Tales of a Swimmer, Attempting to Run

My whole life, I have never been a runner. I have skinny flat feet, weak ankles, knobby knees and sore hips. I succeeded as a swimmer because I failed at everything else. I couldn’t kick a soccer ball, or run the bases. I was afraid of the balance beam and lacked the grace to dance on stage. Even a game of tennis contained more running than I could manage. I accepted the fact that I would never be a runner. That was okay. I love to swim.

But today, I ran around my entire neighborhood–without stopping, without walking. Let me tell you one thing–my neighborhood is no joke. The route that I take is about three miles and there are ten hills, varying in difficulty (most of them hard). So my run today was an accomplishment for any non-runner, especially me.

The beginning of my running journey

When I stopped swimming competitively almost two years ago, I knew I had to stay in shape. I wanted to stay active and try new things. I thought, What better place to try new workouts and activities than a college campus? But I found that I didn’t have as much free time as I’d thought. The idea of going to fun workout classes drifted farther and farther from my mind as I got more involved with the student television network and took on a part-time job. I did join UD’s yoga club and went to classes when I could. I went to open swim a few times and to the gym to ride a stationary bike.

But I found that the easiest thing to do was to run. No time limit, no gym or equipment necessary, no experience needed. I downloaded a free app for my phone called CardioTrainer and hit the streets. It was fun to track how far I’d gone, how many steps I took and how many calories I’d burned. I could also compare all of my past workouts. Last summer, I bought new running shoes, convinced that having new shoes would motivate me to run even more.

And yet, running is hard. It’s hard to tell myself to run everyday when I’m tired or sore, but if I miss more than a week I feel like I am starting all over again. I refuse to run in the rain or the cold or the dark. I prefer to run in the morning, but not the early morning. I can’t run after I eat, but I can’t run on an empty stomach. I hate running in the extreme heat of summer. I want the conditions to be perfect, the hills not too steep. In other words, I’m a picky runner.

My running goals

I’m never going to be a Runner, with a capital R. That’s never going to be me, so I’m allowing myself to be picky. I set a few goals for myself to keep me getting out there, and I have a community center membership where I can run on a treadmill when the weather isn’t ideal.

My first goal was to run around my neighborhood. For the past two years, I have tackled the hills of my neighborhood in various ways. I’ve tried running with the dog and without the dog. With my sister or my mom, and by myself. With my iPod, without my iPod. I’ve run the first part and walked the end, or vice versa. I’ve run up the hills and walked down them. I’ve run as far as I could then took a break. No matter how hard I’ve tried, the few roads that circle my house have defeated me every time.

Until today.

Another goal I’ve set more recently is to do a three-mile run once a week. It has usually been on the treadmill, since it’s gotten cold out, and I can easily keep track of the miles and speed. But there are no hills on a treadmill (none that I do) so today was a test. Run the three miles with hills. I didn’t think I would make it the whole way. I usually get about two miles in and slow to a walk. Today, however, I was feeling good. Today was a triumph.

My final goal is to run a 5K. Someday. A real 5K, where I get to register and get a little piece of paper with a three-digit number that I can pin to my shirt and a free T-shirt to show the world that I participated. You know, the whole shebang. And I want to not suck. So my efforts for now are to keep up my three-mile runs and continue running all the hills.

I thought that I hadn’t been getting any better. I couldn’t see any noticeable difference. But today I ran three miles with hills. Not bad for a swimmer. Like I said, today was a triumph.

(photo via)

It’s the People at the Restaurant, Not the Tips

There are a lot of things I could say about working in a restaurant, and things that I already have.  Most things you notice about restaurants, whether you eat at them or work in them, are obvious. The food, the service, the tips, busy nights and slow nights and late nights. There is good service and bad service. People leave good tips for good service, or bad tips because they were never taught otherwise. Or no tips, I get those too. But I don’t want to tell you about tips. I want to tell you about people.

Servers are there to make money. Let’s not step around that fact. We are there for the tips. The good ones, that is. But sometimes, every once in awhile, you get a chance to slow down a little, you step out of the kitchen and away from the computer. Your tables are happy and no one needs anything. And when you look around you, you get a chance to see the moments of other people’s lives. You get a glimpse into other people’s worlds. You can see what other people are going through, or you can imagine what their lives might be like when they get home to their kids. And this is something that I have found spectacular about working in a restaurant. You see so many kinds of different people, so many people, all the people. You say a few words to these people and watch them for a few seconds. You see them eat food for a few minutes and a whole world opens up behind them.

On busy days, there isn’t much time for people-watching, but sometimes there is the rare day when it’s a slow afternoon and at several tables are seated just the most intriguing human beings.

There’s the e-Harmony date. A man and a woman walk in and sit at a table near the bar. They sit across from each other and order a bottle of red wine at 12:30pm. The woman is rather loud, the man is more soft-spoken, with a kind face. They’re leaning in to each other and laughing a lot throughout their conversation. It’s probably a good date, maybe there will be a second. They sit there until 5pm, three bottles of wine later. Definitely a good date. She had mentioned several bad first dates she had been on, so maybe that’s a good sign. Maybe she’ll go home after the date and call up her girl friend and talk all about the kind, gentle guy she’d gone out with and how he’s completely different from the other guys she’s dated and she’ll talk about possibilities. Maybe he’ll go home and Google-search her for a third time. Make sure she’s not too good to be true. Or maybe not. But I saw that they were on a date and enjoying each other’s company.

There is a table with a very young couple. Probably about 17– at least driving age. At first the boy looks mad; it looks like they’re fighting. The host told me he had slammed the car door shut and walked in about 10 feet in front of her. But then they’re at the table and while we’re speculating what the fight is about, he starts crying. Maybe his uncle was diagnosed with cancer. Maybe his grandmother died. His girlfriend is comforting him as best she can and they are clearly not fighting. They have a quick lunch and leave together. Just a glimpse into someone’s life while they eat.

At another table sits an older couple. It’s the end of the night, the crowd has died down and they’re sitting next to each other in a rounded booth, clearly still in love after 40, 50, 60 years but quiet, as if maybe they’ve said all they needed to say out loud over the years and now words aren’t needed. So when I greet them they are anxious to talk and they tell me about their lives. The man told me that they were from Delaware, since I’d mentioned that I just graduated from school there. He said he went to school at Duquesne and it took him thirteen years to graduate, taking night classes, because he was already married with kids and working a full-time job. But he did graduate and he is still with his Mrs. having dinner.

Every table has a story. But as waiters and waitresses, all we see are the minutes when they’re sitting at the table and all we can do is speculate. But each table, each snapshot is unique. Each family looks different and acts differently. Some families are loud and messy, with lots of children. Their lives are probably hectic and they probably don’t get out to eat very often. Maybe they’re like my family and celebrating a good report card. Other families are quiet. The kids are older and don’t want to be seen with their parents but their parents love them anyways. Some tables contain old friends that haven’t seen in each other in years. They order a drink and wait hours to order their meal, just to make the time pass more slowly. They pay the check and sit for a few more hours, their glasses of water all but empty. Maybe they were college roommates, or maybe they both got screwed over by the same guy and found a common bond that lasted all their lives.

These are the moments that make up these lives. Their trip to the restaurant might become part of the story they tell their grandkids. Their moments are special and brief, for us, but maybe for a few minutes I can live vicariously through them. I can be at their business meeting or their jewelry party and be part of that moment. I can take a picture of the old friends and I can make small talk and smile. I can give them that because they all have given me these small glimpses into their lives.

Maybe this is what makes people like working in a restuarant so much. Seeing a moment of another person’s life, speculating what the rest of it might look like. It’s just a snapshot, but sometimes, a picture equals a thousand words.

Achieving Olympic Dreams: Running on Blades

Of all the inspirational stories that emerge from the coverage of the Olympics, the one that caught my eye a few days ago was that of Oscar Pistorius, of South Africa. He is called the Blade Runner, using prosthetics in place of both of his lower legs and feet. Oscar is quite literally a runner without legs. If that doesn’t inspire someone, what will?

He was born without fibulas and was not even a year old when his legs were amputated. Think about the kind of life he probably had, growing up. It’s hard enough to live in the hard world with all your limbs. And still he had Olympic dreams. He still knew that he could do more, even without his legs. And luckily, we do live in this hard world, because it enabled him to find a way around his “handicap.” Building him some prosthetic legs put him on the path to greatness. If only it could work like that for everyone with the Olympics in their sights.

Pistorius worked hard and has to have tons of natural talent in order to get where he is today. But he also has to be incredibly lucky. Not every double-amputee with or without prosthetic limbs ends up in the Olympics. He is lucky that he has the money to afford his state-of-the-art legs, and to replace them when necessary. He’s lucky that his case was reviewed and ruled in his favor to allow him to compete in this year’s Olympics. It can’t be easy for him. Why don’t you try running with no legs?

Yet there are still bitter critics saying that his artificial legs give him an unfair advantage; they give him spring in his step that other runners don’t have; they reduce his fatigue because there are no muscles there to use up oxygen and make him tired. But if he had such an advantage, wouldn’t there be more amputees running as fast as he is?

It might be easier for people to yell “unfair!” than to admit that their guy will get beat by a runner with no legs. We want everything to be equal and fair, but that’s not how the world is. It’s not even fair for the people who do have their legs. Some of those runners have had better coaching, or are in a geographically more agreeable country or city. Some athletes are better off financially and can concentrate on just running, while others are trying to hold a job and provide for a family. People aren’t going to come from the exact same circumstances, so can’t we call it unfair for everyone? Can we kick everyone out who we think is too old or too young, not allow someone to compete because they had more time to practice than we did?

His artificial blades were proven to not give him any extra spring. They are shock absorbing, like many running shoes claim to be, but they do not add extra power. I’m sure with today’s technology rapidly advancing, that power boost may  not be far behind. But of course, the Olympic committee would shoot down a competitor with a power boost in their feet, just as they would someone who takes performance enhancing drugs. There is obviously a line between artificial feet and rockets for legs.

It would not be easy to learn to walk on blades and certainly not easy to run fast enough to qualify in the Olympics. Whatever “advantages” this guy has, it is not his feet.  I salute him. I hope he runs the best he can and keeps up with the best of them. I hope he wins medals and proves to everyone that you can achieve dreams even with disadvantages like the loss of your legs. I hope he becomes an inspiration to other amputees in the world, and those who are trying to overcome major challenges in their lives. I do not, however, think that he should be able to compete in the Paralympics after the London Olympics. If he has the chance to prove how great he is now, he shouldn’t need to prove himself again, or against other amputees. He earned the right to compete in the Olympics and he deserves that. But no one else gets two tries. Now that is what is unfair.

As technology continues to improve and we become better able to make limbs for amputees, and give people the chances that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, we’re going to have to keep re-evaluating what is “fair” and who has the “advantage.” It is a continuous process, just as everything else dealing with rising technology is an ongoing process. With everything in a state of constant change, nothing is going to be cut and dry forever.

Oscar Pistorius proves that someone without legs can run in the Olympics. Hopefully this will open doors for others like him and we can continue to be supportive of all athletes who work hard and persevere through all the obstacles they are given.

And if he can run races in the Olympics, without legs, I can surely get off the couch and hit the gym once in awhile. Like I said, truly an inspiration…

 

image from usatoday.com

Olympic Dreams

 

This was the year I was supposed to go to the Olympics.

I started swimming competitively when I was nine years old. It was the only sport I could do well, with my flat feet and lack of running skills and hand-eye coordination. I became as dedicated as any swimmer could get. I was the first one in the pool, last one out, before school, after school, weight lifting. Never skipped a set or a lap. (Ok, rarely skipped.) I distinctly remember one of my old coaches sitting down with me to discuss my future in swimming. He asked what my goals were, whether it was getting a better time, beating a certain person, or going to the Olympics. I looked at him, all confused, and said, “Doesn’t every swimmer want to go to the Olympics?”

I calculated my age and the years that the summer Olympics were held and decided that I would probably be at my peak when I was 22 years old, for the 2012 Olympics. I figured I wasn’t going to be a Michael Phelps at age 15, but by 22, I should have it in the bag.

So, yes, this was the year I should have gone to the Olympics.

I would never have come close to the fast times that these Olympians are going. I would have been drowning in their wake as they swam circles around me. I was never, ever on track to swim that fast. I had the most drive and motivation a coach could ever want in an athlete, but you have to have more than that to be the absolute best. You have to have some kind of innate talent and ability that cannot be taught or learned. These Olympians are naturals to the point of having super powers. But children should have dreams. The goal of every young athlete should be to go to the Olympics. It’s what teaches them to work hard, never give up, shake off mistakes and learn to work even harder.

The Olympians, not just those competing in London right now, but all of the past and future Olympic athletes, are heroes and role models to so many people, especially children. I looked with awe and wonder at the massive shoulders of my heroes competing on television and I watched them break records and I wanted to be in their shoes someday. And that is where I learned my dedication and commitment and my drive.

I had posters of swimmers covering my bedroom walls when I was younger. I meticulously cut pictures out of magazines, even tiny pictures that were barely three inches wide. So many you could hardly see the wall. Pictures of Dara Torres, Aaron Piersol, Dana Munz, Misty Hyman, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, Michael Phelps. When I took them down sometime in high school, I’m pretty sure I saved them, because I couldn’t bear to throw away my childhood idols. These athletes were the ones that kept me in the pool, made me go to practice, and helped me with my stroke. I imagined I was one of them when I practiced and raced. I watched videos about how Michael Phelps swims his butterfly, and I tried to emulate him. These athletes were and still are my heroes and convince me every day that great things can be achieved, with hard work and a dream.

Every kid in sports needs that. Every adult not in sports needs that. We need to be able to believe that impossible is possible, that dreams can come true. We can see it on the athletes’ faces– the smiles as they touch the wall, score the last point, finish the race– that this is the moment they prepared for all their lives, and we’re living that moment with them. Because those moments are our moments. Those were our dreams too and we might not be the ones competing in London, but that was our goal, that was supposed to be our Olympics. So we’re left to live vicariously through the ones who were lucky enough to be born with the natural talent that we didn’t get, the monstrous shoulders, the massive legs, the precise stroke, the better coaching and more pool time. It’s not difficult to see why we didn’t go, so we’ll settle. We’ll let them swim our races, let them win the medals. We’ll cheer with them and cry for them and our hearts will break for them, in their successes and failures. These are our heroes, representing the United States, representing all of the young athletes whose dream it is to get there, representing all the non-athletes who can still find joy in their triumph.

I will let them swim my races. Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Dana Vollmer, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt, Cullen Jones…I guess they’re pretty good, they probably worked pretty hard. But by God, they better swim well. Because that was supposed to be me there.

 

(image from time.com)