My First 5K or, How I Contracted the Running Bug

For as long as I’ve been a writer, I’ve been a runner. Much to the same degree. That is to say, very sporadically without any measurable progress over the years.

Some summers I would run semi-religiously, doing a good one to two miles every other day or so. Other summers, I would let the practice fall to the wayside entirely. And much like writing, running is a hard thing to take up again after a long period of inactivity.

For a long time, I had this idea that someday, on some undetermined future date, that I would run a marathon. It was the kind of empty promise I would often make to myself. A thing that sounds good in the moment but takes actual physical dedication and time investment to achieve. Of course, this is where the dream and reality would part ways.

Then, in late fall of 2019, I see my siblings posting about a hot chocolate-themed 5K race in my hometown. I’m intrigued. I have good intentions to start taking up running as a serious hobby again and train for the roughly 3.1 miles that would be necessary to finish such a race – a distance I have yet to successfully complete at this point in my running career.

Of course, 2020 rolls around and promptly puts a halt to pretty much all extracurricular plans, all everything. I honestly can’t remember if I went for a single jog that year. The beginnings of the pandemic truly were a blur.

Fast forward to the next year, to vaccines, to a return to semi-normalcy. The Hot Chocolate 5K is back on the table. I am both excited and scared. As the warm season returns, I begin to haphazardly train.

I map out an ambitious 5 kilometer path weaving along the outskirts of the sleepy little town I reside in. It crosses railroad tracks and runs alongside a cornfield, past a mattress factory and just skirting the local cemetery.

For awhile I struggled to get much further than the tracks marking first kilometer. It was disheartening at first but, amazingly, I discovered my body had the insane ability to become stronger with each run. I know that may sound unbelievable but my breathing control increased and the stamina of my heart and legs grew to the point that I know longer felt like death after three minutes of running.

Two days before race day, I completed the longest run I had ever done up to that point in my life: just over 4 kilometers. Might not seem very impressive to most runners but, in the moment, for me, it was everything. All the same, I had not yet quite reached that 5K line. And heading into the city the day before the race, I was starting to grow nervous.

Now, I know that this was not a competitive race, not for me anyway. For me, it was supposed to be a new, fun experience. More of a test of my own abilities. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would somehow fail, that I would humiliate myself in some way. Of course, this is the nagging fear that I carry with me about pretty much everything in life. It’s the reason I write this blog, it’s the reason I still have yet to seriously pursue a career in writing.

I know I’ve talked about my fear of failing before. It’s a common theme in my life. The thought of backing out of the race at the last minute crossed my mind several times. Can’t fail if you don’t attempt right? Maybe next year, I fleetingly thought. Thankfully, I disregarded this common stalling tactic of mine (start fresh tomorrow, next week for sure I’ll work on this, I’ll start the month of fresh, this new year will be my year for sure!) and put myself on that early morning train to Chicago.

Once my sister and I had made it to Grant Park and found our starting zone, I will admit, my nerves were nearly getting the best of me. Yet, there was an infectious feeling of excitement rolling through the ever-growing crowd that I couldn’t help but be swept up in. As we waited in the cold, watching the other groups start the race ahead of us, moving bit by bit up to the starting line, a strange calm came over me. I can only compare it to the feeling of ascending the first peak of a rollercoaster. It was that same understanding that the scariest part of the ride is not the first drop but rather the anticipation of reaching that moment. Now that the race was inevitable, now that there was no turning back, I only felt determined to start running.

Once we did start, whatever lingering fear I held onto vanished. Running with such a big group, while chaotic at times, filled me with a sense of belonging and community that I had sorely been missing. I truly felt a part of something bigger than myself. What’s more, a combination of staying within the middle of the group and keeping pace with my sister most likely allowed me to manage my exertion better than I could on my own. As we cleared Lower Wacker and made our way onto Clark, nearing the two mile mark, the normal ragged breath I would have experienced on a solo run at this point was nonexistent. Perhaps it was adrenaline, perhaps it was good pacing, perhaps my training was paying off. Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors.

Nearing the final stretch, knowing I had reached a distance I had not yet reached without stopping, I felt well enough to break into a run. I was a little taken aback to see the (far more experience) runners of the concurrently run 15K already reaching the finish line ahead of me despite the extra 10 kilometers they had to traverse. But, far from being disheartened at this sight, I felt more determined than ever. Not just to complete this specific race but to continue racing and to continue improving my stamina and speed.

I want to run that 15K. I want to run a half-marathon. I want to run a marathon.

Yeah, that’s all a ways off, a great deal of training between now and then. But as I crossed that finish line without letting up, I knew it was now a possibility. And sure, my time wasn’t fantastic and sure, it was only 5 kilometers, but it was a thing I had put my mind to completing which I actually followed through on. More than that, I had fun.

That alone makes running a passion worth pursuing. Here’s to casting aside fear to conquer challenges and to finding joy along the way.

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