Monday, December 9, 2013

My 5k run: Lifting the curse of the high school gym class

I ran a 5km race yesterday. Those who know me well will understand just what a miracle this is. No, not a miracle, because it’s not as if I’ve ever been injured and told I won’t ever walk again or anything like that. But it’s pretty amazing, considering that for most of my life I’ve hated running. 

I was trained to hate running in high school gym class. Every day at the start of class we had to run a mile, and we were required to do it in less than 10 minutes. This was impossible for me, having come from the most unathletic of parents and being rather more of the studious type than the sporty type. I was the kid who, on a beautiful, sunny day, would rather stay inside reading a book than go outside to play. (This has changed, by the way, although sometimes it simply amounts to reading the book outside!)

Sunset along my usual Hanoi running route.
There was one teacher who took it further. He told us to run a mile and a half, in less than 15 minutes. Again, for me, damn near impossible. One day I ran it in 15:30, my best time ever. However, instead of congratulating me on my achievement, he simply yelled at me that it wasn’t good enough, and that as punishment I had to run another mile, this time in less than 10 minutes. How on earth did he think, if I couldn’t run a mile and a half in less than 15, that I would then be able to run another mile in less than 10? I cannot explain his logic, except to say that he was a horrible bully of a teacher.
At the time my inability to live up to my gym teachers’ expectations frustrated me, but them berating me every day for not doing that run in the required time frame did not make me work harder, but simply allowed me to accept that I would never be able to do it, and thus I stopped trying. Now, I know, I was not the most energetic of teenagers and I’m quite sure I did not push myself as hard as I might have. I guess I didn’t quite realize that it was SUPPOSED to be hard work, and as soon as I got tired I’d stop running and simply walk. I can even understand the gym teachers’ frustration with me (and others who were equally, or more, unathletic). However, what I do not understand is their lack of effort towards me. 

Would it have been so hard to, say, on the first day of class, have us do that run, record each student’s time, and then set individual goals for each of us? It seems unrealistic to set the same goal for each runner. Obviously some kids had no problems at all coming in under that 10 minute mark, but for those students they could’ve set tougher targets. At the race I did yesterday, everyone had different goals, depending on all kinds of factors such as levels of general fitness and athletic ability, length of training, past injury recovery time, recent illness, and so on. Some people wanted to win, others just wanted to finish, and everything in between. That’s totally normal and much more realistic. And everyone was supportive of each other, no matter what the goal or achievement. So why couldn’t it have been like that in high school?

Me, Ruby, and Samantha before the race.

When I think about this, it just makes me angry. The class is called Physical Education, which to me says that their job was to teach us to live active lives. All they taught me was to hate every sport I ever tried. It wasn’t until I hit my mid-20s and was in a hostel in Australia that I learned that athletic activity can actually be fun. A guy staying there suggested one evening that we take the basketball and go down to the local court, just to play around. I resisted, but he convinced me and I was amazed to find that I had a good time. That this basketball thing didn’t have to be some kind of competitive, awful game where I was simply ignored and taunted for not having the same level of ability as the other players. It could actually be fun.

Along my usual Hanoi running route.
Sometime after that I tried running, and discovered that it wasn’t so bad without the anticipation of an angry gym teacher at the end. That it actually felt good to get outside in the fresh air and push my body more than usual. Since then I’ve run sporadically, in between traveling and illnesses and injuries and busy weeks at work and traffic and rain and simply making every excuse in the book not to. I have found that when I really dedicate myself to it, stop making excuses, and run regularly I can start to get into a groove when I run, it isn’t such a chore and is even a good way to relieve stress and anger (I have the best runs when I’m angry about something!) When I can set my own, realistic goals, I have discovered that I can actually reach them and gain the confidence to set them higher. I have discovered that I can improve, I can run for longer without stopping to walk and my runs (very gradually, mind you) get faster and my body doesn’t hurt as much during or after. If I can do this now, at age 36, I certainly could’ve done it in high school.

The three of us feeling happy and proud after the race.

Perhaps others from my high school days will disagree with me. Maybe this is all in my mind. You could even say I'm blaming others for my own faults. But I do think that those teachers failed me. They didn’t do their jobs, and all I can think is shame on them. Now you’re going to say, hey Jenny, you don’t know what it’s like as a high school gym teacher, and you’re right, I don’t. But I do know what it’s like to teach teenagers. I know full well that you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to, that they’ll say all the right things and then do the opposite, that they’ll often make any excuse they can to get out of doing the things you ask. I know it’s frustrating and often easier for the teacher to just give up and let them fail. I know that all too well. I also know that if something isn’t working with your students, you try something else. That berating them for not doing what they should isn’t always the answer, and that many teenagers respond positively to encouragement.

Temple at sunset, yep, where I usually run in Hanoi.

I honestly don’t know how the 14-year-old me would have responded if my high school gym teachers had actually encouraged me. Maybe I still would’ve resisted any physical activity, but maybe, just maybe, I would’ve risen to the challenge of a target set just for me, something achievable rather than the seemingly impossible same goal that was set for everyone. Perhaps I would have pushed myself to reach that goal, and would have learned in the process that it does take hard work, but that I could get there and that I did not have to be the one who stood on the sidelines, believing she couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t have been so hard for those gym teachers to try, but they just didn’t bother. I’m just glad that I did finally discover that being physically active is possible for me and that it doesn’t have to be such a horrible chore.

I ran a 5km race yesterday. That’s 3.11 miles. It took me 33 minutes and 44 seconds. So guess what, that’s STILL not a mile in less than 10 minutes. But for me, it's a pretty good time and I'm damn proud of it.

Did you have a similar high school gym class experience? Or did you have good teachers who taught you to love physical activity? Leave me a comment and tell me what you think!