PACER Panic: Remembering the Awkward Days of Gym Class

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by Andy Rusch |

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I stood behind my father in uncomfortable silence. The summer had come to a close, and another school year was preparing for takeoff. I didn’t want to make eye contact, because it was easier for me to let my dad handle the situation, and all would be well.

However, I could always feel the teachers peer around my dad’s shoulders and look me up and down. They didn’t recognize I had anything hindering me from regular physical activity. 

In the early days of my physical education, there were fewer requirements aside from simply burning a young child’s energy. It was more about experiencing physical movement and getting active. My dad didn’t need to step in at that point because it wasn’t a problem. 

Sure, I would hang like a moldy bag of potatoes whenever the climbing ropes were suspended from the ceiling or the pullup bars were part of the schedule. My brain would say, “Hey, you can do this. Pull yourself up.” And my muscles ever so gently would reply, “Nope. Not doing it.”

But when the high school years began, my dad would bring me into the usual orientation a few weeks before the first day of classes. I would collect my schedule and have my picture taken for my school ID at these quick meetings. All would go well until we approached the gym class table.

It was always an essential part of my school year to make sure I never overly exerted myself for something as trivial as gym class. When the conversation started, my eyes would dart about the common area to see if anyone I knew was nearby. I hid my issues well at that point in my progression, so most of my classmates didn’t know I had struggles with Becker muscular dystrophy. And I didn’t want them to.

“So, my son has a muscle disease, and he might need to sit out of some of the requirements,” my dad would say.

“OK?” they would reply, puzzled, since I appeared physically capable of all of the requirements. 

Faculty members would see my enlarged calf muscles due to Becker and react as if my dad were a fussy parent trying to get his kid out of gym class. They didn’t understand, but they also weren’t in the business of having a heated conversation with a gruff, tattooed, motorcycle-riding parent.

My calf muscles have always been more prominent, as is expected with Becker and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. With MD, calf muscles become enlarged starting around the age of 5, as the body attempts to compensate for the loss of muscle strength. The enlarged muscle tissue is eventually replaced with fat and connective tissue.

The school year would start, and gym class followed. I completed most of the activities in the curriculum. Still, the main thing I struggled with every time was the extended running tasks. Where I went to school, we had the customary mile run, or the half-mile in my case, since it was more manageable for me and my fatigue level. But there was also something more exhausting and upsetting to me called the PACER.

The PACER, which stands for progressive aerobic cardiovascular endurance run, was a running exercise with a bell sound that played on a giant black boombox straight from the ’80s. Each time the sound played, students would have to run from one wall of the gym to the other, then go back and forth as the bell rang faster with each consecutive run. When a student couldn’t make it to the other side by the next bell, they were done with the test.

The goal at that age was roughly 40 laps. I could barely do 15. Walking into the gym and seeing the cones and boombox set up would strike dread into my heart like a cold, hard nail.

It’s not that I minded doing the running activities like some of the kids. I couldn’t actually do it for as long as the others. I would always start strong and try to push myself as long as possible to avoid embarrassment. But truth be told, there wasn’t anything for me to feel humiliated about.

Looking back as an adult, I’m grateful my dad had these awkward but necessary discussions with staff. I doubt they fully comprehended my needs back then. But it didn’t matter, because my dad understood, and this fact was most important. So, what did I have to be embarrassed about? 

My dad made sure I knew it was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

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