Any semi-serious runner encounters this question on a regular basis. Often, it’s an out of shape co-worker or acquaintance who hears you talk about soreness or injury and helpfully informs you that “running isn’t really that good for you.” There was even that infamous Glamour article a few years ago that told women that running would make their skin saggy. I don’t know about their research cohort, but my skin is a lot less saggy when I’m running than when I’m not.
As I ruminate over yesterday’s run and the seeming return of my symptoms, I find myself asking “why do I run?” (For those with a time constraint, the answer is that I actually love running. For those interested in a more detailed answer, read on.)
I started running competitively in 7th grade. At the time, I was not particularly good at or interested in other sports. My parents had a rule about us being home for dinner and most elementary sports practices happened right at 5:30. I was always a strong runner, however, often winning the mile run that we occasionally did in gym class. I did gymnastics a couple of times, rode horses and bikes and was generally an outdoors kid, but not in an organized sense.
I joined the cross country team in 7th grade for the social interaction and because everyone else joined a sport. I wasn’t particularly good, but I wasn’t particularly bad either. By high school, I was a solid runner and often ran in the 5th spot (which scores in XC) during my freshman year. I didn’t improve drastically over my high school career, only getting into the 21:00 minute range in the 5k. It wasn’t for lack of talent; I just ran at a time when my team and Vermont had a series of insanely talented runners. My teammate Tara would go on to win NCAAs. Erin Sullivan broke almost every Vermont record. With limited resources and attention, I was fine at running and very strong at nordic skiing. Even at that time, I suspected that short distance was not my strength. It took me almost all of a 5K to warm up, but once I was warm, running felt like something I could do forever.
I opted not to run in college. Burnt out from a rather uninspiring high school career and sick of being told that I was too heavy for running (ridiculous, as I was a good 15 pounds lighter in high school than I am now), I went on to college as a nobody, athletically speaking. I played field hockey freshman year, and was surprisingly good. As an inner, my job was to run fast, seemingly forever. Success. When I transferred to Albany, however, playing on a D1 team with only a year of experience wasn’t an option. I occasionally played pickup, but found myself coming back to running by the end of sophomore year.
It would take me almost 4 more years to build up the confidence to race again. Will watched me run every day in graduate school and as a former runner himself, recognized that my speed was improving. When we talked about racing, however, I would balk, afraid to put myself out there again. I came home one day to find amazing pink waffles on my pillow with a note that said, “I hope to be watching you race in these by the end of the summer.” It was enough to encourage me to sign up for a 4 mile race. To my surprise, I did well, finishing 4th among women, and the first woman who wasn’t a former Olympian. I continued to race through that fall, winning a 5K in September, placing 7th in my first marathon in November and winning a race series. I was back. Or so I thought.
Running has meant different things to me throughout my life. In elementary school, it was a source of pride for a kid who otherwise didn’t feel particularly athletic. In junior high and high school, it was a social experience. I still hold an incredibly special place in my heart for “my” cross country girls. In college, it was a way to keep up with late night beer and pizza. After Katrina, it was a piece of normalcy in an otherwise insane day. In grad school, it was sanity and a social event and a major piece of my relationship.
For those who aren’t runners, it would be impossible for me to describe the depth of loss that I’m feeling today. Of course I can find another sport. I like biking and hiking, I even occasionally like ultimate frisbee and swimming. But I love running. Running is who I am.