Jillian responded to our open-ended prompt about the mental and physical benefits of running.
Run Far to Run In
Running benefits us both mentally and physically and in such vast ways in each direction. Running has made me both calmer and tougher, toned my muscles and given me more energy.
When I'm going through something challenging--whether it's fighting anxiety or hiking at altitude--I often think back to one race in particular where I was able to use all of the mental and physical skills I've gained in running.
The common theme is endurance. What we endure in tired legs and broken hearts is endurance all the same, and running proves to ourselves that we're capable of handling anything.
During one race in particular, a 30-mile trail race, I was nervous but really excited.
I had trained and was ready physically, but I'd also been going through something really challenging in my personal life that was gnawing at my happiness. I felt like I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. If I could do this, I could do anything.
I had a time goal in mind: sub-7 hours. The course was 7.5 miles out, 7.5 miles back, totaling a 15 mile loop, and I did two loops. The course wasn't always forgiving, being that it is a trail, with its steep hills, challenging on both the ups and the downs. I kept calm knowing that I was ready for this.
Running, especially longer distances, has allowed me to practice bring present. At times, all I'm thinking about is breathing, watching my footing so as not to fall, and drinking enough water. This is when life is simple.
Running gets you in tune with both mind and body and in such a way that allows you to feel like you're really in control of your own self, your own life. If you want to slow down, do it. If you want to speed up, do it. If you want to think about what happened at work today while methodically weaving through trees, you can do that too. It's up to you and the time is yours to fill.
When you go out for a run or toe the line at a race, you've shown up for yourself. This not only makes you healthier through exercise, but it makes you happier in that you're filling your own cup. We all know that you can't pour from an empty cup, after all.
I ran happily through the woods for the first 15 miles.
I wanted to get to the aid station at 7.5 miles in an hour and a half. Right on the dot, I was there, and I was thrilled. I had some Gatorade and a snack and went back. I didn't want to have the clock continue to tick with me standing still for too long.
That's another simple thing about running, just keep moving. My dad has reminded me of an internal dialogue that perfectly marries the physical and mental aspects and benefits of running, and shows that in running and in life, sometimes it's just about putting one foot in front of the other.
"Can I run another step? Yes, I can run another step. If no longer able to run, can I walk another step? Yes, I can walk another step. If no longer able to walk, can I crawl? Yes, I can crawl."
So, back on race day, I wanted to get to 15 miles in 3 hours. I kept moving along, checking my watch occasionally but mostly just reminding myself that I deserved to be here and that I was capable of doing this and reaching my goal. I so badly wanted to reach this goal but not for anyone other than myself, which released any pressure and just left excitement.
I made it to the 15 mile marker in 3 hours, just as I was working for. I had a pickle, changed my socks and sneakers, and I got back out there as quickly as I could. I knew that the next 15 miles would be twice as hard.
For this next loop, I ran in solitude almost the entire time. The first loop was more populated because everyone started together; now that people had begun running at different paces and were stopping at aid stations more frequently, it wasn't as likely you'd be running with anyone else. Since this goal was mine and I had only myself to get me there, this was a welcomed challenge.
I like solitary miles because I can go to that place in my mind that only I know about. I can push myself through dark moments and celebrate the good ones in this place that is my own. No annoying co-workers are there. No body image issues have made their way there, nor has my to-do list. I only get to visit when I'm running, so this is a beautiful thing.
I hardly remember the third set of 7.5 miles to the turnaround because I wasn't hurting too terribly yet and I think I practically ran thoughtless that whole time. At the turnaround, though, was when my body and soul started yelling at me.
I promise you I've never felt so much pain.
My feet hurt with a special excruciation that I'd never experienced before. My arms were too tired to carry my water bottle, so I had to switch off every few hundred feet.
I got to a point where I'd convinced myself that running would hurt less than walking because my feet would spend more time off the ground. I think that's actually how the physics of running works, but the Laws of Physics have also never accessed this part of my brain. I tried to stay there--I was pushing the door shut as darkness tried to make its way in. I wasn't going to let it. There was no room for negativity here, only positive thinking and morale-building mantras, such as "relentless forward progress" and "you are tougher than these aches".
I fought, tooth and nail, to the end of that race. I think I was gritting my teeth for the last 10 miles. It took every fiber of my being to make it to the end, and I did it. I crossed the finish line in 6:58:00. I reached my goal and I did it myself.
If you want to like yourself more, sign up for an ultra marathon. You'll experience the full spectrum of emotions and range of physical pain that most parts of our comfortable lives don't allow us to feel. But the highs, they are so very high. You'll like yourself so much that you wish you could give yourself a hug.
This is the beauty of running.
I obviously got physically stronger that day. That effort helped me gain an athletic endurance I don't think I'd otherwise have. It also has helped me in trying times. When I'm going through something that feels like the end, I remember how my brain was able to tell my body--my tired, aching body--to keep going.
I'll leave with an excerpt from one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, The Journey, as a mirror to my experience.
...and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and
into the world.
Determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could
This is part of a series called In First Person, in which digital natives respond to an open-ended writing prompt.