On the Joys and Pains of Running

My decision to become a runner was a fairly unconscious one born out of a mild case of sibling rivalry. My older sister Katie was always the athletic one in the family. As a shy girl lacking in confidence, I never really took to sports myself and always feared that my athletic efforts would fall far short of those of my elder sister. Sure, I dabbled in recreational softball and basketball leagues, then followed her footsteps and tried out for the high school volleyball and softball teams. Volleyball was my favorite sport of them all, and though I never became anything close to the star player Katie was, I could at least hold my own against her in a practice round. Things didn’t go quite so well with me in the softball realm – I was cut from the JV team during my sophomore year. The whole episode made my mother cry but produced little more than apathy in me on account of who would have been my coach (and even who would have been my teammates) had I made the cut. But I guess that’s a story for another time.

In contrast, volleyball was something I had a shot at, so I tried my hardest to do well and secure a spot on the team. My volleyball coaches throughout high school placed a high value upon the total physical fitness of our team’s members. It wasn’t until I was trying out for the varsity squad that I took my physical condition so seriously. Our coach informed us that anyone trying out for the team who was unable to complete a mile-long run in less than nine minutes would immediately be cut. Long before this rule had been put in place, I was a staunch anti-runner in stark contrast to my sister Katie who ran long distances with apparent ease. I knew I would need to start a new relationship with running if I hoped to play volleyball which I so badly wanted to do.

The nine-minute-mile rule was announced the spring before tryouts and I worked all summer long to ensure that, come our first practice that fall, I would be in prime running condition. Most of my training took place in the unfinished portion of my parents’ basement which housed a cheap treadmill (so cheap in fact that it required the additional support of a few sturdy encyclopedias to maintain a flat running surface). Despite the less-than-ideal training conditions, I worked for three months to get my time below nine minutes and made the team. I thought running and I were done.

It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what encouraged me to start running again. It happened during my college years, long after Katie had become something of an accomplished long-distance runner with a few half-marathons under her belt. It may have been the realization that my body was succumbing to the dreaded freshmen-fifteen or that my older sister was achieving physical feats far beyond those I had dreamed she could accomplish and the accompanying belief that I could do the same. Maybe I was looking for a way to deal with the anxiety induced by my new college environment or I thought it would help me make friends since I saw plenty of runners jogging around campus. Whatever the cause of my resurgent interest in running, it eventually stuck this time around. At the end of my third year of school on what should have been my college graduation day, I skipped out on pomp and circumstance in order to run my first half-marathon. I had built up my running routine to a pretty consistent six mile route the previous winter. I figured, if my sister can complete a 13.1 mile race, what’s stopping me from going that extra distance too?

Though, at the time of this writing, I’ve only completed 13.1 miles once in my life and never more than that, I still consider myself a runner, albiet not the most serious sort. I partake in the occasional 5k and am currently training for my first 10-miler, but more than anything I like the training aspect of these races. Putting down the money to participate in a race is the kind of commitment that motivates me to get running like nothing else. If I’m not in training, I find myself quickly slipping into laziness and sloth. Much as I would love to be the kind of person who builds running into her daily routine year-round no matter what race is coming up (or not coming up), I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am not and probably never will be that person. But I persist in my efforts to get there.

On my best days, running is nothing short of pure pleasure. My feet practically jump into my running shoes with anticipation, each stride comes effortlessly, and I barely glance at my watch, enjoying the process of running too much to pay notice to the dwindling down the minutes until it’s over. I end things with a nice stretch and a rewarding ice-cold chocolate milk. I envision myself a real runner, someone who could run a consistent 6 miles before work every morning (if only I didn’t make so many excuses not to when I wake up).

But most of my runs aren’t full of that much ease. More often than not, it is essential that I immediately capitalize on the first surge of motivation that comes my way in order to get out the door and running. The deadness in my limbs wares off as the distance I cover increases, my legs requiring less and less convincing to move. While my mileage may not be too impressive on an average day, my body feels like it’s been sufficiently put to work. More often than not, I come home contentedly tired and with a smile on my face.

On my worst days, every footfall is a mental battle won, but each victory is infinitely short, undermined by the commencement of a new and arduous fight. The minutes on the clock never move fast enough and the leaden feelings in my legs never abates. I return home red in the face and tired to the bone in the worst way possible. I never want to run again, I tell myself that walking my dog will do just fine for exercise, and I shove the running shoes to the back of the closet. These runs take a little more than stretching and chocolate milk to recover from.

If I’m lucky, the next day will be sunny  and warm with the slightest breeze – the type of day when perfect weather is motivation enough to get me back to running again. Sometimes I dig those running shoes out and put them on while I’m whiling away the hours, forcing myself to feel like a runner so that I can maybe start to act like one. And then there are times when my recovery doesn’t come until weeks, even months, later. When a bad run pushes me off the exercise bandwagon with a vengeance and violently bars me re-entry. When my mind convinces my body that it is incapable of running, of achieving what I want it to achieve.

The longer I’ve been a runner, the more I’ve come to understand that running is truly a mental exercise as much as a physical one. No matter how common and cliche this adage may sound, it is undeniably true and powerful. My running behavior fluctuates in close parallel to my mood, my mental state, my emotional stability. The longer its been since my last run, the more subject I am to mood swings and stress. The more consistently I hit the pavement, the more constant my happiness and confidence. When my mind is able to convince my body that it enjoys running, it seems that nearly anything is possible. This understanding has helped me to realize how powerful the mind is, not just in physical challenges but in mental and emotional ones too (ie meditation).

Half-marathoning sure wasn’t easy and I walked much more than I intended to when I completed my first 13.1 miler. But I did cross the finish line and in a surprisingly short amount of time given how often I felt that I slowed to a walk. At an early point in the race, probably around mile four, I told myself that I couldn’t do it. My mind and my body seemed to agree that there was no way I could complete another nine miles at a fast clip. But I knew it was all in my head, a mental battle that I had to win in order to rise to the physical challenge. I needed to overcome the conditions, running on unfamiliar, boring terrain in a crowd of people (who seemed to be running with such ease and grace) during the early hours of the morning (my then-least favorite time to run) on a relatively empty stomach. I had to convince myself that those nine miles were doable in order to actually put my body to it.

And then the simplest thought dawned on me and at once I knew that I would finish the race. I realized that I could walk. The choice I had to make wasn’t between running and not running, but rather between finishing and dropping out. There are plenty of ways to finish a race and running, walking and crawling are just a few of them. The idea of running another nine miles seemed unbearably daunting, enough to make me want to walk right off the course and give up. But when such a simple and obvious strategy, to slow from a run to a walk, instantly dawned upon me, I knew I would log all 13.1 miles. Maybe I wouldn’t run all 13 and I sure as hell would not look graceful while doing it. But I had landed upon a strategy which put my mind at ease and, in doing so, instilled my body with the ability to do those next nine miles.

I sometimes feel strange calling myself a runner because I don’t have all the fancy gear or run lots of challenging and prestigious races. But when I’m running (which also happens to be when I often have the most clarity on things), I realize that the simple fusion of the physical motion and my mental fortitude is a pleasure for me regardless of where I’m running or what I’m outfitted with. Sure, my favorite place to run is through the woods on a single track trail while wearing my green mesh tank top and nylon running shorts. But even on my less than ideal runs, when humidity is high and I’m plodding along through ugly suburban sprawl, I can find a simple joy in the motion of running and a satisfaction in the fact that I allowed myself to finish.

No matter my speed, distance covered, running conditions, or time logged, running offers me a sense of joyous freedom and evidence of a degree of mental endurance heretofore unknown. With running comes a series of pains that can be felt in the legs, the knees, the back, and other areas less tangible. But it also supplies a pure and simple joy born of submitting to the natural inclination to run and challenging your mind to let your body demonstrate its furthest limits.

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