I’m not really an athlete. I’m all for a rousing game of badminton or tennis, and I enjoy cross-country skiing and hiking, but I enjoy these activities as recreation. I don’t find enjoyment in testing my physical limits to the point of pain. I’m not competitive by nature; I rarely challenge others, or find myself face-to-face with an opponent. Except, to my surprise, if that competitor, that challenger, is simply myself. “Ok, I need some folks to run a mile,” Mr. Fox, the PE Teacher, bellowed over the 40-odd preteens loitering around the playing fields behind Lafayette Middle School. We were working through a unit on track and field events. Up to this point, I had managed to avoid participation. “It’s four times around the track. Any takers?” A couple people raised their hands and began assembling at the make-shift starting line. “Well, let’s get a few more out there,” he continued. Looking over the rest of us, he made a quick assessment and called out, “Johnson. Patterson. VanHouten. And, uh, Baxter.” I froze. Were there any other Baxters in my class? No. Only me. And, to my dismay, I heard myself saying “Okay!” as I made my way to the track, my heart already pounding, my stomach in knots, with zero confidence in myself. I couldn’t do this.
Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth. Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.” A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?
I ran a mile. There was nothing else to do; I didn’t have time to question it, or come up with an excuse. Sometimes challenging a belief is as easy as just doing something. It wasn’t a conscious “I’m going to challenge this doubt and insecurity I have.” I just started running. Four laps around the track—it took me thirteen minutes. Which, as I research it now, is not particularly impressive. But at the time, I was pretty proud. For someone who never ran, I was just happy I finished. I didn’t feel great; my legs were shaky and there was something rattling around in my chest, but I had proven myself wrong. I could run a mile. Of course, I ended up throwing up about five minutes later. Even if I had new-found confidence and a sense of accomplishment, my body wasn’t quite ready for it yet.
I’m sure there’s some lesson to be learned there—something about not pushing ourselves too far, too fast. About knowing and assessing our limitations. But that’s not the important moral of the story. I discovered I wasn’t always right. I learned that I was too critical of myself, too cruel, too unforgiving. Yes, I’m not going to the Olympics anytime soon. Yes, I’m not going to set any records for track. But—once I stopped telling myself no, and just got on with the task at hand, I surprised myself. And that’s something I’m carrying with me into my future: the ability to shut off those doubting voices, and sometimes just going for it. I may surprise myself by discovering I can do much more than I thought possible.