(Originally published June 2011)
I know I’m not going to be popular for saying this but I’ve got a grudge against JFK. My Grandpa’s rolling in his grave right now since JFK was our first and only Catholic president and therefore was, in Grandpa’s eyes, perfect. But JFK was also responsible for the unique grammar school torture known as the Presidential Physical Fitness Test (PPFT).
If you went to grammar school (or if you didn’t grow up in the Midwest, “grade” school) in the 1970s you know exactly what I’m talking about. Once a year we were subjected to a series of tests ostensibly designed to evaluate our stamina and strength. I think it also had something to do with keeping us fit enough to fight Russians too. I don’t remember all of the components exactly but I know there were several including: pull ups, some kind of thing involving running across the gym picking up an eraser and running back, a touching your toes flexibility thing, a rope climb thing (although I think the girls didn’t do that one) and the mile run, my particular torture.
I hated the PPFT more than anything in school. Mind you I loved school, except for gym, which I hated with a fiery passion. But even gym was a picnic next to the PPFT. I can’t even summon the words to explain how much I dreaded this, even thinking about it now I want to throw up. Seriously. It’s the only time all year I tried to fake sickness and stay home, that’s how much I hated it. I never faked sick.
School in the 1970s wasn’t like it was now. There were no anti-bullying campaigns, no tolerance for differences, no “everyone gets an award so no one feels bad”, no political correctness, no talking back to the teachers (unless you wanted to get whacked with a ruler). And unlike today where it appears half the kids are fat, there was one fat kid in school — and that kid was me. Grammar school was a freaking jungle where the strongest survived. A jungle where we had gym every day and gym involved getting hit on the head with dodge balls and being mocked for having no sports skills and being picked last for teams if you weren’t athletic or popular.
Unsurprisingly it was completely impossible for me, the lone fat kid, the pass the stupid PPFT test. A straight A student, the nuns also gave me As in gym for showing up. Or maybe to make up for all the abuse I took there, particularly during the PPFT.
The Mile Test was the worst. Literally 30 years later I remember how all the other kids could run a mile and I couldn’t. I’d try of course. I’d go out too fast trying to keep up, they’d drop me in a few yards and I’d crash. I remember the humiliation of being out of breath, wheezing, having to stop and walk, the other kids taunting me as I lurched towards the finish line, sweat pouring down my little red face, bent over with hands on my knees, the nuns tsking disapproving at me, telling me I was the only one who didn’t pass and how it was making our school look bad. I always passed everything, excelled at everything, everything except that ridiculous PPFT. Somehow it didn’t occur to the nuns that all that taunting probably didn’t help my performance. Every year the anxiety got worse.
I grew up in a family where no one was athletic, no one did sports, pretty much no one ever got off the couch unless it was to go to the refrigerator for a beer. Instead of creating any interest in athletics or activity the PPFT taught me to avoid activity, to fear it. It taught me that there was nothing worse than trying something active and failing because there’ll just be a bunch of mean kids standing around laughing at you and mocking you while nuns glare at you disapprovingly.
Those messages burned themselves into my brain. To this day whenever I feel like I have to be timed running I freak out a little. When my running group does mile tests I seriously cannot run a mile without stopping. I run miles without stopping all the time, but when they are timing me, I can’t do it. When I test myself during speed work on my own I can run a mile somewhere in an 11-12 minute range. When I know they’re testing me in the group, and the rest of the group is already done, watching me, waiting for me as the last finisher, suddenly I’m running as fast as I can and I’m down to a 14 minute pace. And somehow I’m anxious, as if somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind I actually think a bunch of adults are going to taunt me for being too slow, which of course they are not, they’re too busy chastising themselves for being slower than they wanted to be. Stupid PPFT.
The races I’ve struggled with the most, the races that have devastated me the most, have all been ones with cut-offs. Give me a timed race where you do as many laps as you can in 12 hours or whatever and I’m good to go. Tell me I have to be halfway through a marathon by a certain time, even if it’s one I can generally do, and I freak the hell out, before, during and after the race.
Today I read an interesting article (http://www.voaspokane.org/LisaBliss) about a great runner named Lisa Bliss who is running Death Valley completely unsupported to raise money for charity. In the article she says, “I realized I had no desire to do something at which I knew I couldn’t fail. How mundane! I want to risk failure. What’s the worst that can happen? I fail to succeed?”
Lisa’s quote really spoke to me because the thing is I worry a lot about failing, especially in running. Too much. After I read that article I thought to myself, “Am I not doing PCT this year because I know I can’t do it? Or am I not doing it because I’m afraid to fail?” And then I wrote the race director and asked if I could start earlier because really, what does it matter? If I miss the cut-off again, what’s the worst that can happen? I sit at an Aid Station for two hours eating popsicles again? I run 40 miles instead of 50? No one actually mocked me for that last year. Except me. Everyone else thought that was a great effort last year. Except me.
But getting back to the stupid, ridiculous PPFT, first of all, some of those mean little shitheads that made fun of me in grammar school are now my Facebook “friends” and I can tell you based on their pictures they couldn’t run across the street let alone run and walk for 23 hours. So I hope they enjoyed their PPFT glory days. And secondly, in my entire adult life no one’s ever asked me how I did on the PPFT test. It’s never come up in a job interview or anything. (No one’s ever asked me my college GPA either so I really wish I’d partied more in college). I think no one else actually cares. So I’m just gonna put this out there: My name is Rose and I failed every component of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test every single year in grammar school. In fact, I probably wouldn’t pass it now and President Kennedy (god rest his soul as my Grandma would want me to say) can just take his stupid test and shove it.