When I was in fifth grade, I remember taking an aptitude test to vie for a spot in my school's "gifted" program. I managed high scores in math and logic games, establishing a track that I assumed I would pursue all the way through college and a career. (When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "either an animator or an engineer" until halfway through high school, which is humorous to me now as I don't have an engineer's mind at all.)

Fifth grade was also the year I remember being tested in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, which establishes children's athletic abilities through activities such as sit-ups, a one-mile run, pull-ups, a shuttle run, and an agony-inducing-if-you-have-tight-hamstrings stretch called the V-sit. I also recall other impossible challenges such as a rope climb and hurdles, although this might just be a mash of memories from the overall humiliation that was my grade school physical education. I was able to crush the academic aptitude test but couldn't even fake my way into passing this one — too slow in the mile, too stiff in the V-sit, and I never managed a single pull-up (I still haven't.) It was a tough pill to swallow as a ten-year-old, but I swallowed it well: "So I'm a math geek who can't run a mile. Fine. I'll just stop placing any of my self-worth in my athletic abilities. Who cares if I can't pull my chin up over a stupid bar? It's a useless ability anyway."

The fact that I used to show aptitude for math and completely abandoned it after eleventh grade doesn't bother me at all, and yet my childhood athletic failures do. I remember tripping over hurdles, dangling helplessly from the bottom of a rope, and struggling mightily for the ten-minute mile I needed just to receive a passing grade in seventh-grade P.E. There are a lot of athletic adults who were bad athletes as children, but I was really bad. Whenever I experience setbacks in my athletic pursuits, I can't help but wonder why I pour so much time and energy into activities in which I never showed the slightest aptitude. Children who don't test well in math aren't expected to excel in advanced placement calculus, and yet fitness culture establishes that anybody can achieve athletic awesomeness if only they work hard enough.

This week, I went running every day but one, because my elbow injury from last weekend kept me off my bike. The daily trail runs ranged from six to ten miles; the first couple I ran with my left arm in a sling at a slightly slower pace than usual. Then I started to feel better, removed my sling, and picked up the pace. On Friday evening, Beat and I went for a steep run up Black Mountain, a trail that gains 3,000 feet in five miles. I felt great after I started the descent and ran hard, until I rounded a tight switchback going a little too fast. My right foot slid on the moon-dust-gravel that dominates Bay-area trails in August, and I went down hard. The impact tore up the skin on my right knee and hip, and if that wasn't enough, I finally took a fall that I rolled out of only to land hard on my injured left elbow. Owwwww.

The two times I've hit the deck hard this week showed me the main mistakes I am making, including running with my shoulders back and legs too far in front of me, so when my feet slip it's almost impossible to recover my balance. Also, I brake too hard during steep descents, which is why I slip in the first place. I know I need to loosen up, lean forward, and resist the urge to lock up my knees. But as I limp-jogged down Black Mountain with an immobilized left arm, a throbbing hip, and blood streaming down my dirt-crusted leg, I wasn't thinking about ways to deprogram my naturally bad running technique. I was thinking about ways to deprogram the part of my brain that wants my poor, awkward body to run.

Three and a half slow miles down Black Mountain was enough to numb the pain a bit and cause me to back-pedal on my decision to quit these body-battering hobbies forever. Tonight Beat and I are preparing for a 50K training race on Sunday in Stinson Beach. Steep Ravine has 7,000 feet of climbing, and is about 95 percent singletrack with a mixture of shaded Redwood forest mud, roots, rocks, and classic Marin Headlands concrete dirt coated in August dust — it's a mean 50K. To get ready I've packed my soft elbow pads, trekking poles (under the guise of "UTMB training," but really because I need the support), a shin brace (because the "splints" are still a bit of a problem), and a roll of gauze to deal with the painfully raw road rash on my right leg. Yeah, that's stiff and bruised, too. I feel like a walking disaster, who can only hope Steep Ravine doesn't become yet another running disaster.

I don't want to talk about UTMB right now. It starts in four weeks. Yeah. Beat says I should start taking yoga classes as one approach to solving my balance issues. I admit when I think of yoga, the first thing I picture is my ten-year-old-self in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, sitting with my legs spread out and reaching, so earnestly, for that ruler between my feet — and not coming remotely close to touching it. Do I really need to go through that humiliation again? Why didn't I just stick with math?

But in case the mild sarcasm isn't apparent in this blog post, I'm not actually going to give up running just because I'm comically bad at it. I am going to keep working on my issues. I'm probably going to get a lot more road rash, bruises, and injuries — hopefully all minor. I might start going to yoga classes although I am serious about pubic humiliation. I am also serious about being terrified of UTMB but ... ah, well. What doesn't kill me can only leave me with more disfiguring scars. If only my fifth-grade gym teacher could see me now. 


  1. That damn ruler. Seriously. I was awful at that and the broad jump during the fitness test, it got me EVERY TIME. I still can't touch my toes. Everyone tells me to do yoga, but I pretty much hate it. Friends tell me that I haven't found the right teacher, but I'm still skeptical. If you find a place that you like please be sure to blog about it, I live in Marin half time and might be willing to give it yet another go. Good luck in the 50K!!

  2. yoga isn't that bad. i think u'll like it :)

  3. I've asked myself more than once why I love things I'm so bad at and that scare me so much (mountain biking, in particular). But ANYONE can do something they're good at; it's a much bigger accomplishment to stick with something you're not a natural at. And more satisfying, too.

  4. Anonymous8:54 AM

    If you go to a yoga class and you feel humiliated, I can assure you that NO ONE ELSE in the class is judging you. Yoga is a non-competitive activity. You should go a little early and talk to the instructor to share your concerns (he or she will want to get to know you a bit before class anyway if you are a new student). Beat is 100% right - it will help your balance, but it may not be an instant quick fix.

  5. I went to a yoga class and judged myself...I never returned. I now struggle with it in the privacy of my own home where nobody else can see. Jill, I've been trying to motivate myself to run and it has seriously run amuck. I ran track and cross country in college (very average) and also did a couple of marathons. I coached track and cross country in HS, but since having foot problems and taking up cycling I just can't seem to get myself going. I hate the fact that I just can't go out and do a 6 mile run anymore. I just hate the struggle and I don't want to look like I'm suffering. Any suggestions for an old man who wants to get going again:)

  6. Ha we are so similar. Except for the math aptitude.

  7. You don't get better at riding horses by learning to shoot pool. If you want to get better at yoga, take a yoga class. But if you wanna get better at running, take running lessons. A good PT could probably help at least a little, and there are running coaches who focus on technique as well.

    I was amused last week when, five minutes into an appointment with a new PT, he said "well, I can tell you'll never put up with going to yoga. I'll give you some stretches you can do on your own instead." I'd barely talked for 30 seconds and he already had me pegged. Loved that guy. There are so many approaches to fitness, why do stuff you don't like?

  8. I disagree with the other Jill. A friend recommended yoga to me as a way to improve my core strength and balance for cross country skiing. I've been amazed at the improvement I've seen in my balance and strength both cross country and alpine skiing, as well as biking, hiking, and running. It also provides me with a much needed sense of calmness, although the type of yoga I currently do still leaves me dripping with sweat at the end of 90 minutes (strict ashtanga practice). All personality types can benefit from yoga - that's the beauty of it! I urge you to give it a try - what do you have to lose?

  9. Ah, the presidential fitness V-sit stretch! I was such a nerd about getting that certificate I would stretch for weeks ahead of time so I could reach that mark on the ruler. My hamstrings hurt just thinking of it!

  10. If you don't want to take a class I actually recommend the yoga for out of shape people/weight loss DVDs. They show multiple adaptive poses for where your body is flexibility wise and in the main are very "listen to your body" focused.

    And getting a session or two with a trainer to give you techiques for your particular problems might help too.

  11. With all the readers you have, it's quite possible your 5th grade teacher knows how far you've come! It may be painful for you, but I enjoy reading about your (as you put it) comically bad running, though I don't wish you pain! I've recently started running outside (not on a treadmill), and sometimes I think as I'm running down a hill, Be careful like Jill. Slow down. Don't fall. I don't want to deal with that pain. So take a little comfort in the fact that you're inspiring a complete stranger (to you; I've been reading your blog since I lived in Bosnia in 2007).

  12. I've got to give a thumbs up to the yoga too. I'm not good about doing it consistently, but when I do, it makes a difference. I used to speedskate - an activity that demands a lot of coordination and balance. When I'd do my yoga, my skating was so much more effortless - things just clicked. Yes, yoga poses help develop balance. And, I do it mostly because it is such a thorough guided stretch. But, I think it has even more subtle benefits - almost like chiropractic or acupuncture. It seems to "line things up" and "open pathways" or something - everything thing just seems to work better. Coordination just clicks into place. I'm sure technical help with running technique would help too - but don't underestimate what some yoga can do too.

  13. Anonymous9:44 AM

    Jill..take the Yoga you will love it over time.. it saved me from what I thought was a permanate injury & got me running & Biking again!!


  14. Nathan11:20 AM

    Jill, I thought about you on a trail run in Ashland, OR this weekend. It's likely you've thought of this idea and discarded it... but what about wearing bike gloves on trail runs? When I crash my bike, I find having gloves on gives me so much more confidence in going down. I think I fall more effectively knowing my hands are equipped to take the blow and control my fall.

  15. Black Mountain trail is 3000 feet gained over 5 miles? Ooooch...I thought I had it steep this weekend pushing my 30'ish pound full suspension mountain bike up Shafter Grade, climbing 900 or so feet in 1.7 miles....

    When going up I kept my full fingered gloves on, just because I figured it would be better protection for my hands if the little rocks causing a ball-bearing like surface on that fireroad made me slip. Nathan has a good idea, and with how many mountain bike gloves breathe you would almost not even know they are there.

  16. I've taken to hiking/running Black Mountain trail about once a week.

    I agree with the point you made in your other recent post on this topic, that there's a certain genetic component to coordination and balance. But that doesn't mean that some focused training couldn't yield some improvement.

    I plugged rock climbing before, and now I'm going to do it again. I'm sure that yoga would help you. But a lot of the benefits people claim from yoga I've gotten from climbing. And there are aspects to climbing that I think might make it more entertaining for you -- it can be competitive, there are opportunities to feel a concrete sense of accomplishment, such as when you complete a route that you've been struggling with for a few days.

    Most of my climbing (and the climbing that has done the most for my balance and coordination) has been bouldering in an indoor climbing gym. The Planet Granite in Sunnyvale is one of the two best climbing gyms I've been to, out of roughly ten I've visited in various cities. As a bonus, they have yoga classes. (Not affiliated, just a happy customer.)


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