On Running (Redux)

Learning how to run is like training a wild dog. The first time you get out there, you come back bruised, sore and distrustful. Something just happened to you and you did not like it.

But you keep trying, and eventually the relationship changes. The strangeness of it all becomes a kind of familiarity. You enter a rhythm and, after some time, it becomes second-nature.

The first summer I really started running, I felt physically ill from every 2-mile run. But after a couple weeks, my muscle soreness started to feel like an itch to run again. I slowly worked my way up to three miles, thinking it would be cool to complete a 5K (3.1 miles) on my own one day.

It’s around the 5K mark that the “runner’s high” shows up. But it’s not as simple as a hit of adrenaline. It can feel like a pleasant absentmindedness, a release of energy, running away from something, chasing something, forgetting about yourself.

I ran on the beach in California on a work trip and ran through leafy pathways by my house in the fall. Putting in a few miles in a new place can grant you a familiarity you’d never have otherwise. This pothole is here. This campsite is here. After listening to whatever Spotify coughed up for years, running reconnected me with music. Sometimes a runner’s high is just a certain song at a certain moment near a lake.

I’m not an athletic person. I hated sports growing up, except for martial arts (I did taekwondo for years cuz … Buffy). I am not competitive, mostly because I’m small and afraid.

But those things don’t matter in running. I can be the slowest runner on the trail or treadmill. And I started that way. As I stuck around longer, I got faster.

I’m a middle-distance runner. Short runs don’t get me to the place I need to be, mentally or physically. And I have no plans to run a marathon. I’m superstitious that if I sign up for any race, I’ll stop running altogether. Motivation is weird like that. Right now, I try to run 22 miles a week, including one long run.

My long run will probably get longer, especially once the ground isn’t covered in ice and snow. But for now, 8 miles is enough to leave me completely drained. I get low blood sugars and sometimes feel like I want to cry or get in a fight with someone after. These runs are important to me though, because they bring me back to the feeling of taming the wild dog.

I went to Hawaii on vacation recently. Usually I don’t exercise on vacation. But if you’re a runner, you don’t pass up the chance to run in Hawaii. Waking up early to run along the ocean and explore rocky pathways and jump over volcanic ash really put spending an hour on the treadmill to shame.

After Hawaii, I couldn’t run for a week because I had developed a subungual hematoma (read: blood blister under your nail from slamming it against a shoe too hard). Don’t Google it. It was incredibly painful and I was afraid my toenail was going to fall off.

So I took a week off, and realized how much I rely on running. It was hard not to have that little self-esteem engine I can fuel with my own physical effort. On my downtime, I read up on the black toenail syndrome and learned that having one meant I was now a “real runner.” Running magazines talk about these with a sense of pride the same way martial artists call bruises “badges.” Looking back at my martial arts days, I do not miss the bruises, and I don’t think sustaining regular injuries for any sport is really worth it. But it was nice to know that what I was going through was fairly normal.

Running, like any sport, is a constant effort to push yourself just enough without pushing yourself too far. There is a delicate balance between expanding your boundaries and shutting off your ability to listen to yourself until you’re injured, or have developed a disorder like exercise bulimia. Trainers, coaches and random internet people can make this worse. I’ve tried to be careful about the language I use, because I don’t want anyone to read this and say, “Becky does this run, so I should, too.”

I’m only still running because I’ve upped my mileage slowly, sat out injuries and avoided comparing myself to other people. That said, I can still rattle off the weekly mileage goals of other runners, from Haruki Murakami to my hair stylist, so I’m not totally immune from comparison. If you’re someone who knows you can obsess over numbers, calories, the scale, etc. to the detriment of your own health, running might make that worse for you. Preserving a healthy relationship with running is part of the challenge. Get help if you need it.

I can’t end this with a pat assurance, like “If I can run, anybody can.” Running requires a healthy, able body, and not everyone has that. Anyone who’s had an injury knows how quickly your ability to run can disappear. But maybe that’s part of the appeal. There’s something ephemeral about being able to run that makes you feel like you’ve caught something otherworldly. Once you’ve tamed it, you want to hold on to it for as long as you can.

Note: I wrote another version of this a couple months ago and rewrote it because I didn’t like the first version.