The difference a year makes

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Working out day-to-day, it can be difficult to notice any physical progress. Despite determined efforts, sometimes it feels as if our fitness journeys are taking place on a metaphoric treadmill…we keep stepping forward but getting nowhere.

I am as guilty as anyone. Programmed for instant gratification, I want results and I want them last Tuesday. But this weekend I received a lesson in taking a longer view that is worth considering.

In February of 2009, I learned to run as a founding member of the running rEVOLUTION. At our first meeting, I could only shamble along a few seconds at a time in anything resembling a run. In 10 short weeks, I found myself queued up to jog five miles in the High 5 race. My lone objective was to run every last step of the distance. About an hour later, I achieved my simple but lofty goal thanks to my training, cheers from friends and my brain’s obsessive repetition of the phrase, “Just keep running! Just keep running!”

Twelve months later, I returned to that same starting line with a new goal. My 2010 High 5 race aspiration was to run the five-mile distance stress-free.

Last Saturday’s race was completely different from the word, “GO!” The first 400 yards were not defined by a desperate clutching for breath or consistent pace. Though the same great friend was by my side, this year she didn’t have to talk me down from the belief that I was having an asthma attack or a stroke. Instead we bantered back and forth, neither of us at a loss for oxygen or conversation.

The changes brought by a year of conditioning kept coming as we turned onto Duncan Boulevard and the pavement felt softer. Had PennDOT added a special springy layer to the asphalt just for the race? The road sure looked the same.

My macadam musings were interrupted as – seemingly all to soon – we reached the point where the 1.5-mile racers veered left as we 5-milers turned right onto the lane of pain, the ironically named Pleasant Drive.

Last year this road declared itself my nemesis, growing ever longer between where I was and the 2.5-mile turnaround marker. “Just keep running! Just keep running!” It seemed to take an eternity to pass even tufts of grass growing among the gravel.

But this year, I was able to see the pleasant along Pleasant Drive. How the road meandered alongside the river. How the birds were singing and the pine trees gave off a particularly lovely scent. Suddenly, we passed mile marker one and headed spritely into mile two. Wasn’t that marker further out last year? This was getting plain weird. Had the race gotten shorter? Had a prankster moved the mile markers closer to the starting line?

I whooped in gratitude to two small boys holding up signs reading, “Yeah, Runners!” However, their warming presence pointed out an absence. Last year at this mileage, I was already cheering for the lead runners as they powered their way back to the finish along the opposite berm. This year, no elite feet or race-tuned bodies were yet in view. In the half of a mile before they appeared, no “Just keep running!” was required. Instead, I reveled in the sensation of wind meeting my face. The breeze was especially delightful because I knew it was womanmade. I was finally running fast enough to create wind resistance!

Mile marker two soon came into view. Now I was certain some tomfoolery was afoot. But no, in short order there was the 2.5-mile turnaround, precisely where it had been in 2009.

The return trip sped by, the objective of a race I suppose. But unlike last year, I didn’t dwell on the distance remaining between where I was and where I was going. I just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery and the machinery my body was becoming at that exact moment in time.

Approaching the traffic light at Main Avenue, I thought, “Wow! Someone must have leveled this hill.” Then I realized, that no, this year I was just stronger and able to discern a knoll from a hill.

In short order, I crossed the finish line stress-free, my face a dewy pink rather than boiled lobster red. Looking at the race clock, I realized that along with enjoying my run, I had achieved a sweet time drop. What a difference a year can make!

Changes in our well-being often happen in such small increments and inconspicuous ways that they can avoid detection in the short term.  Week to week we can miss subtle improvements brought about by exercise. The fruits of our labor come most convincingly with time.

If you are a fitness regular suffering from the belief that your efforts are getting you nowhere, get some perspective. Think back a year – or even six months. What could you do then? What can you do now? Taking a longer view will likely give you something to celebrate.

If you’re new to improving your mind and body through exercise, grab a journal and track milestones as they occur. In six months to a year, look back and see how far you’ve progressed. Journals are great for tracking your improvement and predicting achievements to come. Journals also help you recall details that get lost with time and that make all the difference.

After the 2009 High 5 race my journal entry included, “Took a long, hot bath and several Advil. Woke on Sunday stiff and sore but still smiling.” My 2010 post-High 5 journal read, “After the race, Wanda and I took on the 20-mile Tango Adventure Race bike route. It rocked! Two sports in one day! Woke Sunday ready for more.”

So “just keep running,” walking, lifting, swimming, or whatever physical pursuits you enjoy and see for yourself what a difference a year can make.

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