The first time I ran the mile was in fifth grade during the mandatory annual physical fitness testing. Eight laps around the track seemed like a daunting task to the 10-year-old me, who was not even five feet tall at the time. I paced myself, trying to keep steady as all the track runners zoomed past me. When my gym teacher pressed the stop ticker just as I completed my final lap, her face lit up when she realized I finished the mile in the exact amount of time I needed to pass: 12 minutes. To me, that was a proud achievement.
I’ve never been athletic. For most of my middle school and high school experience, I resigned myself to academics, preferring to immerse myself in art and books rather than suffering the agonizing pain of running. School was something I naturally gravitated towards, and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment of running in public. Plus, I thought there was nothing wrong with doing what I was most comfortable with.
My best friend in high school was a champion swimmer. She ran the fastest mile out of anyone I knew, and when she suggested one summer we run a four-mile race together, I was pretty sure my heart started beating three times faster than normal. Though I knew she didn’t mean to make me self-conscious, inside, I thought, “Who was she to show off her athletic prowess in front of me like that?” I agreed reluctantly, and for the next couple of weeks, I made a training plan so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in public.
“Please not last,” I thought to myself.
The first couple of days, I often dragged myself to the gym with my only incentive being to avoid public humiliation. However, as the weeks went by, I began to run faster, and my stamina improved. A couple weeks into my training regimen, I realized that I might even maybe like running a tiny bit.
Though I finished the race on the slow side, it is still one of my proudest moments. I’m a slow runner. I’ve gotten faster since my elementary school years as, nowadays, I am able to keep my mile times down to the single digits, but I’m still dreadfully slow. Though it’s hard to drag myself outside on days I’m completely exhausted, I still love it because running long-distance was never something I thought I’d be able to do. Most of all, since running doesn’t come naturally, I know any improvement I make is because I worked hard for it. Being able to surpass my own expectations has made me more confident, and it’s helped me improve on other aspects of my life. At some point, you learn to stop playing mind games and realize that after countless repetitions of something, improvement, no matter how minute, will come.
I have been able to use the lesson I learned on the track in the classroom as well. English is not my first language, and despite still having people correct my grammar from time to time, writing has become something I’m passionate about. Improvement doesn’t come easily, but comparing my writing now to the short stories I wrote in middle school, I find comfort in knowing I’m at least getting somewhere. Likewise, when those math formulas written on the chalk board with Greek letters rather than numbers don’t seem to make any sense, I know if I memorize those letters long enough and do enough practice problems, the ideas will slowly begin to come together in my mind.
Recently, at my internship, my supervisor assigned me the task of managing data using computer software. I wrote the instructions carefully on my notepad. When it came time to carry out the functions myself, my confidence sank lower and lower as I watched my coworkers maneuver through the program with ease while my fingers fumbled. The feeling of stumbling to learn something new is not always pleasant, but some days, when I have to spend hours figuring out something that can be done in a fraction of the time, I know my efforts will eventually pay off. And at the end of the day, I know I will always be able to go for a run when I get home.
Yuqian Li is a College junior from Lexington, Mass., studying economics and political science. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.