Why do I run? I could say I run, because I love the running community’s lack of inhibitions when discussing bodily functions or fluids. I could say that it’s because running is a gender equalizer: women can blow snot rockets and spit with the best of men, which I find particularly awesome. All true, but that doesn’t get to the heart of it.
The story of how I got into running has unflattering origins. The story of why I keep running retains many unbecoming details, although of a different nature all together.
When I first moved back to Vermont, I took up running casually. This was, more than anything, a safeguard action, given my job. I’m a traveling fundraiser, and therefore spend a lot of time eating out. If I didn’t take up some form of exercise, I would begin to come back from each trip with a little more padding. Given that I averaged two trips a month, well, do the math.
So I ran: in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Seattle. A cheapskate’s form of tourism.
But commitment? When did I say fine, I’ll settle down and run with intention? Spring 2008. An ex and a friend were training for the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon.
An ex and a friend were training for the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon, and I kind of scoffed at the idea, citing my knees and ankles as reasons why I would never do that. I found the premise kind of silly: why do something for sport that killed a man?
April 2008. I’m the water-boy and cheerleader for the two of them. It was the Burlington Unplugged Half. I do as I’m told: be here at this time, here at this time. I follow directions, and get them both Gatorade and chocolate for post-race recovery. The thing is: throughout the race, I am bored out of my skull.
I am somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of being similarly bored for twice as long during the marathon itself (not knowing what a great crowd KBVCM boasts). I figure that telling them that I’d prefer not to be support crew on race day could be incendiary; I consider my options. The bone-headed and soon to be knee-injury-inducing conclusion to which I came was this: the easiest way to escape water and food duty was to participate and run the damn thing. So I signed up. And ended up irritating them anyway. Which is understandable – I think the motives behind my actions were clear enough.
So I ran my first marathon on about a month and a half of overtraining. As could be expected, I did not do terribly well. I hit the wall, was hobbling for the next week, and had some IT band issues that took a while to sort out.
But: I couldn’t wait to do it again. After completion of my first 50 mile race (which was my 2nd attempt, in the interest of full disclosure), I would tell a friend: “Now, I can’t know for sure, since I’m male, but I liken distance races to childbirth. It’s so painful while you’re doing it, but once you’re done, exhausted and beaten to hell, you think: I can’t wait to do that again.”
So that’s the summary of why I started running. Why, then, do I keep running?
In 2010, I was formally diagnosed with depression. I’ve probably carried it with me for years, but in the winter of 2010, my therapist said the word out loud.
The ways I’d dealt with depression before running are unsavory at best. Running has not cured me. But it has provided me a healthier way to cope than the other methods I had explored in my youth.
To say that running saved my life is probably a bit heavy-handed. But it has certainly helped. Running is a meditation in two different ways. On the roads, I can let my thoughts out and let my mind wander and drift; I can give attention to myself and dialogue safely with the scarier parts of my psyche. On the trails, the only thing that matters is where I put my foot on this stride, and where I’m next going to land. It keeps me present.
Running provides us with a reminder that we have bodies – it’s so easy to get lost in your head, and for me, it’s not just that it’s easy, but that it can also get rather scary quite quickly. The run puts me back on the ground, again, reminding me that I have legs, and that I have lungs, and that sometimes, that’s all you need. There is something primal about it: me, alone, in nature. I am sovereign in my own skin.
There is also the joy of discovery – I’m not speaking of new routes, trails or races, although those are certainly bonuses. I’m speaking more of exploring the body itself. In martial training, there is a term I love: the edge of the self. It describes a state of absolute physical exhaustion, where you find yourself on the verge of collapse. The wonder of being here, at the edge of the self, is that when you are at that point and have to continue onwards, you discover, with amazement, that you have untapped reserves. That you can push yourself to keep going – and that you might even be able to go harder than before. You transcend the physical.
Running gets me to the edge of myself: I experienced it first during my second marathon when, at mile 20, I picked up my pace and hooked the last 10K (although I admit that at mile 20, my first thought was Holy poops, I have to go faster now?!). Most recently, it was charging down the last quarter mile of the Vermont 50, shouting and screaming my brains out in a show of unadulterated joy mixed with more than a little exhaustion.
I run because it’s good for me. It might not have saved my life, but it has certainly helped. Better to say it sustains my life. It keeps me from floating away.