Last April, in honor of my 44th birthday, I decided to run the Richmond 10K. It was the longest race I’ve ever done, and I was excited to give it a shot. I tend to socialize in fitness-minded circles, and so many of my running enthusiast friends and acquaintances began congratulating me on my decision. And almost without fail, each person would say, “Now, just wait! You’re going to catch the running bug and want to sign up for a longer race! You’ll be a running junkie like the rest of us!” I know what they were referring to, and part of me wished it would be true, but deep down I knew they were wrong. And this is why.
For as long as I can remember, running has been punishment. In grade school and high school athletics, when I or my team didn’t perform in a game or event or meet as expected, I knew I’d be running hard at the next practice to beat the laziness/unpreparedness/ambivalence out of me. Sometimes that came in the form of wind sprints (which I highly preferred), and sometimes it was a routine up-tempo run made longer, and longer, and longer. And I knew never to ask, “How much longer?” or “How much time is left?” because that invariably led to the stopwatch being cleared back to zero to begin again.
This association between running and punishment continued into college. I clearly remember the timed mile and a half that our field hockey team did on the very first morning of practice when I was a very nervous, clueless 1st year who didn’t know the ropes or even a single person on the team. You had to finish the run in under 12 minutes, or you would have to run it again later in the week, and again and again, until you reached the cut-off. This wasn’t a test I had ever undergone before, and so I didn’t know how to tackle it exactly…how to pace myself, how to breathe, how to start or how to finish. I remember how small, embarrassed, and humbled I felt after failing at my first attempt. I wasn’t the only one – even a few upperclassmen who were very familiar with this drill didn’t make it. But that was little consolation for me and I didn’t want to experience that sense of failure a second time. Later that week, I made it. But the stigma stuck.
As my first year of college continued, and my disordered eating patterns surfaced and became increasingly worse, I again used running as I way to punish myself. The continuous negative self-talk was off the hook, and the lower I felt, the harder I pushed during runs. Running also became an escape – an extended time that I would exhaust my body in an attempt to exhaust my mind. Just check out mentally…what a gift that was (or seemed to be). Return to my dorm room, shower, and melt into sleep. Only to do it all again tomorrow.
And now, some 25+ years later, I still haven’t been able to put that association between running and punishment completely to rest. I do actually enjoy a short 30-40 minute run once, maybe twice a week. I like the fresh air, the warm sun, the methodical movement. But much more time than that and I begin to question my motives. It just doesn’t feel good. Or relaxing. Or beneficial. I begin asking myself, “Am I mad about something? Is there some stressor I’m not addressing? Is there anything in my real life that I’m avoiding? Am I trying to ‘make up’ for something I’ve done or eaten or thought?” I’ve heard it said that ‘eating your emotions’ is no way to live. And I believe the same is true about exercise. When it’s serving some other purpose other than enjoyment, I’ve lost the point and missed the mark. I’m extra-vigilant about this tendency now, as I’ve discovered exercise has a dark side just as addictive as other less-acceptable vices.
For those of you who enjoy a long run on a regular basis, I am secretly jealous of you. I wish my body could accomplish it and my brain be okay with it.
For those of you who run despite hating every minute of it, I identify with you. And I want you to know – you don’t have to do it. As crazy-popular as endurance running has become, there are so many other types of movement you can do that are enjoyable and effective and quite honestly a lot more supportive of your health goals. Do yourself a favor and investigate your options at the local Y or gym or even your own backyard. Exercise is a man-made invention. Aim for spontaneous and enjoyable movement instead. Your mind and body will thank you for it.