There I was, standing outside the YMCA at 4:55 for a 5:05 a.m. spinning class. I wasn't alone. A small crowd waited for the door to be unlocked.
On a bike ten minutes later, I couldn't help but laugh at the irony. Me? At the gym? At this hour? On purpose? I thought of someone who'd laugh even more: the woman who coached me through a decade of physical education, Susie Morris.
As a student, I used any excuse to get out of P.E. I'd offer to give Coach Morris shoulder rubs on the sidelines, clean her desk, organize uniforms, take inventory of equipment. Anything to avoid having to participate.
Most of my elementary school classmates couldn't wait for the annual Field Day each May, when we'd compete in events like a softball throw, 50-yard dash or tug-of-war. I hated it. I was hopelessly bad at everything. Others would collect an assortment of blue ribbons, and I'd just feel like a big loser.
In a way, it was a useful sort of inversion. I was used to winning in the classroom; I should have realized Field Day proved no one is the best at everything. But I was too young to be gracious about my athletic incompetence, so I hammed it up. One year, I actually brought a battery-powered fan to use as I sat on the sidelines, playing the part of the Southern belle who didn't want to get sweaty. I celebrated the Field Day my fractured arm was in a cast. It wasn't that I didn't want to participate, I just couldn't, see?
My mom tried to get me to sign up for team sports, encouraging me to join my friends on the softball or tennis teams in middle school. I did, and I resigned myself to being the weakest link. I was quick to make fun of myself before others could. All my friends played basketball in high school, so I kept stats. I'd count their lay-ups and free-throws, enjoying the camraderie and accepting the fact I belonged on the bench.
"I only run when chased by a large man with a heavy object," said one of my college friends. I made it my mantra.
Then I graduated. A colleague at my first job encouraged me to jog a few blocks with her on our morning walks. I tried it and found it strangely exhilarating. I got better. One day I ran for 50 minutes without stopping. Holy cow! I began to look forward to my jogs.
On my bike at the gym that morning, panting to keep up with the instructor, I thought about my friend Blaine. He was eager to join me in the coaches' office on those cleaning days long ago...and has now completed more marathons than any of our high school classmates. And it rolls both ways: I remembered others who weren't particularly stellar students but have found great success in the real world.
When I'm home for the holidays, I get a kick out of waving to Coach Morris as I jog by her house. It's fun to think we can do things in life that surprise people who knew us as teenagers. It's better when we surprise even ourselves.