I started running last summer.
Okay, so that statement may not be entirely accurate. I was a big fan of the 800m during my elementary school track and field days. I went through phases of early morning runs before volleyball or rowing practices during high school. I also had my fair share of “this is it” attempts at running regularly during my undergrad (admittedly, these were usually disguised attempts to avoid studying or writing papers). But all of these sporadic attempts had turned running into something glorified for me. Running was not something that I wanted to do as a way of staying healthy or expending built-up energy, but rather something that I wanted to do just because I wanted to be the type of person who was a runner. I was missing the point.
Now, allow me to correct my original statement: I actually started running consistently last summer. But this time, it was not just because I wanted to be a runner. It was because I needed to run.
In a blog post last year, I wrote the phrase, “I find myself alternating between holding back tears and resisting the urge to walk outside and sprint down the street as fast as I possibly can.” There was no hyperbole in that statement. I meant every word of it. I was allowing thoughts, ideas, and emotions to become trapped inside of me and struggled to find a way to let them go. Both emotionally and physically, I knew that I needed to start moving to release the pressure.
But even after I hit the point where I knew that I needed to run, it took me a long time to get started. It began with setting an alarm much earlier than I knew I would ever be able to get out of bed with the hopes that I would wake up in the morning with a superhuman amount of willpower. But that was not much more than false hope. I then resigned myself to that fact that evening runs would be more appropriate and woke up each morning with a renewed enthusiasm for the run that I would go on when I got home from a busy day. But I always seemed to find a thousand things that needed to be done instead of running. My next step involved coming home, eating dinner, putting on shorts and a t-shirt, and sitting on my living room couch while The National aired on the TV in the background. But my adoration for the voice of Peter Mansbridge gave me yet another reason to avoid letting my feet hit the pavement outside.
You see, all other explanations aside, I was afraid. I was not a runner (in so many senses of the word). It was easier to pretend that I could just start running marathons than risk taking a few strides down the block only to realize that the muscles in my legs could only carry me so far. In some ways, it was also easier to cling to the thoughts, ideas, and emotions that I had been holding hostage for so long than risk letting go and running in a new direction.
One day, I was flipping through my book of quotes (the one that I started back as a 14-year-old and continue to add to on a regular basis) and came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:
“Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it with use.” – Ruth Gordon
These words hit me like a ton of bricks. And after I let them hit me, I scrawled them on a piece of paper and taped them to my wall.
I started each run with the lyrics of Brave by Sara Bareilles blasting through my headphones and ended each run to the lyrics of Start Over by The Afters. (I will save an explanation of my attachment to the lyrics of these songs for another day, but if you have never spent a late night staring up at the sky and listening to nothing but your heartbeat and the lyrics of these songs, I strongly suggest that you give it a try.)
Running became a way for me to create space for whatever I needed to create space for on any given day. Some days I needed to focus my energy on setting and working towards a new goal for myself. Some days I needed to sort through thoughts and ideas that couldn’t be sorted surrounded by the chaos of a busy subway car. And some days I just needed to run as fast as I could for as long as I could because, well, I just needed to.
I find it hard to explain to others why I am emotionally attached to running, but this is why: Courage really is like a muscle and I needed to start running to figure that out. Strengthening your muscles has a powerful way of reminding you just how much courage you have hidden inside of you. But that courage needs exercise too. Box it up or refuse to acknowledge it and it seems to disappear. But find the courage to do something as small as go for a run a few times each week and each step might just bring you a little bit closer to learning something more about yourself.
I ran a 5km race last September…
Whether or not these are particularly grand accomplishments for others, they are significant to me. I proved to myself that I could commit to trying something new and that I could follow through on that promise. I also proved to myself that I could become stronger (in more ways than one). And I did not do these things just because I wanted to be a runner, but because I recognized that I needed to take a step forward and I listened to the voice inside of me that told me that I had the courage to start moving.
I was not (nor am I now) an expert runner, but the great thing about running is that you can measure success in ways that are meaningful to you. Sometimes I run to cover a certain distance, sometimes I run to beat a previous time, and sometimes I run to give myself space to think. But regardless of why you run, the most important step is finding the courage to take the first one. After that, all you have to do is keep moving.