Two weeks ago, I ran what was probably my 10th race in as many years. Since 2002, I’ve run a bunch of 5Ks, a few 10Ks, one 12K (across the Golden Gate Bridge!), and one half marathon. Most people (myself included) would describe me as a runner, but the funny thing is I absolutely hated running for the first 20-plus years of my life. How did this transition happen?
Sad, slow beginnings
As a kid, I was active but I despised running for running’s sake. Remember those Presidential Fitness Tests in elementary school? Even though I’m sure I wasn’t the least fit kid in my class, I came in dead last in the timed mile, somewhere in the 13-15 minute range. My main problem was that I had no concept of pacing whatsoever. I ran the mile like it was the 400-meter dash, starting out fast but running out of steam way before it was over. Fast forward to high school, when I played soccer. Ironically, I was a mid-fielder, which meant that I ran the most out of anyone else on the team. Still, I hated running. I didn’t mind when I was trying to get the ball, but when it was just running, I couldn’t stand it. This became a problem when I tried to advance to the varsity team. Although I had decent skills and put in a lot of playing time on the junior varsity team the year before, my super slow mile time was my downfall. The coach questioned my fitness level and ability to push myself, and I was cut from the team. I was disappointed, but not playing soccer opened up time for other activities.
Throughout college, I dabbled with various aerobics classes and elliptical machines at the gym. I became frustrated with the fact that no matter how intense my gym workouts, my fitness level wasn’t improving. I mean, I was doing step aerobics with the step raised on 3-5 blocks! I was sweating like crazy! But I wasn’t feeling or looking more fit. So, with a feeling of dread, I knew what I had to do: I headed to the treadmill and started running again. Immediately, my body felt more in shape and I lost a few pounds too. I enjoyed the results from running, but I still didn’t love it.
Breaking down to build back up
I would love to tell you that I had a sudden “A-ha!” moment when I discovered my passion for running, but that’s not how it happened. It was a very slow process that started ten years ago, as I sat on my physical therapist’s workstation. I had made a 90% recovery from an ACL reconstruction 4 months earlier. 90% sounded pretty good until my physical therapist informed me that I had residual scar tissue that was blocking the last 10%. Without that last 10%, he said, I would never be able to stand straight on my left leg, making that leg shorter than the healthy one. Then he told me that the only way to break up the scar tissue was to run. I wasn’t happy with that directive, because up to this point, it was still fairly painful for me to walk or even to stand for any significant amount of time. However, with the threat of looking lopsided for the rest of my life, I was determined to run and make an 100% recovery.
Fortunately, two of my friends, MK and BM, decided to pick up running at the same time. Since we were all beginners, we didn’t scoff at each other regarding pace or distance. It was also great to keep each other accountable and not cancel on scheduled runs. After a couple months of running, I had broken up the residual scar tissue and regained enough muscle strength to stand up straight. Woohoo! I could’ve quit, but I decided to keep running. Another lucky thing was that I was surrounded by runners at grad school, so when they all planned to run a race in April 2002, I decided to sign up as well. My first 5K was cold and rainy – downright miserable conditions. Again, I had issues with pacing, couldn’t keep up with my running partners, and ended up running alongside a 70-year old man. (He was pretty fit, actually!) I wasn’t very pleased with my performance, but I knew I could do better.
One thing I realized after running a couple more 5Ks was that I didn’t like them very much. Because it’s a relatively short distance (3.1 miles), people tend to run them fast and hard. I learned quickly that that was not my M.O. I’m more of a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of girl. In September 2003, I ran my first 10K, and that was as close to an “A-ha!” moment as anything else I’ve experienced. At first, I freaked out because my running partner got sick and had to cancel. That ended up being a blessing in disguise because by running solo, I got to fully experience a peaceful run around a beautiful lake. It was the first time I didn’t need a distraction – conversation, music, or TV (the gym treadmills had mini TVs on them!). All I needed was my breath, my feet, and the will to push forward. Also, for the first time, I realized that I didn’t have to run fast, I just had to run. Period. That outlook contradicted my impatient, competitive nature, which is one of the things I love about running – it calms my anxiety and tells my Type A personality to take a chill pill. I also learned to accept my limits — that I will never be a fast runner, but I can be consistent. Certainly, I can have goals for each race, but the only person I need to compete with is myself. The other thing that prevents me from being too hard on myself is knowing that a lot of people can’t even run 10K (6.2 miles), so I should be happy, proud, and grateful when I do, even if I finish in the middle of the pack.
Epiphanies and observations
It took me a long time to enjoy running, and as I’ve gotten more into it, I notice the parallels between running and self-acceptance. I think this is why most long-distance runners tend to be older, because it takes a mature, patient, and disciplined disposition to run for more than an hour. With each mile, I learn more about my body and my nature. The most wonderful running moment for me is when I reach a perfect mind-body “Zen” state – where I feel like I can go on forever and be at complete peace. This experience is very rare and like meditation, requires a lot of training. So with every run, I go in search of that place, but I know I can’t make it happen. It has to come naturally.
The other reason that I prefer running to other types of exercise is its simplicity. You can run just about anywhere at any time. It’s free. You can run with others or by yourself. You don’t need specialized equipment (more on that below). As long as you put in the time, you’ll always improve. Finally, it’s a huge “bang for your buck” in terms of calories burned per hour and cardiovascular fitness.
Recently, I’ve gotten into minimalist running. I won’t go into much detail since it’s been better said elsewhere, but the basic idea is that our bodies were biomechanically built for running. Our legs and feet should sense and adjust to different types of impact. However, conventional running shoes with thick heels and cushioned insoles interfere with this type of biofeedback. As a result, many runners overstride and end up with injuries. About 8 months ago, I started experiencing front knee pain in my once dependable Adidas Supernovas with Superfeet insoles. At the same time, TC introduced me to Born to Run, a really great book that laid out all of the arguments for barefoot and minimalist running. I decided to try it out for myself, invested in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, and haven’t looked back. It’s been a slow transition and I’m finally getting to the point where I can run 3.5 miles in my VFFs, but I love the simplicity and lightness. Most importantly, my form has improved noticeably. Here is what I have learned about running form:
- Don’t overstride. Your front leg and torso should be perpendicular to the ground or slightly leaning forward as you run.
- Land on the front or middle part of your foot. Landing on your heel causes the most amount of impact on your joints.
- Run quietly and pick up your feet! The key to running lighter and faster is to increase your cadence, not your stride.
- Keep your knees soft. Don’t lock your knee, which is common with the heel strike.
I’m not saying you have to run barefoot or with minimalist shoes to have good form, but it’s helped me to diagnose problem areas. If you’re interested in learning more about barefoot/minimalist running, I suggest you read this helpful (free and online!) book by Jason Robillard of Barefoot Running University.
For me, running is an expression of gratitude. Having experienced two leg surgeries, I’m very grateful every time I go for a run, even if I’m not at my best. As cheesy as it sounds, I think it’s a great way to celebrate your body. No matter what your form of expression, whether its running, walking, biking, dancing, yoga, or hula hooping, it’s great to take a moment to think, “Isn’t it AWESOME that I can do this?!”
Oh, and for those who are wondering about the title, it’s named after a This American Life episode called Running After Antelope. I’m not that fast though, so I looked up land speeds of various animals. The house mouse was the closest to my own time (6 mph), clocking in at 8 mph. There you go!
Update 8/14: Go here for a timely post on barefoot running form.