Growing up, sports weren’t exactly “my thing”. I was the bookish, academic type; my nose was always in a book, I always maintained A or B grades in my classes, and I participated in activities that were not sports related like band, Power of the Pen, Model UN and Academic Challenge. This was necessarily due to a lack of effort. When I was young, I had tried a number of sports, from baseball to gymnastics and jazz dance. None of them held my interest, and I did’t have any natural talent for any of them. My coordination, though not abysmal, was simply just not outstanding. Perhaps part of my aversion also came from my brother, who, in his youth and teen years, was an avid football and basketball player. As we grew up, often I was the only person available to play catch with or to play against in a game of one-on-one basketball. He had clearly inherited some athletic ability from our mom’s side of the family that I had not, and despite my protests, forced me face off against me, and then would constantly chastise me and make fun of me for my lack of skill. Needless to say, I was frustrated, disheartened, and embarrassed. I’m not sure it ever occurred to him that I would have maybe improved with coaching and encouragement, but that is neither here not there at this point. I dreaded the times he would force me into a football or basketball game, and longed for the days when I was finally old enough to escape these sessions. Once he entered middle school and he became involved in organized school sports, I was finally relieved of my duties, and was thankful I wouldn’t have to try to pretend I was athletic anymore.
This isn’t to say that I did no physical activity; I was in marching band, which was surprisingly physically demanding, and I loved riding my bike throughout college. I would go through phases where I did basic exercises to keep in shape, and would take walks to destress. But if you had told me that I would ever become a runner, I would have told you that you obviously did not know me very well, since I was not an athlete or did any sort of formal exercising.
Yet after getting out of college, and getting what ended up being primarily a desk job, I put on more weight than I was comfortable with, and wanted to do something about it. I had not idea what I was doing starting out, but I decided that running might be something I could handle. It was simple enough, and didn’t require any sort of special equipment beyond a decent pair of shoes. When I started out, I could almost make it a mile at a slow but not hideously slow pace. Those first few months, I wouldn’t say I loved or despised running. It was just something I was doing, and I was proud of the small improvements I was making, slowly increasing my distance and achieving faster paces. After awhile, I did begin to actually enjoy it. The feeling of my feet pounding on the pavement, only focusing on breathing in and out and placing one foot in front of the other. Perhaps what I liked best was that I wasn’t competing with anyone but myself, and I wasn’t trying to prove anything either. I didn’t have a specific goal I was trying to achieve, though I set small goals for my distances.
It’s hard to pin-point when I made to complete transition from someone who ran occasionally to becoming a runner. But as I ran more and more, I found it was something I enjoyed immensely. When I completed my run, I felt accomplished and proud of how much I had progressed. Maybe being able to run 3 miles wasn’t a huge deal to some people, but for me, it was an achievement I certainly wouldn’t have been able to claim a few years before I first began running casually. When I was running, it was my time; it was quiet and peaceful, and I would get lost in the music and simply appreciating the fresh air and solitude.
Now I have a pretty set routine. I’m laced up and hitting the pavement sometime before 4:30 A.M (yes, even on weekends), and I go out in almost any weather. Even during the brutal Ohio winters, in temperatures that hovered around 0 degrees or below, I would still go out. Now that I live in Florida, I only really have to worry about the occasional scattered shower. Usually I log between 20 and 25 miles a week, but I have never run in a formal race. I also have never run as part of a group; I have only run “solo”. So I my running habits might be different than others, but I did become a runner despite my early aversion to athletics.
Perhaps its the sense of freedom running give me; being able to let everything else slip away while my body functions automatically, tracing the routes I know by heart. Sometimes my music playlist is spot on, and every song feels just right. Other days, not so much, and that’s alright too. Some days I will surprise myself with a much quicker pace that usual, and other days it will be a struggle to meet my average pace. That’s alright too. During my runs, I came to love different parts of each of the neighborhoods I lived in- the quiet, quaint streets of Lakewood with older homes that were well maintained, where I had to dodge sprinklers during the summer months, and the park next to the zoo in West Palm Beach where I had to learn where to dodge the roots of the towering trees that lined the path. What mattered most of the solid feeling of my feet connecting and then springing back up with each movement, seeing a bright moon and maybe a few stars overhead, being entirely alone while not feeling alone at all, the feeling of making progress from landmark to landmark as I breathed in and out, deep inhales and exhales to keep my brain rich in oxygen while my muscles do their own work. Though I am hardly a “model” runner, I enjoy the sense of tranquility it gives me, which perhaps seems odd considering it is an activity that makes your blood pump at such an accelerated rate.
During times when I have been extremely hurt, stressed, anxious, doubtful, confused and in search of clarity, running has always been there for me with its soothing rhythm and dependability. It has been there to remind me of my own strength, and remind me of the beauty that is all around us that we so often miss in the day to day. Breathing the fresh air smelling of lilac and freshly mowed grass, seeing a crystal clear full moon overhead before the sun begins to rise, noticing an impressive old tree with a giant canopy overhead you somehow overlooked, taking a new route that brings you across unexpected sight…. it’s difficult to describe sufficiently. Seeing your end goal in sight, knowing you somehow pushed through and made it no matter how much you may have wished to give up or do nothing at all- that feeling can provide you with a source of energy and hope even at the lowest of times. When I lost my first teaching position, when I had to deal with heart breaks or the loneliness of being in a new city without knowing anyone, I was still able to take a run and feel as though some sort of change for the better was just around the corner.
I realize that running is not for everyone, for a variety of reasons, and I certainly don’t see it as a magic “cure all” for the daily stresses we all experience. For me, however, running is not just the way I exercise, and it’s not a certain “lifestyle” I have subscribe to. Running has helped me remain healthy both physically and mentally. My experience won’t be the experience of every runner, or of anyone who decides to start running. For me, it has never been about setting a certain pace, finding the perfect form, or placing first in a race regardless of how long it is. It is something I do for myself, and something I will continue to do for as long as I am capable of doing it safely.
Tomorrow, around 4 AM, I will be lacing up my shoes and starting up my Runkeeper App. I have the settings set to the voice of a “Boston Guy” which always makes me smile, recalling my days of undergraduate when I was in that city of our founders. One of the announcements he makes is about going for a “Dunks run” to get your heart rate back up, and there’s another about going to the “bah” for a “beeh” after the run. When I finish my 5 mile loop, I will truly start my day, getting a shower and breakfast, and I will do so with a light heart and sense of purpose, sure that I will be able to face whatever predicament might lie ahead and that I will continue to find contentment throughout my day. I hope that everyone can find their “runner’s high” as well, however you might seek it.
“Be willing to move forward and find out what happens next.” – Frank Shorter