Even as I lace up my sneakers, I can hear the heated debate between my lazy self and my active self. C’mon, just go running tomorrow. But you know you’ll feel better if you go now. You’re out of shape though. But you like how it feels. You can’t skip this run if you want to train properly. But you’re tired. But it’s good for you. But it’s too cold. But it’s too warm. Just GO.
I recently began running after a six-year break and I am in the process of training for the NYC Half Marathon in March. This is not my first time training for a long race, but in many ways, it feels like it is. Training this time feels new, not because I’ve never done it before, but because I take on the commitment with a new perspective.
Though I have always been athletic, I believe my default setting is to be sedentary. As a baby, I didn’t roll over until I was 8 months old. In middle school, I started sleeping until noon on the weekends. My first race was a 5K when I was 14 — my family still laughs at the climactic photo of me crossing the finish line. In the photo, the race clock above my head brightly displays 59 minutes as my finish time. An ambulance and garbage truck crawl behind me. There’s not a drop of sweat on my face.
I wasn’t aiming to walk so slow. I just didn’t believe I could go any faster.
But when I went for my first run a year later, something shifted and I started to believe that maybe I could be a runner. I fell in love with the way running took me to another place. I reveled in the feeling of my legs transporting me, the brisk air in and out of my lungs, and the sound of my Walkman playing my latest mix-tape. I enjoyed pushing myself to new levels of fitness and endurance, shattering my self-imposed limits.
At age 17, I ran my first marathon and I continued to train for races throughout my 20’s. The adrenaline, the camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment — I had chanced upon a new passion.
Running was a centering force on my journey to finding myself, professionally and personally. Though my dating years were fraught with unpredictability, running provided a reassuring constant — a space where I could work through noisy thoughts and return to my core self. As I navigated new terrain in career choices, relationships and friendships, running cultivated a better understanding of myself and others. There’s something redemptive about being amidst a life transition and coming to a place of peace, and some of my most memorable runs took place during my most painful learning curves.
Running changed as my responsibilities changed. I got married, had children — life got busier. My schedule didn’t lend itself to the early morning runs I had grown to anticipate and I was always tired after dinner (an untold downside of being a grown-up). But it was more than just being busy. Lurking beneath my scheduling excuses was a perfectionistic thought that if running wasn’t going to be like it used to be — the highs, the distances, the level of fitness — then why bother.
Then, a few months ago, something shifted.
I was at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side a few days after the New York City Marathon. While adding milk to my coffee, I met a friendly woman from Sweden who came to run the marathon — she had already signed up for her next one. We shared our experiences running in different places and the nitty-gritty of marathon recovery. As we talked shop, I felt nostalgic for that previous period in my life and wistful for that part of my identity.
She must have sensed my envy at her freedom to race anywhere and anytime. As we parted she said, “Listen. You’ll find a way to get back into it. You’ll find a way to integrate it into your life. So maybe it’ll be different than how it was before — it will become something new.”
Two weeks later I randomly decided to put on my sneakers and go for a run. No real agenda, no mileage goal. Just me pounding the pavement aimlessly. It felt good to be back, and a few days later I went for another run. On a whim, I decided to apply for the New York City Half Marathon lottery — when I found out I got in, a new chapter of running began.
Running feels different for me now. I’m learning to run responsibly. I’m not taking my body for granted and running distances that I’m not ready for. I follow a structured training schedule and take things one day at a time. I care more about stretching and I have a healthier fear of injury. If the weather is bad, I’ll skip the run or go later.
When I run now, I am more mindful of the amazing things happening inside of me and around me, and less focused on performance and competitiveness. I don’t pause my workout app when I’m waiting at a red light, lest it affect my stats. I view my legs not with the request to just go faster but with gratitude and awe for how they’ve supported me, through running and throughout the years of my life.
>When I do speed up, there is a mindfulness about it, a sense of listening to what my body is capable of and ready to try. I didn’t have that level of attunement when I was younger; maybe it came with growing up, or from pregnancies, or from becoming more comfortable with silence.
I used to care a lot about improving my completion time, or getting a “personal best” in running parlance, but now it’s just not that important to me. Running has become less about performance and more about presence. I still love the intensity of running, the chance to zone out, the feeling of transcendence. But I just don’t take it so seriously anymore, and that’s a good thing.
So, when race-day rolls around and I’m at that final stretch, even if the ambulance and garbage truck are right behind me at the finish line, I will still celebrate. I’ll even frame the photo.