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When I was in grade school back in the early1980s, an annual gym class rite was the Presidential Physical Fitness Award evaluation. I considered myself a pretty tough kid, but, year after year, an authority no less than President Ronald Reagan effectively told me that I was an out-of-shape schlump.

I had the strength part down. Sit-ups and pull-ups—check! Flexibility and the sit-and-reach—check! For speed, the shuttle run was a breeze—check! How about endurance and the mile run? Every year—FAIL! I gasped and panted and never managed to come in under the Presidentially Established Guidelines.

I sat and watched as my classmates accepted their certificates at the year-end awards ceremony. The lucky recipients traced their weighty, official-feeling certificates with their fingers. Each one was signed by Ronald Reagan—the very President whose administration had given ammunition to vegetable-averse kids and who made jellybean consumption practically patriotic! My repeated exclusion from this club taught me that I would never be able to run a mile and was therefore not fit—the President told me so!

physicalFFTness

Fitness motivation, the later years

A few decades down the road, my Presidential Physical PFFFT-ness, forgotten, I went to my doctor for a routine physical. He found that I had borderline high blood pressure and wanted to put me on drugs—for the rest of my life.

Whaaat?!?? I wasn’t even 30 years old, and I was already being recruited to pharma-ville?!? I pleaded with the doc that I would lose weight—do anything—to avoid a lifelong reliance on medication. He agreed to a trial reprieve, and asked me to come back in six months to check my progress.

As I walked out of the doctor’s office, I felt relieved to have escaped the classification of “sick person who needs meds.” But now I had a serious mission. I had to get my weight and my blood pressure down to a level my doc would find acceptable. Yowza!

Get fit? How??

I considered my options. I knew I wouldn’t be too successful by cutting back my eating—I love to eat too much. I would have to increase the exercise.

Aerobic workout videos did little beyond developing my loathing for perky people in leotards. Group fitness classes, with their rapid-fire commands, required too much thinking. The NordicTrack got boring. The pool gave me a rash. As my six-month deadline ticked nearer, I started getting desperate—I tried running.

Running!

I do not look like a runner. I would fit into what is kindly termed the “Athena division”  . When I set out for my first run, I tried not to think about what people would think when they saw me huffing down the street. I made it only a few blocks before I had to stop. My knees were distinctly unhappy. I had to make full use of the handrail to get up the long flight of stairs to my apartment.

Yet, I persisted. Day after day, I was able to run a bit farther—just to that next lamppost, then the next. My leg muscled strengthened, and my knees quit bothering me. Eventually—oh happy day—I was able to run an entire mile without stopping!

I returned to the doctor. While I hadn’t dropped as much weight as was ideal, my blood pressure was back down in the normal range. The doc was happy with my progress and encouraged me to keep up the good work. Yay!!

The motivation flags . . .

While being able to stay off medication was a powerful motivation to keep running, it wasn’t enough. I was having trouble forcing myself out the door. I needed more motivation.

A race goal, and running buddies

Perusing the City of Ames Parks and Recreation catalog for fitness possibilities, I found “Team 12.4,” a class taught by Julie Vardaman that prepared participants to run the 20-kilometer Dam to Dam race in Des Moines. I attended the information meeting for the class, and Julie outlined the recommended running experience levels for the class—which I did not quite meet. In private, I told Julie my situation and asked if she thought I could make it in the class.

“Mmmmm . . . probably not a good idea,” she responded.

Hell, if Ronald Reagan was wrong about my fitness to run one mile, why should I believe Julie about my ability to run twelve miles? I signed up for the class.

stick runnerI sweated and grit my teeth and slogged through the training runs. I was usually the last person to finish. I was constantly nursing sore muscles. Week after week, I ran farther than I ever had before in my life. Three miles. Five miles. This was unbelievable! Six miles. Eight miles. At times, I had to methodically count every step to keep myself moving. Nine miles. Eleven miles. The camaraderie of the running group helped me stay committed.

At last, the day of the race. I had moments of doubt, moments where I had to slow to a walk and could barely push my painful legs to keep moving, but I did it! I ran 20 kilometers (12.4 miles!)—me, who never earned a single Presidential Physical Fitness Award!

To this day, I continue to run, and my running career has taught me many things. Presidents can be wrong. It’s never too late to start anew. Motivation and grit are big components of success. Having the right people around you will help you go farther than you ever thought possible.

Thanks, Julie! Thanks, Team Vardo!

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Runner image by CraigPJ at scx.hu

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