What I’ve Learned from Running

The most nervous I’ve ever been in my life was before my junior high track meets. I’m not kidding. I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking (and actually forgot a speech on stage once), weathered some tough job interviews, and moved across the country more than once to places where I didn’t know a single person. Nothing comes close to those track meets.

I ran the 800 meters (two laps around the track), which was pretty much the worst race ever—too short to settle into a comfortable pace and long enough to feel like prolonged torture. I usually placed in the top 3 or 4, so I wasn’t terrible at it. But for hours beforehand, I was pinned by the weight of the enormous pit in my stomach, searching for escape routes right up until the starting gun went off. It wasn’t that I hated running. I just hated, hated, hated the track meets. Unsurprisingly, I ditched the track team (and running) after 8th grade.

But those days of dread were the beginning of something, too. After one lackluster race, my coach pulled me aside and asked, “Did you really run as hard as you could have?” I know, I know, sports metaphors. But I was a straight-A student at the top of my class in a small town, and in situations like this, I leaned on that reputation with my teachers and coaches. It was the first time one of them had directly questioned my level of effort, and I was stunned. I answered him honestly, “No, I didn’t.” He then gave me a piece of advice that wasn’t exactly revolutionary—many runners will recognize it from their training experiences—but still echoes in my head to this day.

He told me that I should feel like I’d spent every ounce of energy I had by the end of a race. Otherwise, I was never going to achieve what I was capable of achieving. Simple as that. I’ve since crystallized this into a mantra that I’ve called upon in just about every context of my life: Give all of yourself to this.

One of the most gratifying things, as you get older, is that you start recognizing your personal themes: frustrations that surface over and over, challenges you can’t seem to escape, patterns that repeat themselves. And you get better at knowing what works to anticipate them and handle them. For me, nothing has proven itself more often or more strongly than the returns I receive when I give all of myself to something—and the general malaise and dissatisfaction that settle over me when I don’t. It’s one of those core principles that lives just underneath your conscious awareness—close enough to the surface to pop up regularly, but submerged enough to surprise you every time.

Then, in January 2011, I accidentally started running again. It began as a New Year’s resolution (as it often does). I signed up for a local running group, Austin’s Rogue Running, in a half-hearted bid to start exercising more. As a harmony-seeking INFJ who hates to disappoint others, I figured having people around who would notice if I didn’t show up would force me to stay the course. At one of our first meetings, we filled out a “goals” worksheet, and I struggled to find something to write down that wouldn’t betray my low expectations.

But it’s now more than two years later, and I’m still running. I’ve run two half-marathons and a few 10ks, and I’ve gotten up at unspeakably early hours Saturday after Saturday to run so many miles that I needed a nap afterward. And here’s the funny thing—it’s because I didn’t give all of myself. At least, not all at once.

To my surprise, the training program advocated taking things slowly. We ran at a “conversational pace.” (Yes, that’s a real thing.) We increased our distance by small, sometimes almost imperceptible increments each week. We were chilled out about it. And three months later, I found myself running my first 10k. By that, I mean that it actually felt like I’d just woken up to find myself running it. How was I running 6 miles all of a sudden? How had I found myself back at what basically amounted to a big-ass track meet? And—most bewildering of all—how was I kind of enjoying it?

It turns out that running is a wonderfully simple foil to the rest of life. You just do it, and it gets easier. You keep running, and you get stronger and better at it. Sure, you can make every run about beating your last time or burning more calories or moving up your app’s local leaderboard. But all that really matters is that you run—slowly, quickly, for 20 minutes, for an hour, for two hours, up hills, across flat straightaways, around tracks, down trails, through the neighborhood, however and wherever you can.

Over longer distances, this idea has fine-tuned my ability to tolerate discomfort without searching frantically for shortcuts. Running has taught me to calm down, be patient, and let things unfold at their own pace. It’s made me an expert at knowing when to stop forcing something and just accept what exists at that moment. Because by the time you’re at mile 8 or 12 or 16, you don’t necessarily feel great. And that’s okay. You can let the discomfort come and go as it pleases and still feel relaxed and completely confident that you’ll get there. You can take a deep breath, shift your focus, and keep going.

That’s the thing about sports metaphors, isn’t it? They’re just so damn good. I can’t think of too many self-contained activities that translate quite so literally to life in general (even my very un-sports-focused life). You’ll finish your miles—you’ll arrive at the predetermined end point—but that’s the part you already knew. The point isn’t to make it there with a minimum amount of discomfort and difficulty. It’s to give all of yourself to the moment, whatever shape the moment takes. It’s to dive fully into the process, be humble, and feel what you thought was all of yourself expand.

The point is to keep running.

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