Signing up for my first race and starting to (really) run at 29 years old was a humbling experience that taught me a lot about what it means to feel accomplished.

By Alyssa Sparacino
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I've never been a runner, and I never wanted to be a runner. Every memory I've ever had that's associated with running (and there aren't many) has been negative, or at best forgettable.

In middle school after a softball game, I remember someone telling me they thought I was going to fall on my butt when I rounded second base because I was leaning so far back as I ran. I joined the soccer team in high school because my friends were doing it, but on the first day of summer conditioning we had to run laps, and when nearly everyone was lapping me, I knew this was going to be a rough season. I gave it up after one year-turns out I'm not so great at the other skills you should have to play soccer either.

In college, I gave running another go-and immediately felt uncomfortable with the movements, got side cramps, and could hear nothing else besides my breathing. I tried to make it to this tree and then that tree, and somehow every step felt less fun than the one before it. I thought about my best friend (who, fun fact, has actually run a marathon on a treadmill before), who runs for fun. FOR FUN?! I just didn't get it.

Don't get me wrong, I love working out. I was a dancer and played softball growing up (way less running!), a cheerleading captain throughout high school, and today, I'm a certified personal trainer who hits up Spin studios, HIIT gyms, and cardio barre classes regularly. So what if I'm not a marathoner? I'm happy focusing on what I know I'm good at.

But this year, when a few non-runner friends recently started lacing up, I kept thinking, if they can do it, what's really holding me back? So, I started running in July (looking back, not sure why I chose the hottest month of the year) both on the treadmill and outside.

I chronicled my journey where any millennial would-social media-and found an instant sense of community and support. After I admitted to struggling through a bad morning run, one runner acquaintance messaged me: "We all have those days! Keep at it!" And another cheered me on with words of encouragement after an especially humid run: "Way to push through the weather and get out there and run today!" Best yet, after I completed my first 3-mile indoor run, I posted to Shape's private #MyPersonalBest Goal Crushers Facebook group about my success. It was intimidating to put myself out there. I kept thinking, "I'm excited about this accomplishment, but maybe it's not that big a deal." But I was pleasantly surprised to receive such warm and encouraging feedback from women I'd never met. "Great time! You should pat yourself on the back," said one. "Four weeks to 5K is PHENOMENAL. You are awesome!" wrote another. They were right-everyone needs to start somewhere, and the whole point of this challenge was for me to prove to MYSELF that I could do it, and darn it, I was doing it.

All of this reenergized my commitment and helped me feel confident enough to sign up for my first 5K at the end of September. I stuck to my regular running schedule of three or four times a week-some solo weekend runs, buddy runs (my fave!), and treadmill runs. For a while there I was feeling like I'd never push past this wall I would hit midway through my outdoor runs. I was clocking a pretty speedy pace (so said my "real" runner friends), but I would end up stopping before my goal distance or time and wonder if I would get through the 5K without HATING every minute. I saw women crushing 7-mile recovery runs on Instagram (RECOVERY RUN?!) or I'd see friends who I know rarely exercise lace up and comfortably clock 5 miles like it's nothing. I couldn't help but compare myself-my stats, my form, my fitness. (Related: What Happened When Shape Editors Swapped Workouts for a Month)

This is a sport about numbers-race pace, split times, tempo runs, fastest mile, you name it-making it easy to compare yourself to others. While tracking these numbers is helpful for training purposes, and it was certainly a good insight for a beginner like me to quantify where I started (and where I hope to go), it also makes it incredibly easy to swap stats with your friends and potentially get down on yourself if you're "lagging behind."

Then, I reminded myself what Personal Best really means. It doesn't need to be a personal record, or any record for that matter. It's about being able to say, I did my best. I tried my best. I did it-period. Because here's the thing. I didn't start running with a set goal to be the best, or even better than the girl next to me. I started out with one humble goal: to just run.

That's what I did when I woke up bright and early one Sunday morning in September for my very first 5K. I ran, and faster than I had expected to (it's true what they say about the race day atmosphere pushing you). I looped around the tip of Roosevelt Island on a gorgeous fall day and crossed the finish line in just over 28 minutes, and I felt so proud. Not because I broke any real record-but because I broke my record. And you know what? I actually had fun.

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