In fifth grade I was the new kid in school, which is always hard. But I think it’s hardest in gym class. Especially if you’re the new “chubby” kid with zero athletic ability. Hello locker room spitballs.
It was the day before Thanksgiving and, much to my dismay, running day in gym class. Running days were my most dreaded, aside from dodge ball days — my head is a ball magnet for some reason. I was the slowest runner in my class besides Stephen, the even fatter, even newer kid who everyone called “Snuffy.” I already knew what would happen out there on the track. Everyone would be staring at me from the sidelines, having finished ages ago, as I rounded my final lap, huffing and puffing from my allergies, turning red with embarrassment and possible heat stroke, everyone laughing as I crossed the finish line flapping my arms. I can’t do this today, I just can’t, I thought. I hid in a corner of the locker room trying to come up with creative ways to get out of running.
Mr. Pollack, the gym teacher, announced that we would be running the “Turkey Trot” — a glorified one-mile run with a stupid name to make it sound fun. The person who came closest to guessing their time would win a giant, chocolate turkey. How awesome would that be to receive a giant piece of chocolate at the end of this torture session? So totally radical, to use the vernacular of the day. Not that I needed any chocolate.
“Time, Angelowicz!” Mr. Pollack shouted out at me like a drill sergeant pulling up his polyester short shorts.
“Ten minutes, 45 seconds,” I replied, almost whispering so no one would hear, and kicking a dirt patch with my sneaker.
“What was that, Angelowicz?” he bellowed. “I can’t hear you.”
“Ten minutes and 45 seconds,” I shouted this time.
“10:45?” Michael Bowen, the best athlete and most popular boy heard me. “I can run two miles in that time, fatso!” I closed my eyes and pretended I was already in music class, where I was a star vocalist. A star, dammit!
I took off very slowly on my trot, trying as hard as possible not to look like an actual turkey. I was where I always was, in front of “Snuffy” and behind everyone else. I wheezed and snorted, as I watched the other kids whiz past me, feeling like a freak. I hated every second of that humiliating trot. Ten minutes, 44 and three-fourths seconds later, I crossed the finish line, barely moving, and was greeted with a giant, chocolate turkey from Mr. Pollack.
“You won, Angelowicz.” At first I thought he was kidding since he was smiling at me for the first time ever. But I actually won. I guessed the closest to my time. The kids were surprised, especially Mike Bowen, who usually won everything.
“You won?” he said in disbelief. “Can I have some of your chocolate?” Even with all of my many accomplishments in non-sports related arenas, holding this giant chocolate turkey felt the most exhilarating.
Twelve years later I was standing at the starting line of the Brooklyn Half Marathon, wondering why I had agreed to do this. Surrounded by 10,000 runners, this whole idea now seemed like a bad case of hubris. Would I be able to cross the finish line alive? I actually had no idea if I could really run 13.1 miles. Sure, I’d been training for months. But I’d never run more than seven miles … in my life. I imagined all the things that could go wrong. An injury, an allergy attack, or even worse … I could come in last. But I had a goal to fulfill: finish this thing in two hours and 30 minutes, just to see if I could.
I took off on the half-marathon course unsure of the journey in store. As I approached mile two, I already wanted to stop. By mile four, I had convinced myself that if I made it to the end of mile six, I could walk for a while. And as I hit mile six, my runner’s high started to kick in and I forgot all about walking.
“I love this,” I screamed out to no one in particular. None of the runners around me even looked. They were probably all high too. By mile eight, the edges of the world started to soften as my feet carried me out of Prospect Park and onto Ocean Avenue, heading toward Coney Island. Man, if there were a pill that could replicate this feeling, it would be all sorts of illegal. During mile nine, I felt invincible. Like I could run forever, or do anything for that matter. Couple my endorphin super high with the Gu caffeine and glucose gel pack that I just sucked down and Salt N’ Peppa’s “Push It” on my iPod mix, and I was practically a freaking superhero. This state of bliss I felt pushed me forward through mile ten without a care in the world. I thought I had this thing in the bag. Until I got to mile 11.
My high began to wear off and once again I was a human being who had been running for two hours straight. My mortality returned with a vengeance. I had a raging blister on my foot. My left toe felt like it was broken. My right knee was starting to throb — like, really throb. My shins were screaming for me to stop. My stomach started to growl. Well, I made it 11 miles, I thought. I guess I’ve gone as far as I can go.
It was then that the “Turkey Trot” popped into my mind. I hadn’t thought about it in years. A slow motion montage of that fateful mile and all the other “I thought I couldn’t” moments began to flash before my eyes. My solo move across the country for college, my first bad heartbreak, my first day as a teacher with a classroom full of students, my decision to quit my job to become a writer. There were so many times in my life that I doubted I could do something, that I was scared I would fail. And every single time I surprised myself by far exceeding my expectations. If I’ve learned anything since the “Turkey Trot,” it’s that I’m capable of so much more than I think I am. It’s my responsibility to keep pushing myself to go further.
I downed a big swig of water and focused on the track ahead. The last two miles were dedicated to that chubby, little girl who didn’t think she was capable of much. Boy, was she wrong. I crossed the finish at two hours and 28 minutes to an ocean breeze on my face and a crowd of strangers cheering for me. It was way better than chocolate.