was planned. At 6, I had a banana, an egg, and a glass of milk, and my vitamins. I checked the weather obsessively. At 6:30, I got ready to walk the dog, Puzzle. I brushed her teeth. We were out the door at precisely 6:45, and we walked our planned 35-minute walk, listening to the music that I had planned for that morning. I was wearing two layers of longjohns under leggings, legwarmers, silk socks under cotton socks, my race shirt, and the usual jackets I wear while walking Puzzle. For the race, I had planned to wear only the long-sleeve T and a windbreaker over it.
I came back in with Puzzle, fed her, and did the rest of our morning routine. My friend skyped me to wish me good luck. We spoke briefly. Then at 8 I had some yogurt with wheat germ and brewer’s yeast. There was a lot of waiting around and time to get nervous, but everything was so well-planned that I felt secure and reasonably confident that things would go okay.
I had my checklist, and went over it a number of times. Keys. Check. Kleenex. Check. Cell phone. Check. I had to make sure that whatever pocket I put my cell phone in, it wouldn’t bounce around while I was running. I tested this out and worked it out okay. Bus schedules. Check. Bus pass, called, here in Boston, the “Charlie Card.” Check. I checked and double-checked, and refreshed the weather.com screen obsessively. It was going to be about 36 degrees out at race time, or so I thought, 38 degrees at the warmest part of the day. Supposedly. But it was due to be a good bit colder than that at the time I’d be walking to the bus, so I made a trash bag with holes in it, and I decided that I’d wear this to the bus stop. Smart thinking: it worked perfectly.
At around 8:45, I got ready. I had to work fast. I pinned the bib to my jacket, then pulled the plastic bag over me, and I was off. I walked–fast–to the bus stop, arriving at 9:03. The bus was due to leave at 9:10, but I knew it would leave a minute early. This was planned. It did.
As soon as I got on the bus, I took off the plastic bag. I unzipped my jacket’s armpits, and took the caffeine pill I’d packed for myself, and at my race food: a half peanut butter sandwich, a banana, and a small amount of orange juice. All planned. All written down. I even had a reminder beep on my watch tell me to do these things. The bus was nearly empty, and arrived in Harvard Square four minutes ahead of schedule. I disembarked, and headed for the subway. Here, a street musician was playing, but I had no time to give him money, because the train arrived just as I got there. One stop, and I exited the train, and had arrived in Central Square.
Wow, it was colder than expected! Jeez! I was wondering if perhaps I should have put on more clothes. Perhaps it would warm up, though. Weather, especially in New England, is very, very hard to predict. Apparently, the other racers were surprised by the weather as well, or so I found out when I reached the Asgard. People were shivering and rubbing their hands together. But everyone was in good spirits. I tried to talk to people. But nobody wanted to talk to me. People knew each other. Everyone had someone–a friend, a fellow racer, a spouse–someone else to hang out with, and didn’t want to bother with me. So I just hung around and picked up bits and pieces of information when I could. Mostly, I wanted to know where the bathrooms were, and if there were lines for them. I learned that there was a heated tent at the start/finish line. So I wandered over there, and found the tent to be cozy enough. I used the latrine. I had brought my own toilet paper, just in case they had run out of it. I figured I’d think of all possibilities. My major concern was that I didn’t throw my gloves into the latrine by accident.
Announcements on the loudspeaker indicated that the race would start in ten minutes. People seemed to ignore this and mill about. I knew where the start line was, but I didn’t know where to go. Some of the people didn’t know, either. I would have followed everyone else, but no one was going anywhere. At the last minute, I tightened my shoelaces, and tested them out, adjusted them again, tested them, and was satisfied. Another announcement indicated that the race would begin in five minutes. Finally, a formation was beginning. I figured out where the end of the line was. I wanted to be near the end of the pack, where the slower runners were lining up.
How would the race begin? How would I know to start running? I stood there, jogged in place, stopped, jogged in place again, and waited. Then, suddenly, people started running! A horn honked! We were off! At some point, I crossed the start line. I was racing! I was racing! I was racing!
The race starts and ends on Sidney Street, but most of it is on Massachusetts Avenue, between Sidney Street and Harvard Square, Cambridge, and back. I think I had to run about a quarter mile before getting onto Mass Ave. At this point, I was beginning to warm up and get into a rhythm. I am familiar with this “warming up” phase from my frequent track runs, when I run awkwardly for the first lap, and gradually gain confidence over the course of the next few laps. But this was a race. This was different. I wasn’t listening to music. All I heard was the slap of the other runners’ shoes on pavement, and the honking of horns, and panting breath, and occasional conversation. This was a race.
Would I finish last? At first, many people were passing me, and I worried a little that this would be the case. I stepped up my pace a little. Soon, I was passing others. Eventually, I passed more people than passed me. By the end of the race, many people whom I had passed were alternating running with walking. But it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking about whether I would come in last or not.
No, I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking about anything but what was ahead of me: the road. I wasn’t thinking about my dog, Puzzle. I wasn’t thinking about Frank. I wasn’t thinking about food, or calories, or how much I weighed. I wasn’t worrying about my eating disorder, that silently follows me everywhere I go.
I did, in a fleeting moment, remember, that there was a time that I wanted to die, and now I am running this race, running to celebrate living.
But the road was ahead of me, and I had to concentrate on it. Every bump. Every crack. Every little nuance. Because tripping could mean falling. Falling could mean getting injured, breaking a bone, even. Concentrate, concentrate.
And at once, I was only thinking of that. I had no body. I had no legs. I had no arms. I had no feet. I did not feel them. There was only the road ahead of me. I was totally focused. Zoned in. My eyes were fixed on one spot ahead of me all the time. I never looked back.
And I knew I was speeding up. It was early on that I felt this. I began to feel my body zooming, the way I race around when I walk Puzzle, faster than I knew I should be running ordinarily…but this is a race, I kept telling myself, this is a race! It’s okay to go fast! I felt the ground go by underneath me the way it has never moved before. I felt my muscles propel me the way they have never done in the past. This is a race! It’s okay! And as the race moved on, I moved faster and faster.
I began to recognize the streets. We were coming back to Central Square and near the end of the third mile. The race was almost over.
I didn’t speed up when I realized this. Not at first. I kept telling myself that I wouldn’t, that it wouldn’t make much difference if I sped up or not. But this is a race, and people speed up at the finish line, just to get to the end faster, I suppose, and because they get caught up in the excitement. As it was, I was caught up in excitement tenfold. So I sped up along with the others.
As I neared the end of the race, people along the sidelines were clapping and cheering! For me! I could hear them! Step by step, I bounded down the road toward the markers, and crossed the finish line.
And that was it. They asked us to hand in our computer chips. I took mine off my arm and put it in the bucket. I went and tried to stretch, but there was really no place to lean on. Then I noticed how tired my muscles were. This was no ordinary run! I realized that I had run fast, possibly the fastest I’d ever run 5k. Not knowing what to do next, I wandered into the celebration area, where people were already lining up for beer.
Beer? After a run? Really? The eating disorder in me thought about the calories in beer. I tried to find water, but couldn’t find it. A woman offered me a sports drink I’d never heard of. “Try it,” she said. “It replenishes.”
“It’s made of pear juice. It’s like Gatorade.”
“Really like Gatorade?”
What I meant was…well, you can guess. I took the can, reluctantly. And at once, when no one was looking, I glanced at the label, and looked at the calorie count. Yes, I admit it, I did just that. And then I drank the stuff.
I was thirsty.
I began to ask around about race times. Apparently, there was a list posted. After a lengthy attempt to find the list, I finally did find it, and searched, and searched, and searched for my name everywhere, and not finding it, began to suspect that something had gone wrong with my computer chip. So I located the van where they were tallying the times, and inquired.
“Are you sure you had your chip attached?” the guy asked.
“Yep, I’m sure,” I said.
“Where did you have it attached? It apparently didn’t register.”
“I had it on my arm.”
“Oh, you were supposed to have it on your ankle. The reader only goes up to your knee. Anything above that doesn’t register.”
“My ankle? My ankle! No one told me! There were no instructions! I thought it was supposed to go on your arm!”
“Sorry. But do you know your time? Did you time yourself?”
“No. But I’ve got a good idea. Thirty-four minutes. Can you write that down? Can you write me in? Can you? Please?”
So as it turned out, I got written in. I will never know what my actual time was, but I’m certain that it was around 34 minutes. That’s just under 11 minutes per mile. Not bad, considering I’m almost 53 years old. I’m sure Puzzle is proud of me.
I phoned Frank, but I couldn’t reach him. I guess he had stepped away from the phone at that moment. But I left a message letting him know that I had finished the race, and how happy I was.
I checked the bus schedule. I had only a couple of minutes to get to the bus, so I ran for it. And made it to the bus stop just in time. I called my brother while I was on the bus home. He races, and he was very proud of me. I told him that I was very surprised at how fast I ran. “Julie, no one runs slowly in a race,” he said. “So, when are you doing your next one?”
And now, a few days have passed. I have run a couple of times since the race. My legs feel good and my body feels strong. I feel that I can now run for longer periods and longer distances. I feel confident about my running and the soreness has worn off.
Perhaps now, as I write these words, and relive the experience, I realize what it all means now. The first 5k for me meant more than just my first race, but a celebration of all the things I can do. After all, I earned my master’s degree, didn’t I? And how many books have I written? Aren’t I also a mental illness survivor? Haven’t I knitted 17, yes, 17 sweaters for Puzzle, and I love her oh so much?
But mostly, I eat, and eat enough, and care for my body, and honor and cherish it and celebrate all it can do. And this is why I run this race.
And yes, I’m thinking about my next 5k.