Running Sucks but I’m Still Addicted: A Love Letter

why i run .JPG

The first flirtation between running and I occurred in the fifth grade. For some reason the gym teacher thought that getting to run on the middle school track was some kind of reward for being the oldest kids in elementary school so they bussed us out to a real track to run the annual (and usually dreaded) mile run. The very first mile run I did for gym class I chose to walk because even when I was still an overly energized child I still didn’t like running. But today, today was different. Maybe it was the bright red track color. Maybe it was the excitement of running where the “cool” older kids got to. But to this day I can remember the feeling of running that mile. My hair blowing in the wind. My disproportionately long stick legs propelling me forward. The feeling of passing nearly every 5th-grader on that track and the extra thrill of running faster than the boys in my class. The absolute ease of it – I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable for even one second during that mile. Only one classmate beat me that day - Logan Hankercheef – my annoying neighbor. I ran a six-minute mile for the first and last time in my life and it’s weird knowing for sure that you have peaked in fifth grade but it’s the burden I have to bear in this life. If only I had decided to chase that feeling back then I’m pretty sure I would be an Olympic athlete. But instead I chose to never run again for over 10 years.

Even just three years ago, if you told me I would be writing about how I’ve become addicted to running I would’ve rolled my eyes and gone back to living my sedentary life peacefully. Even though I was an athletic and active child who climbed around the empty lots in my neighborhood and joined a different team sport every season, once I hit high school and the natural energy of being a kid ran out, I stopped doing all forms of physical activity and skipped gym class as often as possible. So when my friend suggested we run a free company sponsored 5K, I scrambled to come up with as many excuses as I could to get out of it. It wasn’t until she directly appealed to my competitive side that I came around to the idea (not that I was ever going to win my very first race but I could beat my friend and our annoying coworker and that would feel like that same thing).

            This is definitely not a perfect love story about how much I fell for running after I starting to try it. If anything, this is a toxic relationship where running and I continue to hurt each other but refuse to break up. I hate running. I hate the moment right before I start running. I especially hate every second I spend running. I have to actively dissociate while running just so I don’t stop after the first minute. But when I’m done running, that’s when the real magic starts. The feeling after running and the feelings that stick around even when I’m not running is what keeps me coming back to running over and over again, no matter how many times it hurts me.

            This is also not a story about how I’ve become a certified running expert, winning countless races, and breaking personal records left and right. In fact, I am perhaps the slowest runner I have ever met. I actually mean that and not in the I-say-I’m-slow-but-actually-I’m-fast way that my two running friends always pull on me before easily outpacing me every single time. I’m slow like elderly man (who is absolutely killing it) who runs hunched over passes me during races slow. I’m slow like I could probably speed walk faster than this slow. I’m slow like a 12-minute mile is a good time for me slow. The only time I can run fast is when I’m doing sprints but that speed can only last about 30 seconds before I hit a wall. Though I will say, sprinting deserves its own love letter because sprinting feels like flying in those magical seconds before your mind catches up with what your body is physically doing.

            That magical day in the fifth grade aside, my experience with running has always been painful yet also enjoyable. This does not include running on a treadmill. Running on a treadmill is all pain no glory. Anyone who tries to tell you running on a treadmill is enjoyable or the same as running outside is a liar. This is a love letter to running outside only. Treadmill running is only for days when it is either too cold, too wet, or I want to specifically run up hills without worrying about finding the perfect hill outside.

            I love running, at least partially, because of the multitude of physical health benefits it provides. There’s a ton of studies out there supporting the fact that running improves health indicators across the board, helps you live longer, and can help you reach or maintain a healthy weight. But those studies are boring and it’s hard to actually be inspired by the fact that I might be healthier when I’m older if I run now because I can’t even get myself to imagine one year in the future let alone decades from now. Instead here are the immediate health effects I’ve noticed since I took up running that feel more concrete to me. My resting heart rate lowered from borderline too high to well within the healthy range and the best part about that benefit is that it only took a few months of running to see that start to change. It feels good to have proof of the heart-healthy benefits of exercise after minimal effort and helps me quantify the idea of better health instead of having vague promises of future health.

My endurance has greatly increased and I’m much better at running (and other physical activities) than I was before. Note that better does not mean faster because I just can’t get myself to run faster to save my life. However, I went from barely being able to run for a minute straight to being able to run for an hour. A whole hour! That is absolutely insane to the version of me that couldn’t make it a full lap around a track at one time. Hiking is easier, walking up flights of stairs is easier, dancing in the club, you guessed it, easier. I also suspect, but can’t prove, that sweating it out has helped clear my skin out even though post-run my skin is closer to Clifford the Big Red Dog than glowy Instagram fitness model.

But I also hate running because of the physical aspects. It doesn’t feel good to have my heart beat that fast or my breathing to be so quick or my legs to be that tired. I have injured myself several times while running in a way that would’ve never happened if I didn’t keep doing it. Once I tripped over a pothole I missed while crossing the street and ate it so bad on the pavement because I couldn’t catch myself in time. My knees bled for days after that (and also oozed quite spectacularly but I’ll spare those details) and I had a nasty cut on my chin where my jaw met the road.  Another time I stepped off a curb the wrong way and sprained my ankle badly enough for it to swell to twice its size. Several times now my knees will hurt well after a run or I’ve gotten shin splits to the point where I was sure as I going to give myself a stress fracture. Sometimes my legs will be so sore post run that I walk around as slowly as my dad with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Granted all of these problems can easily be solved by ice, heat, and limping into my nearest drug store to buy kinesiology tape or compression sleeves. I am a strong believer in tape and compression so don’t come at me with studies disapproving it because if it’s just a placebo I don’t want to ruin it.  What people won’t tell you about running outside is that your exposed skin always gets gritty afterwards. Not enough people are talking about this. Where does all the dust come from that clings to your sweaty skin? Why does it always feel like I’ve rolled around in the sand after I run outside even when I’ve stayed on clean concrete roads? The Man owes us answers on this one.

The real reason I love running though is the way it makes my brain feel. Trust me, I understand if you don’t believe what I’m going to say because before I started running I didn’t believe it either but running is the best thing I have ever done for my mental health. I definitely won’t claim it has made my depression go away but it does at least deaden the effects for a while. Being out in the sun and the fresh air and forcing myself to do even one productive thing for that day even if I spend the rest of it on the couch surprisingly makes other things less awful. If I can force myself to get up and run for 30 minutes then I can force myself to do the other things I have to do to keep myself alive and functioning.

My head never feels clearer or more creative than right after a run. If I feel too angry or annoyed, going for a run fixes it. If I’m feeling lazy and bloated, I lace up my sneakers and feel better. If it starts feeling like the void is encompassing everything around me, I just run until I get over it. Writer’s block? I run until the imaginary walls in my head shake loose. In fact, I’m writing this after a run as we speak (and a particularly good one since the sun has finally appeared after a long dark winter). Runners high is real. It is elusive but real. I don’t think I’ll ever stop chasing that feeling of pure joy that can take you by surprise after the right run.

My personal working theory is that running is so good for mental health because of the strangely meditative state running outside requires you to enter. For one, I have to constantly convince myself I am not in physical pain which takes about too much mental space to be stressing over anything else in my life. But on top of that I have to stay hyper aware of my surroundings and be thinking of my next move. I have to think about jumping over curbs or sprinting across the street to avoid traffic or keeping an eye out for creepy people who like to harass people who are running outside alone. Though to be fair, it does not matter how aware you are, nothing prepares you for a guy running right at you wielding a rusty saw as has happened to me one too many times. It has only happened once but I just strongly feel like that was too many times.

I have to mentally map out where to take my run and remember what streets have sidewalks or what streets to avoid after it rains because there’s too many puddles or what time of day to not run down certain streets because it will be full of college kids walking to and from class getting in my way. I particularly enjoy the way running outside has helped me know the veins of my town. I’ve seen more of my neighborhood by taking up running than I ever did before. I know what houses always feed the stray cats or what houses are sealed up entirely with an oversized privacy fence with a hole cut out for the mailbox or what houses have nice residents that sit out on their porch and give me a friendly wave and I run by panting like I might be dying. I’ve discovered that all houses have a smell and that you can tell what that smell is without stepping one foot inside. Some houses smell like old books or grandma perfume and some houses smell like rotting trash or cigarettes. The best smelling houses have fresh cut wood fences that are like wandering into a hardware store on a cool summer day. I also know how to find the sweet spot of streets that are busy enough that I don’t feel like I could be killed or kidnapped without someone seeing it but not so busy that I have to dart between people, bicycles, or cars as I run.

I’m more in tune with the weather in a way I have never even considered before. I know how the wind can make me feel like I am running in place or how low air pressure makes it seem like I am climbing a mountain. I watch the radar so I can time a run right before a storm rolls in or leave the house so that halfway through I get a refreshing rain shower (nothing feels more primal and exciting than running in a downpour). It’s improved my sense of direction because I have to consider the angle of the sun to know if I want to run more into it when it’s chilly or find the shade when it’s too hot.

There’s also something to be said about the way running probably teaches you a cliché life lesson about how if you are going through hell just keep going but that’s way too inspirational poster material for me.

There’s almost no reason to hate running on a mental and emotional health front. The worst thing I can say is that the feeling of putting off a run and knowing you still have to do it as the day goes on can be as annoying as knowing there are dirty dishes demanding to be washed back at home. Because of this running has also forced me to become somewhat of a morning person because I’d rather get it done before I am awake enough to dread it.

Even though I know I will never run a six-minute mile again or ever win a 5K or even attempt any run longer than hour (at people who run marathons, what is your secret?) and even though I will never enjoy the actually act of running, I still love it. I’d probably love it more if I could go back in time and beat Logan Hankercheef in the 5th grade or even pass the old guy who looks like he can barely stand in a race (though seriously all props to him, I’m jealous) but I’ve accepted that there is value in doing some things just for the sake of doing them instead of excelling at them and for me that thing is running. I blew my shot at having any type of competitive running career long ago but I don’t really care that much. Actually, that was a lie most of the time I care a lot about the fact that millions of people are much better at this than me but whenever I get too annoyed about it I just go for a run and get over it.