FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Saturday morning I found myself in an unusual situation. Instead of my typical routine of getting up late and reading the newspaper over several cups of steaming coffee, I was up long before dawn, having donned my running gear and was headed downtown.

I was about to embark on my first competitive 5K run - a milestone in what I dubbed, "my miraculous transformation from couch potato to future running icon." More than 500 runners were lined up for the race - some were striving to achieve certain time goals, some came for a casual walk or jog, and others took their children along for some earlymorning exercise. Even a Chihuahua was part of the field of runners.I had set only one serious goal for myself: Run, don't walk.

It all started in June with the sudden realization that I wanted to run the New York City Marathon (don't ask - it's complicated). That appeared to be an unrealistic goal for a person who could not even run one mile, had never seriously exercised and is blessed with the athletic prowess of Garfield.

So I came up with a plan. I combed through countless running magazines and online resources to find a training plan that fit my ability and allowed me to get in shape at my pace. Immediately after settling on a plan, I signed up for the 5K and made sure I told everyone I know about it. At this point, bailing out was not an option.

Throughout my three months of training, I learned how to breathe correctly, how to pace myself and how to increase my aerobic threshold (don't ask - this one's complicated, too). More importantly, though, I learned that running teaches you lessons that transcend the sport.

Lesson One: Burst with pride
I started out by doing 30-minute run-walk intervals four times a week. At first, I would run for one minute, then follow with a five-minute walk, repeating the procedure five times. Each week my running time increased, while my walking time decreased until I was able to run for 30 minutes without walking.

During one of my runs, I was passed by a more experienced athlete who asked what my intervals were. I quickly told him, "four-two," meaning I could run for - gasp! - four minutes straight.
Looking back, four minutes doesn't seem like much at all, but at the time I was proud of my progress.

Lesson Two: Swallow your pride
As a beginning runner, nothing can be more humbling than a bad workout. Shortly after I had progressed to running two miles, I hit the trail for my mid-week training session only to end up completely out of breath after less than a mile, unable to continue.
I was upset with myself, thinking that I had hit a wall, wanted too much too fast, perhaps even had regressed beyond the point of recovery.
After shedding my flair for drama and analyzing the situation more rationally, it turns out I just had a bad day. It happens. Move on.

Lesson Three: Respect your elders
I experienced my first "ethical" dilemma as a runner while on vacation in New York. Trying to get a taste of what it's like to run the New York City Marathon, I set out for a jog in Central Park. The park can get pretty crowded with runners of all fitness levels, so even a slowpoke like me might eventually pass someone.

After a few minutes, I noticed a jogger in front of me who was moving very, very slowly. My competitive drive kicked in, and I thought, "I can take this guy. This will be it, the first time I'm passing another runner."

Eagerly looking forward to making my move, I increased my pace and closed the gap, only to realize that the one person slower than me that day was - by my conservative estimate - at least 85 years old.

I was immediately overcome by guilt for being so excessively competitive when, really, I should be in awe of the man's ability. It didn't last long. This was my moment. I nonchalantly passed him, brushing aside a fleeting notion that I might be some kind of "running bully."

All of these lessons served me well throughout the race. I have even greater respect for everyone who attempts to get or stay in shape - no matter what age, no matter how slow, no matter how "non-athletic" he or she may be. I have gained a great deal of humility through my setbacks along the way. Last, but not least, I am proud of having completed what I set out to do.

Calling myself a running icon may be a bit premature, but two things are undeniable: I'm in the best shape of my life. And I beat the Chihuahua.