I’ve never been particularly athletic. And even less coordinated.
I’m afraid to play “ball” sports, and every time I conquer that fear, I end up getting hit in the head or face.
I trip over the smallest cracks in the sidewalk, and I walk up and down stairs very slowly because I know the pain of falling down a flight or two.
But even though I’m never going to be “athletic,” running is one thing that I can do.
Now, I still manage to hurt myself, but generally speaking, running leaves me feeling amazing.
I may dread getting out the door, but once I hit the pavement (since running on the treadmill is another story entirely), I get that rush. I feel strong, confident and free.
As a runner, all I need are my sneakers. I don’t have to worry about making my teammates proud, or disappointing my coach or fans. Running is all about me.
Even though it feels like I’ve been running forever, it’s actually only been three years since I first began.
I first tried running towards the end of my junior year in high school.
Before that moment, I only ran in gym class, and hated it. I would dread every gym period that involved going out to the track. Or even worse, running laps around the gymnasium.
In fact, growing up, I did very little exercise. I wasn’t on any sports teams, and after I quit gymnastics and ballet, I did almost nothing athletic other than playing outside and walking around.
But on one cold (I still remember wearing my giant hoodie and sweatpants) April evening, after a particularly indulgent (read: cookies, cake, sandwiches, pizza) rehearsal of our theater department’s Sweeney Todd, I laced up my Converses and hit the pavement.
It was the first time I ever felt guilty after eating, and I wanted to do something about it.
It was hard going at first. I didn’t know much about form or speed, and I didn’t really have any goals. I just wanted to get around my block without dying.
And surprisingly, I made it around three times that night.
Like many others, my need to run didn’t come from a love of the sport.
It came from a combination of stress and a desire to lose weight.
It’s painful, typing that sentence, because I’m ashamed realizing that this was just the beginning of my snowball towards eating disorder.
I can’t believe that something I see as such a healthy part of my life today, was so unhealthy for me just three years ago.
After that first night of running, I continued to run, longer, faster and farther each time.
And with each extra mile and added minute, I somehow felt less hungry.
There has been research conducted which shows the effect of exercise on appetite. In the study, when lab mice, who never exercised and ate too much fat, began exercising, their brains showed increased protein levels, thus increasing the appetite-controlling hormones, insulin and leptin.
I seemed to fit the human model of the experiment because after I began running, I never really felt hungry. I stopped eating as much for dinner, rarely ate snacks, never ate breakfast (as I did throughout my school years), and saw the weight fall off.
Other people noticed it too, and it felt good to get complimented.
So I kept running and eating less.
Eventually, I ran over an hour every day. They were never speedy runs, and I didn’t calculate the mileage. It was just something I needed to do to find control and lose the weight.
And did I mention that I was still wearing Converses?
After a summer of continually over-exerting my body and running on those awful shoes, I sustained an ankle injury.
I still don’t know what the exact injury was, but a tendon on the back of my left ankle hurt every time I put pressure on it.
And to demonstrate just how crazy I was back then, I continued to run through the pain, telling myself to tough it out.
Well the injury healed eventually, and I kept at my obsessive running.
Regardless, it was still one of many wake-up calls. I knew that my body was deteriorating, and if I wanted to run again, I’d have to recover both my physical and mental health.
It wasn’t until sometime towards the end of my senior year that I decided to quit.
At this point, I really detested and despised running. I hated that I was hooked on it, and I hated how my moods and schedule depended on when I had a run scheduled. I was a slave to it.
Since I couldn’t run without being obsessive, I just chose to cut it out cold turkey.
Eventually, I gained back some sense of freedom towards food, as well. I was happy to just hang out with my friends, without having to worry about every crumb I put in my mouth and every run I had to complete.
Well, it turns out that by the end of the summer, when I regained almost all of my weight, I actually missed running.
I missed the endorphins and the sweat, the stress relief and happiness after completing a few miles.
So I laced up my sneakers for the first time in literally three months. I ran with no pressure, no goal, no need, and it felt awesome.
I was no longer a slave, and as it turns out, I became an even better runner because of it.
Instead of using running for weight loss, I wanted to see how far and how fast I could push myself.
To do that, I started fueling my body to perform at its best. I knew that a lackluster meal would make me slow and sluggish the next day, and I did not want to feel that.
But best of all, it just felt good to run because I wanted to. And if I didn’t feel up for it, I didn’t beat myself up for not running.
And that’s still how I feel about running today. I’ve learned that it’s ok to not run for a few weeks, or even months. That’s how I discovered new activities, like spinning and Body Pump.
The sneakers will always be there when I’m ready. It may take a few weeks to return to top mileage or pace, but it will happen.
These days, I don’t want to run because I “have to”, but because I “love to”.