How I Learned to Stop Worrying About What Made Me A Runner and Simply Love the Run
I have had a complicated relationship with running since the day I first set foot on a treadmill.
I remember my then fiance casually joking with me that I would never run a 5k. At the time, this kind of negative reinforcement was a strong motivator. The next week, he set me up on a treadmill at the gym to walk a fast 5k. I had never walked or ran on a treadmill before and I was really intimidated. Not necessarily by the treadmill, I was worried I’d look like a total idiot and that everyone around me was going to make fun of me. While I had a panic attack and cried for the first ten minute and he exasperatingly tried to talk me off the proverbial ledge, no one laughed. No one pointed and stared or shouted ‘Look at that klutz on the treadmill!’.
So I kept going.
I remember really enjoying it. I didn’t jog or run at all that first time, but I walked as fast as I comfortably could. Soon after, I decided to try running outside. There was this pure innocence in running outdoors those first few months that I wish I could get back. Those innocent months of running without any preconceived notions were perfect. I didn’t know what a ‘good’ or ‘fast’ mile time was. I just went out to run because I loved doing it. It made me feel strong. It made me feel proud.
After my first 5k race, I began to feel myself seeing myself as a ‘slow runner’. When I proudly told my friend that I was running a 14-minute mile, she remarked, ‘Oh, what are you doing wrong?’. It was an innocent comment… but I was gauging my success off of the fact that I hadn’t run faster than a quick jog my entire life. My high school mile time was something around 18 minutes. To me, 14 minutes had seemed like a huge improvement. Suddenly others chimed in that I should go run with them so I could improve. They would show me how to be a ‘real runner’.
Being a fast runner had not been a priority for me until then. I didn’t know that being fast was what made running real… I thought the act of running made it real.
Suddenly I felt impostor syndrome kicking in. If I wasn’t a fast runner…was I a runner at all?
And who decided what was fast?
I became obsessed with dropping my time. I read article after article, I talked to everyone I knew who was a ‘fast runner’, did endless runs to improve my pace, and I pushed myself to injury trying to get to a 10 minute mile time, which I never even achieved. What I did achieve was a lot of pain and frustration.
For a while, I quit running. I felt as though running was no longer mine because I couldn’t seem to become fast. If I couldn’t be fast, I wasn’t really a runner. I thought I needed to find a new passion. Something I could do better at. Something I could be proud of. It all culminated in my running of a 10k where I came in last place. Ok, I crossed the finish line with two other amazing women who helped me get the strength to finish that miserable run, but to me… it was a huge sign that maybe I just wasn’t a runner.
Two years passed and I never laced up. I picked up nearly every other form of exercise, but nothing brought me nearly as much joy as strapping on my running shoes and getting outside in the sun. I don’t recall the exact thing that brought me back to running – in all honesty, it was probably a cool gimmick race with some stellar bling – but I do know that when I finally started again, it was that pure joy and elation I felt when I had started running in the first place. It was freeing, it was a place I could be alone with my thoughts, it was a place to release stress… It was home.
When I decided to run my first half marathon, running became the driving force to prove to myself I could do my impossible. I wanted to do things I had never done before. I wanted to stick to a training schedule, I wanted to push my distance far beyond what I had gone before, I wanted to prove to myself that I had the grit and determination and passion it took to be a distance runner.
Running became the challenge I needed to see myself as strong and determined. The feeling of seeing a goal through to completion was such an ego boost. I can. I will. I did.
I took some time away from running after my first half marathon. I had ended up with some nasty hip flexor tendinitis that required about 6 months of minimal distance training to heal. I ached to run while I rested my body. I was determined to get back up on that horse and keep challenging myself. Running was now my drug again. It felt great to be back home.
Then a weird thing started happening. I received comments about ‘Not looking like a runner’. Or someone asked me if running would ‘Ever make someone skinny’. Or I heard a comment about ‘Runners usually being built a lot trimmer’. Or, on one specific day, a cat-call from a man who said I’d need to ‘run a lot faster to get skinny, sweetheart’.
These cat-calls and criticism made me feel as though running just for the joy of running was wrong. If I wasn’t running to get skinny, why was I running at all? I have been horribly self-conscious about my stature for nearly my entire life, so buying into these thoughts was very easy. They weren’t wrong… I wasn’t shedding tons of pounds while running. I wasn’t suddenly a size 4 again.
And if being thin was truly the indicator of health and strength (which is what I thought at the time)…what was I even doing?
I remember coming home from a particularly difficult run that summer. It was hot, I was under-hydrated, but I had to run 6 miles that day on my training plan. In the middle of the run, I was disgruntled, burned out, and cranky. Covered from head to toe in an obscene amount of sweat, I had such a battle with myself when I wanted to give up and just walk home. First I told myself that I was strong and could finish this – I’ve run a half marathon! I can do this, too. Then the doubt and criticisms began to sneak in. I told myself if I was really strong, I’d be faster than I was. Then I added that if I was really strong, all this running would have made me skinny by now. If I was really strong, running would be easier by now. I told myself I wasn’t a real runner, and with each step, I started to listen to that. I was just some faker who happened to own running shoes and an unhealthy amount of compression leggings. I let myself stay in the place far too long.
Then I told myself to just shut up and run.
When I let go of these false perceptions that I let others, including myself, impose on me and just ran for the pure joy of running, how long it took me didn’t matter. How far I went was not a concern. I remember getting home and just feeling… happy. It had been so long since just running had been enough to make me happy. All of these other voices had taken over and stolen the joy that running brought to me. I had to be faster, stronger, thinner… And none of it was true. I just had to put one foot in front of the other, take a deep breath, and keep going. That was what made me a runner.
I still have my internal battles. I’m not where I want to be as a runner right now; I’ve been both stronger and faster than this. But the less I focus on that and the more I let myself run for the simple joy of running, the easier returning to those goals becomes. I'm still learning to love myself where I am at and to allow that uninhibited joy for those first days of running back into my life.
Running started feeling like work. It became something I did to compare myself to others. It became something that added stress rather than relieved stress from my life. Sometimes we need to just take a step back and let ourselves remember why we loved doing this in the first place.
Then all we have to do is lace up our shoes and go.