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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why I Run: A Novice Runner's Manifesto


I am not a runner. And by that I mean, I did not fall in love with running at an early age, compete in high school track meets, graduate to marathons, or establish a lifelong pattern of daily running.

I restarted my running “habit” a little more than a year ago, though I still have had my stops and starts since. In fact, on most days I will admit that I don’t actually enjoy running all that much. I don’t deal well with discomfort—the hard pounding rattles my joints and aches my shins. For the first five or so minutes, I am acutely aware of every ache and twinge, the slight rub of my shoes on my heel or toe, the burn of my lungs or a complaining muscle.

I also find it difficult to breathe through my nose as directed because it seems to get immediately congested. And I must be chronically dehydrated despite guzzling down thermos after thermos of water, because I always feel thirsty.

Very few days are ideal running days in New Orleans. You have the uncomfortable stickiness of summer, even early in the morning or late in the evening. Or you have the suffocating humidity, the miserable rain. And of course, the bone chill when we actually have what passes for winter here.

If running is so miserable, why do I do it? Perhaps I like to punish myself, I’m an overachiever or I have lost my mind.

No—I am not out to prove myself or punish myself, and oxygen is still getting to my brain.

And yet non-running friends repeatedly ask me, “How can you do that? I hate running.” Or they warn me of its dangers or simply say, “Better you than me.”

So why do I run?

I run because there is a comfort in knowing my own two feet have the strength to carry me, first a mile, then two, and then maybe twelve.

For my first (and only) half marathon, I was injured and hadn’t trained properly because of it. I also had bronchitis. But a friend came into town to run with me, and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wasn’t able to run the full 13.1, but I was able to run longer than I ever have before. And I still finished the race in time to receive a medal.

The experience was overwhelming—especially the realization that I was able to carry myself around the city on my own two (if blistered) feet. In fact, that day I ran to parts of town that I am often too lazy to drive to because they are “just so far away.”

I run because it puts me in tune with my body in ways I am usually not.

Experts talk about the “mind-body connection” but I think most of the time I am blissfully unaware of what my body tries to tell me. I ignore little aches and pains, am sometimes careless about my diet, or let stress build up without realizing it.

During a run, it is hard to ignore that I didn’t eat enough or eat right beforehand, that I didn’t drink enough water, stretch properly or get enough sleep. If my neck or shoulders are tense, I feel hunched and awkward during my run, or I may notice that my breathing is erratic if I am anxious or tired. This awareness has changed my runs, but more than that, it has improved my behavior when out of my running shoes.

I run because running isn’t gimmicky.

Although runners can accessorize with heart rate monitors, GPS trackers, iPods and other gadgets, all anyone really needs to run is a pair of running shoes and a place to run.

If the gym is closed, I can run around the block or at the park. Throw my shoes in a suitcase, and I can run even if I am on vacation. No special equipment, fad diet, workout guru or overly hyped DVD required.

My grandfather picked up a running habit as a teenager in the army and kept it for decades after. Running just slipped into his daily life without fanfare, but it is vivid in my childhood memories. I often conjure him up during my own difficult runs to remind myself of his no-nonsense approach.

I run because it’s ok to be a novice.

I have never excelled at group sports or really considered myself athletic. I know about as much about a weight room as I do about quantum physics. And I always forget which is overpronating and which is underpronating.

But that’s ok. Running is a sport of inclusion, not exclusion. You never know what friendship might blossom while sharing a path with a fellow runner who happens to keep the same pace as you.

There are expert competitive runners out there, but it isn’t required. If you choose to race, you will learn what not to do next time. I have been so touched by the great advice I have gotten along the way, not just from friends and loved ones, but from casual acquaintances eager to share their running passion.

I like to think of running like my first guitar lesson: You learn one or two chords, and you can strum out a tune even if you are never Van Halen. If you choose to race and graduate to foam rollers and gu, that’s great. But if you want to stick to the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” equivalent of running, that’s cool too.

I run because it changes my perspective and teaches me about myself.

Just being on foot makes you see the scenery differently—feel it differently. It engages more of the senses. You feel a rough stretch of road in your feet or a gentle misting from a nearby sprinkler, smell new asphalt mixed with the wafting fragrance of some nearby jasmine, or the dusty taste of the air just before the rain. Trees rustle, ducks talk and bikes whiz by.

If you allow yourself to become fully aware during your run, these little daily variations on a familiar street help keep it fresh and interesting. And if you leave a familiar path to explore new roads you are sure to discover something else you never knew was there.

For me, however, a lot of time is spent getting to know my own inner monologue. Often it comes up with reasons why I really don’t need to run another lap around the park because I’m tired or hurting or it may start raining. Sometimes my inner me is just bored and wonders why I am running in the first place. Other times it thinks I am fooling myself by pretending to be athletic, and it reminds me that some bodies are just not built to run.

The more discomfort I feel, the more chatter I hear. I am learning to distance myself from these inner pronouncements, and just observe and even develop compassion for that inner voice. I use the same technique I use in yoga class—breathe in, breathe out, focus on the breath, and be fully in the present moment. Accept this moment—and myself—exactly as I am now. Right now is enough. In these moments, running is like a meditation.

And every once in a while, on a sunny morning, looking at the blue sky with a light breeze against your back and your favorite song blasting, you might accidentally find you are enjoying five miles around the park.