I had never been a runner. If we’re being honest, I wasn’t athletic in any capacity. The mile had given me trouble in high school gym class, but all of it was hard for me, and I hated PE class with the special fury specific to uncoordinated academic kids. That I was even being graded on participation seemed rather unfair.
But suddenly I was in my 30’s and just pretending like fitness was for other people but not me was no longer a reasonable way to go through life. I could dimly see the future, and the version where I never worked out looked a hell of a lot worse than the one where I got over myself and figured something out. So I did what you do when you have limited means and decent knees – I signed up for my first 5k.
I knew enough even then to find an accountability partner and lucky for me the first friend I asked was also game. She had done a few races before but wasn’t really a seasoned runner. Since I was a total novice, it seemed like a perfect match for me. The plan was this – we would each follow the running schedule on our 5k plan during the week and then meet up on Saturdays to run together.
We met up the first Saturday and after we caught up on life a little she asked, “how was running this week?” I assumed she was asking about how I was feeling about running, so I described my internal struggles a bit. Truth is that if you’ve never run before, getting started takes some patience. Just building the muscle and cardio capacity to get through a mile is a process. I was frustrated.
Then I asked her how her week had gone. “I only managed to run once,” she said.
I was sort of surprised, but I didn’t worry about it much. I figured she was starting in a better place than I was physically and this was giving me a chance to catch up.
Week two, we met up again and had a very similar conversation. I was starting to see the first faint glimmers of improvement, but my friend had an especially busy week, and her whole schedule was thrown off.
Third week we met up and it was unseasonably hot. After complaining about the weather for a bit, she once again admitted to not really making it through our 5k program for the week. So I asked if we could maybe take a walk break to dig into it.
We slowed down. I thanked her for being my partner and told her how much it helped me, but I was curious, why was she struggling to follow the program?
She went through a short litany of circumstances, all of which were genuinely challenging – kids throwing a wrench in her schedule, a parent with a new and difficult diagnosis, getting started with a new job – no doubt it was a lot. Then she said the real problem. She would lose part of her planned time and decide that if she couldn’t do the plan as written, it just wasn’t worth it to do anything.
I was stunned. It had only been a few weeks of running, but my approach had been exactly the opposite – if something cropped up that meant I couldn’t do what I had planned for the day, I forced myself to get through something, really any part of a run, just to keep myself moving. Being a beginner, I understood that all progress was good.
By the time race day came around, it was clear that we were not going to run it together. My goal was to stay under 9-minute miles, and hers was just to get through it. I ended up finishing a solid 6 minutes faster than she did – a significant spread in a race that short. Allowing myself the freedom to have shitty workouts as long as I kept moving forward had made an enormous difference in our results.
My takeaway from that experience was this – don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is easy to remember when you’re a novice. But the better we get at anything the harder it becomes. On the path to any goal, we encounter circumstances that make focus and progress harder. Expecting that we will struggle, and keeping progress as our goal rather than perfection, we can overcome our circumstances and create space for growth.