The other day I was chatting with a friend about my new running club and they shared that they had recently gone running. I asked how it went. They said, “I was motivated to do it by anger, but the run itself was okay I guess. I always feel like I’m running wrong; I get side aches and cramps and it’s just not fun – I’ve definitely never experienced runners high.” During this conversation it occurred to me that people expect to be good at running and to immediately feel good doing it. When they realize they can not freely bound about like a child they feel frustrated, embarrassed, or ashamed.
Yes, running is a natural movement but like everything else in life it does take practice. The best analogy I have for this is learning an instrument. At first it usually sounds awful, clunky, uninspiring. You definitely don’t sound like the music you imagined, but you usually keep practicing in hopes of playing a tune and having fun. There is joy in learning and eventually in creating music, but sometimes it is just boring and tedious to practice. I have discovered running and movement in general to be similar through my own personal journey.
The first time I went running was in middle school. I went for a jog because I knew this to be the best way to lose weight and become the athlete I always wanted to be. Of course, in hindsight I wish I wasn’t driven by body negativity, but I was. I went for a run around the main boulevard in my town motivated by the passing cars to keep running; only walking when there was no one in sight. I don’t remember if I had fun; I’m sure I didn’t. But I do remember feeling impressed by myself. I, the fat kid, just ran three miles! This was the first time I realized I could run. I’d been told most of my life that I was slow, I didn’t have a runner’s body, I was lazy and other things that made me think running was for other people. Yet, I did it!
Looking back on my middle school running experience, after having this conversation with my friend, I think I was lucky to have left my house with low expectations that I was then able to exceed. This led me to wanting to do it more. I often had to stop and walk, sometimes I’d get side cramps or aching legs or an upset stomach. But I just kept running the same loop slowly noticing my progress until I was able to do the whole loop without stopping. Afterwhile, I started to find the joy that running brings.
For me this joy was mostly felt as a sense of freedom. Freedom to get places, but also freedom from the social limitations of what my body was capable of. As a middle schooler I obviously didn’t drive and I found bikes to be restricting because you have to lock them up and wear a helmet etcetera. But, running I could do anywhere! I could cut through the woods, move from house to house, stop for a smoothie, and walk when it was hard. I started running to my friends homes to hangout and eventually started running with friends. I believe one of my best friendships was solidified through running. We would go for long runs and talk about life. We weren’t fast and we weren’t training for anything just enjoying each other’s company. And like that, running became a thing I did for fun, not just a form of exercise.
My senior year of high school I finally worked up the courage to join the cross country team, and it was awesome! I had so much fun running around town with my peers. Yes, I was one of the slowest, but I also was 6 years behind on training compared to my teammates. Luckily, so long to believe I was good enough to be on the team. On the cross country team I learned what it took to be good at running. I learned the importance of running variety and what it felt like to push your limits. We would do hills, intervals, long runs, and recovery runs. Some of these were more fun than others, but all making me a better and more confident runner.
I kept running during college and eventually ran some pretty fast half marathons. After one half marathon I decided to take a break which ended up lasting 10 years. When I started back up it was much harder. My body was older, but I also had expectations. I could not run at the same mile pace without feeling winded and in pain. I wanted that freedom and joy back but I was rusty, slow, heavy. After a while I remembered I had to give myself grace and compassion! For me the fun was never about my mile time. It was about being at peace with the rhythm of my stride, exploring beautiful places and spending time with friends. I needed to be okay with being slow again, needing to walk, and being sore. Running is not always joy, but there are days and times when I am running and I feel joy. This is what so much of life is, and this peace with running and exercise is what I hope to help others find. I want to empower others to find their own version of joy while running!