These may look like ordinary shoes. They’re several years old, and it’s about time to throw them in the wash (for the millionth time). They’re not particularly lightweight, nor are they particularly supportive. They’re neither ugly nor beautiful, cheap nor expensive. They’re even classified as “neutral” (opposed to those that correct for under- or over-pronation). These shoes, in and of themselves, do not make a statement: they hover modestly between the extremes on every possible shoe-classifying spectrum.
But these aren’t ordinary shoes. In these shoes, I took my first steps on a new continent. At some point in their existence, they have been covered in both mud and glitter. And possibly a bit of horse manure. They’ve contributed to both injuries and recoveries. They’ve been on dates and retreats and countless adventures. But most importantly, these shoes carried me through my first marathon, and through the awkward transition from considering myself someone that runs to stay in shape, to a runner. These shoes may not be magical ruby slippers that can take me home for Christmas, but they are magical to me.
I feel the need to pause here a moment to be honest with my readers. I don’t like running. It’s exhausting. Time consuming. Sometimes painful. You get sweaty. Blisters are gross, and sometimes my body feels like it got hit by a bus. And I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never been particularly fond of gasping for air.
But despite all this, I love being a runner.
With most things in life, I’ve found that if you don’t like something (but want to like something), you really can fake it til you make it. I’ve done so with certain foods, types of books, genres of music, even some people – but running, or at least what I get out of it, tops the list. We’ve heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit (though most of us don’t really know where the 21 day rule originated), but for me, it’s taken several years for running to become a part of who I am.
In light of Christmastime, where lots of us tend to eat, stay inside, and stress a bit more than usual (followed up by short-lived New Years resolutions to “better” ourselves), I wanted to share a few of the reasons why I run (and because I’m a bit of a nerd, some neuro- and exercise-science to back it up).
1. It’s symbolic. Are you spinning your wheels, or chasing your dreams? If you can run the 4,327 or some-odd steps it takes to lap your neighborhood, you can take that many steps and more towards the things that really matter. World peace. Saving the whales. Fighting poverty. Bringing a smile to someone having a rough day. Embracing an optimistic outlook when your default is negative.
2. It’s not about the destination. No one jogs out their door saying, “I can’t wait to run home!” Because if that was the goal, why would you leave in the first place? Like life, running is about the journey.
3. It’s motivational. You may find yourself needing motivation to go out and do it, but once you start seeing the distance you cover and the progress you’re making, you become amazed by what your body can do – what YOU can do.
4. You can’t outrun your fears, but if you run enough, you’ll eventually feel strong enough to face them.
5. I run because I want to be good to my body. It helps keep off weight and strengthens the heart, other muscles, and bones (in all honesty, it’s not the kindest to your joints – but the pros outweigh the cons). In old age, exercise is also a protective factor for keeping mental sharpness. It also feels great to be fit, and it makes other activities more enjoyable too.
6. I run because not everyone can. If you have legs and the strength to stand, you are blessed more than many. Don’t squander your gifts.
7. I run to experience the beauty of creation. On foot, you see everything from a new perspective. The symmetry of a cornfield, the beauty of wildflowers, the majesty of a mountain, even the intricacies of a city center. Keep running until you find something that inspires you.
8. I run to pray. If I have trouble carving out time to talk to God, I know there is always plenty on my run. Running is completely humbling, putting you in a proper mindset for prayer, letting you feel in solidarity with those living lives less comfortable than your own – those that really do have to run for survival (either literally or metaphorically). And when the running gets too hard, you let the suffering be a form of praise.
9. I run to think. How many us actually take the time to be alone with and process our thoughts? If I need to figure out why I feel a certain way, I run. If I need to come up with a research idea, I run. If I need to let something go, I run.
10. I run to not think. If you have trouble quieting your mind, intense exercise is the psychophysiological answer. Your brain receives a fixed amount of metabolic resources. Running, especially at high intensities or over long periods of time, diverts a significant portion of those resources from the prefrontal cortex to the motor cortex. Quiet the part that wants to plan and fix and overthink everything, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Focus on breathing. Focus on pace, balance, grace.
11. Run for the boost. When you exercise, your releases more norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Oversimplified, this makes you feel better. (10 and 11 are the basic reasons behind the “runner’s high.” Many anxiety and depressive disorders are characterized by an overactive prefrontal cortex and neurotransmitter imbalance, so it makes sense that calming the former and resetting the latter make you feel the opposite of anxious and depressed.)
12. I run to be a better person. Running takes willpower. You have to push yourself to improve, but if you put in the work, you’ll see the results. And who knows what else these results will motivate you to do. If I can run up a mountain, I can move a mountain.
“A few hours of mountain climbing turn a villain and a saint into two rather equal creatures. Exhaustion is the shortest way to equality and fraternity.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
So here’s my challenge: if you’ve been thinking about making running (or insert chosen aerobic exercise here) a habit, just do it already. There are really no excuses. I have a friend that is a full time PhD student, holds a job, raises a young child, and STILL finds time to be a competitive multi-sport ultra-endurance athlete.
You start one day at a time. If you can do one, you can do 21 days, a month, a year (but don’t burn out. Our bodies do need rest days, but go for a walk and do some deep stretching to keep the habit-making in full swing). Compete with YOURSELF, and only yourself, trying to go a little farther or faster each time. You will never feel proud of your progress if you are comparing your 5k time to that cousin of yours that went to state for track and field.
A work out buddy can help with motivation and accountability. If you like work outs to be social, use this time to kill two birds with one stone. If you keep in mind that you’re really only trying to help your future self beat your old self, friendly competitions with someone of similar skill/fitness level can help each of you push a little farther than you might ordinarily. If you prefer to work out by yourself, have someone to check in on you every now and then. Make sure to throw in some leisurely run days as well. It’s not always about the pace and distance. Leave the watch at home and just go out and run for fun.
I think the key to running, the key to most things in life really, is having a because. If you don’t have something to run for, if there isn’t meaning, it will only last as long as the take-out pizza you put in the back seat next to your dog. Run for your physical health, your mental well-being. Run for a charity or to promote a cause. Run to meditate, to listen to a new album, or because you’re just dying to indulge in a whole pan of brownies with your girlfriends later on. Run to clear your mind, or run to brainstorm. Run for your spirit and your soul. It doesn’t matter what your because is, just find one that’s enough to get one foot out the door – that’s always the hardest part.
“I really regret that run…”
…said no one ever.