As you may know, I attended the prestigious Westlake School for Girls, an elite top ten private school in Los Angeles. The application process focused on academics. Yet, in addition to demanding top SSAT scores and elementary school grade point averages, every application also required a head shot. As students, wearing our wool pleated skirts, button down oxford shirts and wool sweaters, we would regularly waive to busses filled with tourists passing by the campus on their tour of stars’ homes with the hope of landing a picture of a potential Nobel laureate or Oscar winner in the making.
By the time I got to the tenth grade, the focus was getting through the academic playoffs to secure a spot in a top university. I kept my head down and studied, took tests, and actively engaged in extracurricular activities including speech and debate, student newspaper, math team and volleyball (colleges look for well rounded students).
Second semester midterms came – the few days we were allowed to abandon our uniforms and wear “free dress.” This was the opportunity to show off trendy jeans. Being a scholarship student, I was not the owner of a pair of the coveted high-waisted Z Cavaricci acid wash jeans, and I just donned comfortable sweats and my “exam sweatshirt” – the sweatshirt I have worn to every exam I have taken since the seventh grade. (It is now integrated into a quilt with other t-shirts and sweatshirts from my academic journey.) Midterms finally came to an end and we were all spent. But instead of taking Spring Break to party in Palm Springs and/or indulge at a spa in Aspen, I was lucky enough to secure a scholarship to a top chemistry workshop. I spent the week doing stoichiometry and thermodynamics in preparation for AP Chemistry in eleventh grade.
I came back to Westlake after Spring Break, ready and excited to see my classmates. But when I arrived, I was bombarded with the aftermath of a horrific and violent encounter. I got to the Monday morning assembly and 80% of the tenth grade class had black eyes, bloody noses, bandages on their faces, and most of them were in continuous pain. What could have happened to all of them? How could so many of them have fallen victim to brutal acts of physical violence.
Then it occurred to me. During Spring Break, there was a big Operation Rescue protest at a Los Angeles abortion clinic that turned riotous. While helping escort women who were seeking services from the clinic through the blockade, the Women’s Studies class at my school must have been involved in the brutal altercation I had read about in the paper. These women in my class were all heroes. They did not renew and refresh themselves in Palm Springs or enjoy apres ski in Colorado. They gave up their Spring Break to ensure the rights of these women to make fundamental choices about their health and their lives – and my classmates ended up “taking a bullet” for it. And what did I do? Chemistry Camp. What was I doing to promote civil rights? I felt like such a failure.
At this point, the only way I could get involved and contribute to the cause was to make sure the student newspaper covered this important and altruistic effort. I asked one of my classmates is she would be willing to be interviewed for the paper. She said yes, but it would have to be after she went to see the doctor. Of course. She asked me to meet her at the doctor’s office for the interview and that her mom would drive me home after. She handed me his business card so I would have the address:
Dr. Howard Stevens, MD, FACS
Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
My relationship with running began in 1984 at the beginning of seventh grade. After enduring a rigorous application process, I was admitted to the famous Westlake School for Girls, an elite top ten private school in Los Angeles. It had a plethora of famous alumnae, including, but not limited to, Jamie Lee Curtis, Mindy Cohn, Danica McKellar, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Shirley Temple, and Sally Ride. Up to this time, I was always one of the smartest, if not the smartest, kids in my class. Now I was in a sea of my own – over a hundred girls who were used to being number one. This school was rigorous, sending a good majority of its graduating women on to top colleges in the United States. In the first physical education class in seventh grade, our very militant physical education teacher, Ms. Walsh, administered the Presidents Physical Test (some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the guilty).
Originating during the President Eisenhower administration in 1953, the Test evolved to 1984 to include: (1) sit-ups (timed for one minute), (2) push-ups (as many as possible without resting), (3) pull-ups (as many as possible) or flexed arm hang (as long as possible), (4) a 30-foot “shuttle run,” (5) the “V-seat reach” (to gauge flexibility), and (6) a one mile run. (Curious how President Trump would fare on this Test).
The scoring of the Test is truly evil. It is not meant as a reference point so that you can compete against yourself to get fitter as time progresses (“Fitness is not about being better than someone else. It is about being better than you used to be.”). Rather, all of the students were pitted against each other and ranked by percentile. Only the 85th percentile and above were eligible for the President’s Physical Fitness Award. For me, the heinous nature of this ranking system was compounded by the caliber of my fellow students. Not only was Westlake known for the intellectual prowess of its student body (e.g. Me), we also had a number of elite, including Olympic, athletes (e.g. Dara Torres). Captain of a sports team, never did I purport to be. Disregarding the fact that I was more math or debate team material (note, when I was Captain of the varsity math team, I lobbied for lettermen jackets), Ms. Walsh made me “compete” with REAL athletes.
As I have aged, I have been successful at blocking the trauma I experienced in completing the first five items of the Test. But the one-mile run, that is an entirely different story. Ms. Walsh got the entire seventh grade class together and started the one mile run around our track. After each girl finished, she was required to stay until the very last girl finished. The design was not like cross fit, where the first finishers vociferously cheer on the others. “No one left behind. No one finishes alone. All in together.” Rather, Ms. Walsh’s goal was to shame us into finishing as fast as possible. The girls who finished first waited, tapping their feet in frustration, checking their Rolex watches regularly, and shooting fire daggers from their eyes for being unfairly detained. This was the first stage of boot camp for the Regina George army Ms. Walsh was grooming.
As you are probably surmising, I was THE LAST one to finish the one-mile run. Every quarter lap seemed like an eternity – like watching the timer on the microwave count down when you are starving and all you want is your hot pocket. I was huffing and puffing, and every time Ms. Walsh flashed me a look of disdain, all I saw was Nurse Ratched dehumanizing me by threatening to tell my mom. Every step of this one mile seared in mortification with the judgment of my teacher and my fellow seventh graders. As I look back now, my huffing and puffing was only partially due to being out of shape. Another large factor contributing to my poor breathing-while-running skills was the fact that I had asthma. Yet, neither Ms. Walsh, nor her army of 7thgrade mean girls gave me any handicap on the score card for my diagnosed diminished lung capacity. It finally came to an end. After my dismal finish, my colleagues rushed to change from their gym clothes to uniforms and scampered off to class. Rather than feeling elation from accomplishing what was to me a herculean task, all I felt was shame. I walked around for the rest of the day with my head down, unable to make eye contact with anyone. This was a task that I was barely able to accomplish. This was something I had rarely, if ever, experienced. I dishonored my school in national rankings; I disappointed my teacher; I alienated my fellow students isolating myself even more from the “normal” kids; and, most of all, I let myself down. It was a heavy weight to bear, indeed too heavy. In retrospect, I probably should have taken this opportunity to start a Presidents Physical Fitness Test Support Group for other kids who suffered similar trauma. Leadership in a community organization would have looked great to colleges. Instead, though, this experience led to the end of my relationship with running. Or so I thought.
To assuage this PTSD, I set off on a path to a life where I could be successful without running. I threw myself into academics. With that, I tucked myself in at my desk (where the history of my tight hamstrings and hips begins), and I ended up graduating from high school one year early. All without running.
I went off to college in Boston, where I sprinted through my collegiate degree. I even spent a sophomore semester at Oxford where I earned the nick name “Doogie,” and then, I earned my bachelor’s degree one year early, as well (remember I am Indian).
What do I do next? Law School of course; there is no “physical fitness” in that. I studied for my LSATs, another test which pits the competitors against each other and ranks them in percentiles. What better way to introduce people to the “eat what you kill” profession of law? But unlike the President’s Physical Fitness Test, this time I was not competing against elite athletes, but rather dorky bookworms who generally got picked last for every sports team. This time, I disappointed no one, and I earned a 96th percentile. And then I went on to law school.
At the end of my first year of law school, I had a massive asthma attack, and was hospitalized for five days. I was given a significant dose of steroids for my recovery. Instead of making me look like a body builder, these steroids caused me to gain weight. I could look at a burger and gain more weight than the burger itself weighed. Physics (conservation of mass) went out the window. My doctor suggested that I join a gym and start to exercise to improve my cardiovascular health and address my asthma. I did. It was a great excuse to go to CitySports and buy some of those cute workout outfits and, my other favorite consumer purchase, new shoes. I started working out at the gym: stair master and walking on the treadmill so I could multitask reading case law with cardio. One day, when the gym was empty mid-day between classes and no one could see me, I thought, “Maybe I can give this running thing a try. If I choke, no one will see me. No one will ever even know.”
I set the treadmill speed faster with a goal of jogging for 1 minute. The minute elapsed, and I felt fine. Why not try a second minute? And I survived. I kept going and, after a decade of avoiding it, I jogged for 5 minutes. No problem. In fact, I felt great after. No shame at all.
Each day I added more time, and within two weeks, I was jogging two to three miles a day on the treadmill—without stopping (insert workout montage with 80’s soundtrack). Needless to say, going from zero miles a week to 14-18 miles a week, landed me at the doctor. They took a look at my feet and gate, fitted me with orthotics and sent me to buy “proper running shoes.” Me, buy running shoes? Up to that time, I had always made my way to the “cross trainer” section of the sporting goods store. I avoided the “running” section where people used lingo like “pronation,” “toe box,” “motion control,” “shock absorption,” and “mid sole”—it was a different language. I had no intention of ending up brainwashed into joining this cult, so I avoided the running section. I certainly was not going to drink that Kool-Aid.
Somehow, I found my way into the periphery of this group of people I had avoided for so many years: Runners. I ended up selecting a pair of purple and yellow Nikes (I am a Lakers fan at heart) that had sufficient motion control as ordered by the podiatrist, and headed back to the treadmill. A few days later, I noticed my classmate Marcy had the same sneakers. And she was a REAL runner. She did not just work out in the gym, but she did distance runs on trails and ran in 5Ks and 10Ks. And we had the same shoes! Was I becoming a “runner?”
As time progressed, I ventured outside and began running on local running paths. I enjoyed accomplishing more and different things and I ended up becoming a recreational runner. When I say “runner,” I am no Usain Bolt. Rather, picture George Costanza on the track. My definition of “running” is anything faster than walking – and that works for me.
I even signed up and did some organized runs. My first one was the Susan Komen 5k. I raised about $3000 for the cause and was surprised how many of my co-workers were more than happy to donate when I asked. Never once did they question my ability to finish. During the run, I saw the one mile marker. But then it seemed like forever to find the two mile marker. I felt like I was going and going and still had yet to pass it. When will I get to that damn marker? I was way off my mile time. And then . . . the race was over. I guess I just missed it and just kept going. It was a real lesson about how much of a role your mind and self-talk play in physical endurance.
Another race I used to run annually when I lived in Boston was the Tufts 10K. It is an all-women’s race and was a lot of fun. “Randomly” there were very handsome and young men at the half way point passing out water and encouraging us to keep going. In my head, as I passed by, I thought, “must run fast past cute boy so he thinks I am Priyanka Chopra.” It was an effective tactic by the race organizers. Every year I did the run, I came across a woman running the race who had one leg and competed with crutches. And she beat me every year. At the end of the race, they announced the names and ages of participants that crossed the finish line. And right before I crossed the finish line, they announced “Helen from Arlington who is 67 years old.” She beat me too. But it was not about that; my competition was with myself – and I was happy to complete the 6.2 mile run.
My most significant organized run was the Boston Half Marathon. My cousin and I ran the race together. My cousin had never run anything longer than a 10K at the time, yet he finished the half marathon in the top 100. My results were dissimilar. When I hit mile 3, I looked to my left and saw the Kenyans crossing the finish line. Nearly all the runners had finished, except us stragglers. As they were just about to start dismantling the race, my friends were nervously waiting for me at the finish line, carefully monitoring the medical busses pulling in with injured and/or sick runners. Finally, I made it to a point where I could see the finish line and I powered through and finished sixth to last. The medics scooped me up in a wheelchair and draped me in one of those baked potato wrappers. Not only did I finish, I was not last!
Over the subsequent years, running has been part of my life. I have done my share of “fun runs,” 5Ks and workout runs around various trails and paths in Boston and Houston. I have taken breaks from running when work, physical ailments or laziness demanded it. But, I always come back to it. I come back to the one thing that had caused me so much embarrassment, trauma and shame. This is not because I am a masochist and longed to be repeatedly bullied by Ms. Walsh. It is because I re-wrote the story of what running means to me. Instead of making me feel like a failure, running has become something special. Instead of the wheezing and gasping around the track I experienced in seventh grade, running is now a time I can enjoy fresh air, listen to great music, regulate my breathing, process thoughts, think through legal problems and come up with new comedy material (these days, in addition to being a lawyer by day, I am a comic by night). Now, every time I finish a run, I do not keel over in embarrassment. I may still end my run by bending over in what looks like a puking stance, but rather than being sick, I am thankful and proud of what I have accomplished. Running is an example of me having the courage and confidence to step out of my comfort zone, try something new, and accomplish something that I previously thought was entirely outside of my bandwidth.
Stepping outside my comfort zone is something I continually try to do. I learn about an entirely new discipline; I meet people I likely would have otherwise never have met; I learn about myself; and, when I succeed, I get to add to my resume of new and different accomplishments. And, even when I fail, at least I have more comedy material. At the end, Ms. Walsh’s attempt to shame me into being successful actually worked – because I destroyed the box of shame she built about running, by stepping outside and becoming my own version of Usain Bolt.