Small steps

“The athlete that dwells in each of us is more than an abstract ideal. It is a living presence that can change the way we feel and live.”

–George Leonard

I recently did something I’ve never done before. I ran for thirty minutes straight. Maybe I should put quotation marks around the word “run,” as my pace was only slightly faster than that of a hermit crab. I reveled in the moment nonetheless.

I used to think I couldn’t run, that it wasn’t possible for someone of my body type and fitness level. Sure, everywhere I saw people running. Lithe and fit, or just-barely-jogging. Runners whose dogs pulled them forward. A solo runner listening to music; a club of fleet-footed friends racing past her down the street. I just couldn’t see myself out there with them.

Last fall I grew determined to change this mindset. I’d created an idiosyncratic, four-year course of study to help me reorient my life toward singing, my deepest calling. I dubbed this program “Voice University” and figured I could invent a curriculum each semester to provide some structure and move me along the path.

Following the university metaphor, last September was the beginning of my freshman year. I decided to focus first on foundational issues—preparing my body, mind, heart, and voice for optimal work as a human instrument. I called this course “Wing Building.” The body component had several parts, including good nutrition, flexibility and stability exercises, and regular aerobic activity through walking and running. My ultimate goal was to incorporate these practices in a sustainable way so that they became part of my everyday life. And I dreamed the impossible dream—to work up to running for thirty minutes, three days a week.

I asked a friend who has significant athletic expertise for support. Three times a week she bicycled to my house at 6 a.m. and accompanied me on a walk-run. The way I wanted to train was to alternate periods of walking and running, gradually increasing the running segments until they filled the entire thirty-minute session. At first I could run for only thirty or forty-five seconds at a stretch. My friend tracked my time and encouraged me through each milestone, which was usually a tiny increase of five seconds of running per segment. We worked together slowly until I was running for a total of about eleven minutes, averaging one and a half minutes per segment, with a three-minute run at the very end. This felt like grace.

Later in the fall, my friend’s morning schedule changed, so our training sessions came to an end. Before bidding me adieu, she gave me a gift—a Road ID bracelet with my personal information inscribed, along with my favorite Emily Dickinson quote: “Dwell in possibility.” As she placed the bracelet on my wrist, she said, “Congratulations. You’re a runner now. You did it, and you can keep going.”

I’m forever grateful and in her debt. By the time she set me off on my own, I’d developed a little confidence in my routine and in myself, so I kept going. But solo progress was spottier. Pulling myself out of bed at 6 a.m. was more difficult when no one was meeting me on the front doorstep. It was also harder to go outside on dark, cold winter mornings. Mostly I went, but sometimes I didn’t. For several months I treaded water.

In late spring I decided to refocus my efforts. I’d looked ahead on the calendar to September, when my college a cappella group’s reunion was scheduled. A Duke Ellington quote flashed to mind: “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” Exactly. In that moment, the concept of a “five-month montage” was born. I decided to spend five months undergoing a deliberate body-transformation process, during which I hoped to lose a certain amount of weight and make real progress on my running.

Film directors speed audiences through such times by way of a montage set to music: Daniel-san waxing on, waxing off Mr. Miyagi’s car, then practicing crane kicks on the beach; Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs and buffing himself up for the big fight. No one wants to watch characters grow moment by excruciating moment—it’s boring. We’re a culture of instant-gratification transformation junkies. We want change, and we want it now.

Throughout my life I’ve felt this way and have been incredibly impatient with myself as I attempt to manifest a personal change. But somehow this time was different. I decided to live with slower, more incremental progress and dwell in the montage, moment by moment. I got up every morning, tired or not. I went outside, regardless of the weather or my comfort. I sweated, spat, grunted, and nudged myself along. I kept going through moments of intense boredom, negative beliefs about my capabilities, and the desire to give up. I just kept going.

I thought about creating a montage playlist (so many great, cheesy song possibilities!) but relinquished the idea in favor of chanting. I’d taken a sound-yoga course during spring semester and had learned a mantra honoring the Hindu deity Ganesha, remover of obstacles. I wondered if this might help spur me down the path, so I tried chanting it silently in tempo with my pace, especially when I thought I could run no further. It did help. Pretty soon I felt as though I had an encouraging, invisible running partner.

By June I’d increased my running time to a total of sixteen minutes and forty-five seconds, in increments of about two minutes per run with a four-minute run at the end—very slow but steady progress. I celebrated each milestone, scribbling the new time in a little notebook. That notebook tells me that on July 1 I ran for twenty minutes and forty-five seconds total, still in brief segments of running interspersed with walking.

On Friday, July 8, I wrote, “Slow and low, that is the tempo.” It had been brutally hot throughout the South and much of the country. My morning run-walks were the only time I could bear to be outside, and even so, it was freakishly hot and humid.

Then on Thursday, July 14, the heat broke. Suddenly it was cool and dry, almost unimaginable during summer in North Carolina. The next morning I went outside to a fresh, gorgeous world. My body sang, and I felt giddy with energy. In the middle of my run-walk, I wondered whether I could take advantage of the cool weather to string together a few running segments. Well, why not try? I followed a two-minute run immediately with a two and one-half minute run, no walk in-between. Could I add another running segment? Yes, I could. Another? Yes. In this manner I strung together the final segments until I’d run for thirteen minutes and twenty-five seconds—my longest running stretch, ever.

The following Monday, the weather was still gloriously cool. I decided to play a “what if” game. What if I could string more segments together into an even longer run? What I discovered was this: I was able to run for twenty-five minutes straight. Oh, wow. This was an enormous surprise; I felt like I’d won the body lottery.

I gave myself two weeks to settle into the new routine, just to make sure I could repeat it without injury before trying to increase my time. All went well until Friday, July 29, when I woke up in a black mood and wanted nothing more than to pull the covers back over me. No way did I want to go out and try to run for twenty-five minutes. I wanted to give it all up.

But I didn’t. I hauled myself out of bed, put on my running clothes, snapped the bracelet my friend gave me around my wrist, and went outside. I didn’t expect much from myself. The hot, humid air had returned, and it enveloped my skin, an unwelcome garment. I ran slowly, ploddingly. I was bored. I was tired. I was irritated at the whole interminable process.

Finally I reached the stop sign that marked the end of my route and saw that I’d actually run for a little more than twenty-five minutes. What? My pace must have been faster than I’d realized. Huh, I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if on this morning—this irritating, blasted morning—I finally reach my goal?

I kept running until I saw these numbers on my stopwatch:


Angels did not trumpet from on high. There was no double rainbow. No one was there to slap my palm, high-five style. No matter. I smiled and walked home. I knew I would get up on Monday and do it all again.

Last night I found myself running during my evening walk, and I felt joy in the physicality of my body. I’ve let go of my five-month montage deadline. I’d like to keep losing weight, and I want to increase my running speed. But the most sustainable way to approach those intentions is step by step, and small steps at that. Finally I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of going slow.

6 Replies to “Small steps”

  1. Wow! A long blog entry but a good read. I like all of it, most especially your reflections on how many readers/viewers want instant gratification (or at least speeded up accounts of slow growth) and your own determination to dwell in the montage.

    The bracelet really helps me as a reader just as it helped you as runner — a concrete symbol.

    I’m impressed by your dedication to the discipline, Angela. Just as I’ve always been impressed by Sy’s commitment to daily writing in the morning, I’m equally taken by your long-term growth and commitment to doing something that you (and I) could find onerous.

    I myself had the best success when I was committed to swimming a certain number of times a week and to swimming a full mile once a month — this in turn was inspired by Alison’s mile-long swim for charity. Nice how we all can inspire each other.

    Now, though, I’ve still got a bad knee. Hurt it in Hawaii last December, after more than a eyar of daily activity. Maybe I have a blog entry brewing about this. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Many thanks for reading and your thoughtful reply, Gillian. I’m glad you were inspired; I hope that brewing blog entry makes its way into the world.

      The bracelet has been a wonderful gift and concrete symbol. I need look no farther than my wrist to be reminded of the possibilities inherent in the moment. Let me know if you’d like one of your own. ‘T’would make a lovely holiday gift, wouldn’t it?


  2. Ha! I just saw this on the BBC website and thought I’d add it to this post:

    Ancient Greek athletes trained hard. The word ‘agony’ comes from the Greek agonia, meaning ‘contest’.

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