The bane and beauty of running

It’s said that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I’ve followed my dad’s footsteps in this one, and for running it certainly holds true.

I run. I run for that “me” time. I run for that clear-headed exhaustion at the end. I run for the physical and health benefits. And I run to eat cookies.

This winter I was out the door pre-dawn at least five days a week. I love when the city is mostly asleep and the darkness makes it picturesque. It’s just me, the fruit stand and coffee cart vendors, bus drivers and deliverymen. From mild mornings to the cold rains and driving sleet, these tranquil moments belong to few. I love running in below zero temps before sunrise; it is so reviving when that polar chill cuts through my base layers while I’m sweating it out. 

It’s 20 blocks to the mile in NYC. I step out the front door and run that same route day after day, preferring the obstacle course of the concrete track to the monotonous pace of Central Park or Riverside trails. 

I can sustain a running routine for years at a time and can’t recall the reasons for stopping, but my running is a good metric for the difficulty setting my life is at at the moment.  

It’s usually stress that pulls me back. And so it was 15 months ago that got me pounding the pavement again. I’d push through that familiar bane of running – shin pain – and once the pain goes away after about a mile and a half I’d enter The Zone.

It took a year to build a solid running base back up. Every morning the excuses run like a ticker across my groggy consciousness, especially when the sun isn’t up yet. But I will somehow spartan up and hit the pavement, and actually look forward to that punishment. It takes discipline to power through it – sucking wind, burning muscles, hitting the wall and grappling for the last oomph of energy your head and body disagree over. But you get more out of it than what you put in, and when you start crushing the miles you feel like you’re on top of the world.

Running made me aware how self-destructive I got those first three years back here in New York, isolating myself from things I used to do and love, and relying more and more on harmful habits.

But my old self is waking up, and running put me back in touch with that person. I took up meditation and started writing again, both of which complement running well. I also picked up more books, reconnected with friends near and far, and made more effort at meeting new people.

Other upsides to my morning runs? 

  • It’s physically transformative. My knees are stronger than ever (22 years after ACL reconstruction), muscle and joint aches are gone, posture and core strength are better than in my twenties, and I’m back to my college weight.
  • Being a lifestyle choice, running is a catalyst for major life shifts. You can’t sustain the habit without building up the values and character traits needed to actuate changes.
  • It’s meditative. I focus on and control my breathing, and the blocks just fly. Do you know how much power you draw from the simple act of focusing on your breath? 
  • Mental health and stress levels are back to form, and I’m back to being the eternal optimist, adventure seeker, and avid risk taker my family knows me to be. I’m also back into concocting stories my kids love.
  • It’s the first winter since being back in the US that I didn’t get sick once. 
  • Higher resistance to the cold. While others at work blast space heaters, I’m stripping down to shirt or tank top.
  • Allergies normally seize up my respiratory system around this hay fever season, but symptoms were mild last Spring and so far this year things look good (knock on wood!).
  • I can eat more cookies (the truth comes out)!

I’m in a much better place now, with similarly improved running form and technique. Running has taught me a lot of things about myself, about endurance, and discipline. And I credit the running with helping me cut toxic jobs, people and habits fairly decisively. I love that my biggest competition is me, that it’s low-tech and cheap, and that I can be as anti-social or social as I want with the sport. If I can conquer running I can handle anything life throws at me.

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