Hangin’ with Miss Cooper: Maybe running isn’t so terrible after all

I wasn’t going to run.

On July 17, I saw an email in my inbox advertising the Martinsville Speedway Mile, a one-mile run on the NASCAR track.

“I can do that. One mile. No problem,” I thought. I work out pretty regularly, run, bike, and hike a lot, and like to think I keep myself in pretty good shape, so one mile should be a breeze.

So that day I drove to the Martinsville YMCA for my first test run. I already knew that if I start in the Y parking lot, take a left down Starling Ave, and keep going through the neighborhood down Mulberry Road it’s all downhill for exactly one mile. That would be a good place to start, because running downhill is easier, and when training for athletic endeavors it’s important to do the easiest workout possible.

I took off, all the while thinking about my goal for the race. I wanted to run the mile at the Speedway in under 8 minutes.

“That should be easy. I’ll crush that. Eight minutes? I mean, come on,” I thought to myself. “Heck, I can probably get down to, like, 7:30. Maybe even 7 minutes. That will be no problem. It’s only one mile.”

I got maybe 300 yards and realized I’d made a huge mistake.

When I finally got done with the one mile I wanted to crawl up in the lush green grass of some random person’s front yard, hide under a tree and just cry. It was terrible. I think I might have actually shed a few tears.

My time was 9:34. But I was so tired I didn’t even think or consider if that was a good time or not. I was too busy crying, if we’re being honest.

I turned around and started walking back to my car, my head down in shame knowing that time is cruel and exercise is awful, and I look to my right and see a local basketball coach, one who is at least twice my age, sprinting up the hill beside me like a gazelle, with all the ease of Usain Bolt racing against a team of middle schoolers. And that’s when I remembered why I quit running after high school.

Because running is terrible.

It’s not terrible. That’s not the point of this story. But in that moment, hands swollen and sweat dripping down my face from the 90 degree heat, I hated all ideas of ever exercising again. Heck, I hated all ideas of ever leaving my house again. “This is why cars were made, so we don’t have to do this anymore,” I thought as I angrily shuffled back up the hill.

My first mistake was tweeting about it. My original thought when I was going to run the race was “I’ll tweet my workouts and progress and that will be fun and keep my honest.” Then when I had my first practice run I thought “I’ll tweet about how much I hated that,” because I tweet way more than I should.

“I made the mistake of seeing Martinsville Speedway is having a 1 mile run and me being stupid competitive (emphasis on stupid) thought ‘I could totally dominate that and win my age group.’ Just ran 1 mile, all downhill. 9:34. And I want to die. Running is stupid, no one should do it,” I tweeted.

I had some friends write back words of encouragement, so I thought “The first practice isn’t supposed to be easy. Do you think Michael Jordan made every shot during his first basketball practice back from playing baseball? No! You just gotta ease back into it.”

So the next night I tried again. This time, I left from the Bulletin office and just ran around Uptown Martinsville until my running app told me I hit a mile. I can’t train only on downhills, because the Speedway doesn’t have any downhills at all.

I felt… better after finishing. Until I looked at my time – 10:25.

Almost a minute slower??? I thought the point of training was to drop time?!

How am I going to get under 8 minutes if every time I run I ADD seconds??

Right then and there I decided, I am NOT doing that race.

I pulled in to the Speedway Saturday morning with my camera to get pictures and write a story for work. “I can’t take pictures and run. It’s too much,” I told myself as an excuse for chickening out. I saw a friend who pointed out I wasn’t wearing running shoes.

“Are you running?,” he asked?

“No…” I said.

“You can still take pictures of the first race and run. You can even run in those shoes.”

“Well I have tennis shoes in the car because I’m going to the gym after this.”

“What??? If you’re already going to the gym you can run this race! You have no excuse,” he said.

I guess he sort of had a point.

Then Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell walked up and heard him pressuring me to run.

“Cara, you should do it. You need to run this race,” Campbell told me.

After a few deep breaths, I figured if the president of a track tells you you need to race on his track, you should probably stop being a wimp and run the race. It is only one mile, afterall, and I know I can do that without passing out.

So I ran out to my car, hearing an announcement saying anyone not registered had 60 seconds to sign up. And when I say I was not prepared to run, I was NOT prepared to run. I didn’t eat anything for breakfast. I didn’t have my actual gym shoes, just my extra generic tennis shoes I keep in my car in case I get to the gym and realize I forgot shoes (which has happened). I also didn’t have a good enough hair bow, which is a terrible thing when you have as much hair as I do. Having a stretchy hairbow is absolutely crucial, and the one I had just slipped right through my ponytail.

But I ignored all that, got it together, and prepared to run. The one good thing about signing up for a race 10 minutes before it begins (which you should not do by the way) is you don’t have time to get nervous about it. My nerves are the reason I quit running races in the first place.

When we were getting ready to start, my friends were discussing what their strategy would be. That’s when I realized I should probably have a plan for how I’m going to attack this mile. “Don’t go out too fast.” “Use the banking to your advantage.” But truly my only thought was “Just pretend it’s gym class in 7th grade and you want to be the fastest girl in the school.”

When the race started, I felt really great for the first 200 meters. Then I realized I definitely went out too fast. It started hurting before I even reached the quarter-mile mark.

On the second lap I realized I was breathing really hard and really loud. It made me remember that I never really learned how to breathe while running. My mind alternated between really angry thoughts of “Cara, quit being a wimp and keep running! If you walk so help me!” and really inspirational thoughts of “You got this Cooper!”

I came around the final turn and somehow felt sort of not terrible. I figured I had to be around 10:30, maybe 11 minutes. Then I looked at the clock and saw it read 9:00.

Holy crap! How?!

My final time was 9:16, which was insane to me. I’m pretty sure I haven’t run a mile that fast since high school. I was pumped, and also super tired and sweaty. All the lead up to the race, the chickening out was silly, and the peer pressure to do it was worth it. I didn’t go sub-8 minutes, but I did something I didn’t think I could do. Plus, now I have something to work for for next year.

The main thing is maybe I don’t hate running so much anymore.

(This story originally appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.)

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