The First Race

By Nadine Karel

When I was in middle school, the worst day of the year was the one when our gym class had to run the mile. I’d drag myself to school wishing that a natural disaster would destroy the track and running would be canceled for the next seven billion years. My fingers trembled as I tied the laces of my sneakers, and when our gym teacher blew the whistle to signal the start of our run, I would stumble over my feet and run a little and then walk a lot. Run a little, walk a lot. I was always at the very back of the pack, my face red with exertion, sweat pooling under my arms.

I didn’t play sports and just assumed that I wasn’t good at anything athletic. I loved my books and my music. I loved art and museums and writing and photography. I didn’t love sports, and I didn’t love running. And I was okay with that.

But I’d also forgotten something, something from before those terrible middle school years when, let’s face it, gym class is only one of the many battles we face. Here’s what I’d forgotten: I used to love being active. I would spend hours outside, riding my little red bike around the neighborhood in great circles and up and down alleyways. I loved the feeling of freedom it gave me – to be outside in the fresh air, moving myself somewhere. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t actually going anywhere; I just liked the movement.

So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise when, in my early thirties, I started moving again. I started by hiking, and then, I did something big: I went to Spain and walked 500 miles on a medieval pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago. After college a few friends of mine did this long-distance trek, so I’d known about it for years. When the perfect storm of circumstances hit – a summer off from my job in a school, the end of a very serious relationship and some big questions about the direction of my life – I decided that a pilgrimage in Spain was the perfect answer.

My experience on the Camino gave me so much, but the unexpected gift was the discovery that I thrived on the trail. Others had blisters and sore feet and tired legs; they struggled with the weight of their backpacks and cursed the last miles of the day’s walk. Some gave up altogether.

Me? I found that I was far stronger than I ever realized. I had sore feet and tired legs, too, but I didn’t mind the discomfort. Instead, I reveled in my ability to walk so long and to walk so far. I loved the accumulation of all those miles; I loved that feeling of freedom and of movement. Sometimes, I danced down the trail, a smile stretched wide across my face.

Walking 500 miles across a country is big. But honestly? In some ways, running my first 5k felt like more of a victory. I came home from my summer on the Camino and knew that I wanted to stay active. I wanted to use my body while I still had a body – and a healthy one at that – to live in.

So I started running. And I was humbled by the effort it took me to run for five minutes. I’d just spent a month walking an average of 15-20 miles a day and to run for five minutes? I was out of breath, and the muscles in my legs screamed in protest.

But I kept at it, almost every day, slowly increasing my distance. I never ran fast, and sometimes I wondered if my fastest walking pace could compete with my running pace, but I told myself that it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was choosing to do something that had terrified me for over 20 years. I was choosing to show myself that I was capable of running a mile; I was capable of running more than a mile – regardless of what my middle school self believed.

On my drive to my 5k, the first race I’d ever run in my life, I gave myself a pep talk. “Okay Nadine, you’ve got this. You can walk if you need to, you can be dead last, but you’re going to do this. And you’re going to be fine.”

As I lined up with the other runners, I realized that I wasn’t scared, or nervous, not like I’d been in middle school. And that, perhaps, gave me a victory larger than the one I felt when I crossed the finish line at the end of the race. I was looking a decades-old fear in the face and saying, “I am not defined by the things that scare me. I may never run more than this, I may never run again, but the thing is, I’m running now.”

And I was. I labored and I fought, and when it was all over my face was bright red, and I was covered, head to toe, in a slick layer of sweat. My stomach was cramped, and I had to double over for a few minutes and concentrate on getting my breath back, but afterwards? Afterwards I smiled. And then I pictured my middle school self – the chubby cheeks, the crimped hair, the crooked teeth and the over-sized t-shirt. She was looking at me, and she was smiling too.

Nadine Karel is a drug and alcohol counselor, working with high school students in the Philadelphia region. Things that make her happy include: strong coffee, giant pandas and learning how to text.

About this writer

  • Nadine Karel Nadine Karel is a drug and alcohol counselor, working with high school students in the Philadelphia region. Things that make her happy include: strong coffee, giant pandas and learning how to text.

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2 Responses to “The First Race”

  1. Nadine, your essay was inspirational and motivating. Kudos to you for tackling a challenge with such a positive attitude.

  2. Kimber says:

    What a great essay! I am so glad I stumbled across this. I am also in my early 30s and learning how to move after years of dreading anything having to do with athleticism. :) Thanks for sharing your inspirational story!

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