From Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul

The Exchange Rate

After years of inactivity, my expanding waistline forced me to swap vegetables. I traded my membership in the couch potato club for one in a squash club.

After handing over my credit card for initiation and monthly dues, I discovered fitness didn’t come cheap. With the money I had left, I bought a squash racket and a tennis dress that fit my budget better than my body. It groaned when I zipped it up, but if I didn’t breathe too deeply maybe the seams would hold until I lost ten pounds.

Over the next few months, between running around the court to pick up missed balls and the odd rally where I actually returned the shot, my outfit stopped protesting. It took another couple of months for the court, which rivaled a football field in size, to shrink to standard dimensions. The rallies lengthened as balls that had previously whizzed past my racquet were now within reach. Having previously exchanged vegetables, I nowexchanged vowels as I moved from fat to fit. The time had come to ratchet up my exercise program another notch. Although the club director had mentioned a workout room on the top floor, for the first six months I hadn’t had the energy to make it past the second floor. Now I was ready.

The third floor housed two small rooms, divided by a wall of mirrors, to form one larger area. Stationary bicycles and rowing machines filled one side; the other held racks of free weights. Large doorways allowed a banked wooden track to circle the perimeter of the two rooms.

I headed for the track, sprinted off and promptly collided with a runner charging through the doorway. He pointed to a sign and continued running. I hobbled over to read the sign, which directed members to run clockwise on even days of the month and counterclockwise on odd days to avoid uneven build-up of muscles. I pictured a clock, complete with hands, and set out again in the opposite direction.

Off to an inauspicious start, I figured my running experience could only improve. With eight laps to the mile, the hardest part would be keeping track of the number. I needn’t have worried. By the end of my first lap, I was huffing and puffing so hard I had to stop. Something was very wrong.

Stumbling off the track, I realized the “something” was “someone.” Me. The flushed, sweat- and mascara-streaked face that greeted me in the multiple mirrors confirmed it. I erased the word “fit” from my vocabulary and replaced it with “cardiac victim.”

After my heart stopped pounding, I crept downstairs to the women’s locker room and splashed cold water on my face. As the redness faded, I made a vow to my reflection: one day I would run a mile, if not with ease and grace, at least without sounding like a steam engine. And I’d wear waterproof mascara so I wouldn’t look like a raccoon at the finish line.

Over the next few months, I arrived at the club an hour before my squash game and forced myself upstairs to the track. I ran clockwise and huffed. I ran counterclockwise and puffed. After being rear-ended when I slowed suddenly, I learned to keep to the outside of the track in the “slow” lane when another pair of feet pounded behind me. I considered slapping a bumper sticker on my rear end that said “Beginner Runner—Beware” but decided anyone close enough to read the sticker was about to crash into me anyway.

I used a clicker to record the laps. Not that I couldn’t count, but it made me feel more like a real runner. Although my laps started adding up, they still didn’t total the magic number eight. I kept at it. Two months passed and I spent more time running and less time huffing and puffing. Other runners stopped offering to drive me to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.

Then came the day I stopped thinking and simply ran, feet pounding and arms pumping at my sides. Just me and the track. The laps glided by until I glanced at the clicker in my hand and saw the counter change to seven. Only one more lap stood between me and my goal. I ran on.

I rounded the last turn, crossed the finish line and stopped in amazement, nearly knocking down the guy behind me. I apologized and hastily stepped off the track to savor my victory. I had done it. I had metamorphosed from couch potato to Queen of the Track. Okay, maybe just her lady-in-waiting.

Having conquered the mile, I’ve set new goals. I’ve started training for two miles. Next I’ll go for three miles. Then four miles. Then marathons—though at the rate I’m going, I’ll probably be running in the geriatric category. I don’t care. I am runner—hear me roar!

Harriet Cooper

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