What I Learned from Running the Mile

High school gym class may be the epitome of self-esteem crushing life events. I don’t remember feeling particularly capable or talented in gym class. I don’t remember any spikes in my confidence levels. I mostly remember feeling awkward and anything but athletic; and I remember running the mile, or what may be better classified as “run-walking” the mile.

The dreaded mile days went something like this: my gym teacher would march us outside to the freezing cold tundra of a Michigan football field in only our gym shorts and t-shirts. There was never any warning that we would be running the mile. It was the gym class version of a pop quiz where the teacher hadn’t even taught you the information. Seriously, we never ran in my gym class except for the four days a year, one for each quarter, when we were forced to run the mile.

So, all of us gangly 9th graders would begrudgingly gather around a starting point on the track, me usually towards the back, waiting for the signal. When the teacher blew the “you can start running now” whistle, we ran. I mean some kids actually ran, but most slow-jogged or run-walked.

I was a run-walker. I started out at a good running pace and after one, maybe two laps around the track, I slowed down, my lungs aching from the bitter cold. I ran myself right out of steam and breath, and finished the last two laps doing the walk-of-shame.

It always made me furious that we never “trained” for the mile. I didn’t understood at the time how some people could run a mile without practice. I assumed you had to be born athletic, which I was not; and I assumed I simply wasn’t capable.

Looking back I think it’s a little funny how incapable I thought I was at running, but mostly I think it’s sad. Sad that something as small as running a mile seemed impossible. Sad I believed at such a young age there were things I was inherently born incapable of doing. Sad I may have missed out on so much of life, including a good grade in gym class, simply because I was certain I couldn’t do certain things.

“Certainty doesn’t leave room for possibility.” – Melissa Camara Wilkins

Now I run a mile without even thinking twice. My first race three years ago was six miles, and I didn’t train for it. I just did it. (Disclaimer: Do not try this at home. Always seek medical advice and proper training before attempting any race.) I’m not more athletic or in shape than I was as a high schooler, and I’m definitely not any younger or more energetic! What I am is confident in my ability to do hard things, not because of my body, but because of my mind.

As the years have passed, I’ve realized that “mind over matter” is not a pipe dream but a reality. You may not believe in mind over matter, but I believe. To be clear, I don’t believe if I stare at my coffee pot long enough a cup of coffee will suddenly start brewing. But I do believe I’m capable of brewing a great cup of coffee if I use my mind to power my hands. When it comes to trying new things, when it comes to overcoming difficulty, when it comes to success or achievement, whether big or small, what you believe in your mind is much more important than external factors.

A recent study was done by Ohio University where muscle loss was compared in two groups of healthy adults wearing immobilizing casts on their wrists for four weeks. Part of the group was asked to perform imagery exercises throughout the four weeks where they would simply imagine strength training their wrists. The other part of the group did not perform any mental exercises. While both groups ultimately lost some muscle strength due to immobility, the group that performed the imagery exercises lost 50% less strength in their wrist.

This is science, people!

Still, I believe mind over matter is as much a condition of the heart as it is science. I think my belief that I was not able to run a mile was born in my heart. It was born out of a fear of not being good enough. It was born out of a fear of failure. Why try when you aren’t as good as someone else? Why try when you might fail? These inner demons – these fears – don’t leave you when you get older, they come on maybe stronger than ever. But I have learned as I’ve matured that the more you move past fear the less power it has over your life.

We need fear for protection from danger, but not for protection from life experiences.

After my awkward year of freshmen gym class, I took a leap, literally, into the unknown my sophomore year. I started taking dance classes outside of school, and I had to learn to leap and pirouette and chasse with girls who had been leaping and pirouetting and chasseing since preschool. They had every reason to be better than me, but I didn’t let that stop me. I danced for three years because I was following my heart. I wasn’t born a dancer. I was born with a desire to dance and, most importantly, I believed I could do it.

I didn’t believe I was going to be the best; I believed my best was good enough. I learned during those three years of dancing that fear tries to make us much smaller than we really are, but overcoming fear exposes the lie. When we overcome fear we see we are much stronger and wiser and bolder and brighter than what we originally thought.

A few weeks ago, while I was having lunch with my mom, she asked me what I thought was the most important life lesson I could teach my niece. If I could impart one bit of wisdom to this little child about the complexities of life, what would that be? The only answer I could think of was a phrase I’ve heard the momazing Glennon Doyle Melton say over and over, “We can do hard things.”

I want my niece to know she can do hard things. She is not limited by her body, or what others have lead her to believe about her abilities, or a characteristic that only “some people” are born with, or a false sense of certainty born out of fear. No, I want her to believe she is capable of whatever she puts her mind to. I want my niece to believe her body is as strong as her mind and the possibilities for her life are as endless as the depths of her heart.

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