Running in Memphis: interlude

Before jumping into the recap of my St. Jude marathon experience, I thought I’d take a moment to step back and talk about running in general. I find running to be a somewhat polarizing topic. In some respects it’s a universal human experience, we have all run at some point (even if it was only to make it across a street before traffic started or to chase after a school bus). And we all generally accept that it has a bevy of health benefits (and no, don’t even start with the “but it’s bad for your knees” argument which is a personal pet-peeve of mine). 

Yet, I find that people are all over the map as far as their willingness to engage in and their personal enjoyment of running. In fact, I find that many “non-runners” usually approach it with either fear or awe. Fear as in that sounds terrible, I would never want to do that. Or awe as in I could never do that, even if I wanted to. Well, as someone who has engaged in the activity for well over a decade now, I want to dispel some of those misperceptions. Running, if approached correctly, need not be scary nor unattainable. 

How I became a runner

To start, I’d like to share my personal history of how I got into running, because no, I did not come to the activity as enthusiastically as you might imagine. Growing up, I only ran for PE or in the context of team sports. I participated in year-round select basketball but never considered track or cross-country. I viewed running in itself as a form of either conditioning or punishment (same thing right?). At the end of my senior year in high school I tore my meniscus and ACL in my knee (on my 18th birthday), and had reconstructive surgery over the summer before starting college. My first couple years of college I gradually resumed working out at the gym and playing intramural sports. 

At the end of my sophomore year a friend asked if I wanted to train for a half-marathon with her and some other people I knew. I politely declined, thinking that sounded not fun at all. About the same time the following year she asked me again, and, though running 13.1 miles still sounded horrible, I thought it might be good for me socially. So, in an example of positive peer-pressure, I caved and said yes. Little did I know this would mark the beginning of my long love affair with running. 

Like many newbies to the sport however, running and I didn’t have instant chemistry. There were a lot of initial discomforts such how to get over the fact that I didn’t like listening to my labored breathing, how to pace so I didn’t burn myself out too quickly, determining proper running attire for various weather, how to not chafe, where and when to run, etc. Things mostly learned through trial-and-error, basically experiencing the discomfort of getting it wrong in various ways before actually getting it right. And then there’s the whole gradual building of fitness thing.

But I stuck with it, because I had committed to running a half-marathon. Which, I’d like to mention to anyone interested in getting into the sport, is probably not the best distance to begin with as your first race (especially if you’re not running at all to start, something like couch to 5k or C25K is a much better plan). I found over time, by following a consistent training schedule, I was able to gradually progress in distance and build enough fitness to actually start to enjoy parts of running. 

Starting out, and sticking with it, can also serve as a pretty significant confidence booster. I still remember the first time that I ran for over 60-minutes, to me that seemed an amazing feat, something I didn’t know I could do. My first half-marathon was in the spring of 2006, then I decided to train for a full in that fall (again, not the rate of a beginner plan that I would recommend). But I remember that first year of training, following a training plan, nearly every weekend I was running farther than I had every run before. It was thrilling to gradually achieve these incremental goals. And thrilling to complete my first full-marathon in Portland, Oregon which you can read about in more detail in my previous blog:

https://joycetriathletes.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/flashback-for-motivation-my-first-marathon-in-2006/

First I achieved new distance goals. Then gradually I achieved new time goals for each distance. Unfortunately, the longer you run the harder it is top a given distance or time. I’ve run just about every distance up to a marathon, and I’m not really at the point now where I want to run an ultramarathon (anything over 26.2-miles, but also generally super-hilly trail runs). I have also achieved fairly fast personal bests that will be difficult for me to top. But fortunately I’ve come to the point where I simply enjoy running for the activity itself and don’t need these added motivators (or maybe I’m just saying that I’m too lazy to train hard enough to beat the fast version of my younger self…).

I guess, after twelve years of running, and participating in multitudes of races, I could be considered a fairly experienced runner. Yes, I do love running. But like most real relationships, there is a love-hate aspect to it. There are still moments, sometimes even days or weeks, where I am not loving it. It doesn’t always feel good. Actually, at times it can be quite uncomfortable. I’m not always out there feeling that much talked about, yet much less frequently experienced, rush of endorphins or “runner’s high”. But in the grand scheme, it has afforded me mental and physical benefits that are well worth transient periods of discomfort. 

Yes, running has become a personal passion of mine. As a physical therapist I have taken continuing-education and delivered several presentations on the subject. I won’t bore you with those details (unless you want to know… then I’d love to talk!) but I thought I’d end with a humble attempt to convince those “non-runners” out there not to box yourself into that category and that you need not stand in fear or in awe of running. It is a natural, beautiful, and rewarding activity. So if part of you acknowledges that running would be good for you but you use one of the following as an excuse, I’ll give you a brief rebuttal for each.

Five inadequate excuses for not running:

1. I don’t like running

I find that people often lead with this excuse and it sets up a negative mindset that creates barriers to ever liking running. We’ve all had some moments of pain and suffering with running, that’s somewhat the nature of the beast, it’s not always fun. But if you take those experiences and extrapolate it to all present and future running then you’re kind of setting yourself up to fail. What do they call it in psychology? Self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself “I don’t like running” well, guess what? You’re probably not going to like running. 

Try to view running objectively, or even with a positive twist “running is great” or “I love running” rather than vilifying it from the start. Did you know that research has shown that smiling when you run can actually boost efficiency and make you a better runner? If “I hate running” is always on the tip of your tongue or in the back of your mind, you’re probably not smiling. In actuality, you’re probably unconsciously making it feel like more of a struggle. 

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Smiling always makes it easier!

Also realize that you might not fall in love with it right from the start (see section 3, It hurts) and that you might have to get creative to determine how you best enjoy it (section 4, It’s boring). In the meantime, “fake it till you make it” might be a good subconscious attitude. Hey, I lied to myself for years that “I love hills” (I literally repeated this in my head, or sometimes out loud) when I was running up steep hills, and now, oddly enough, I actually do love running hills and miss them in this flat, river city of Memphis. 

2. I’m not a runner

Do you have kids? Did you have to teach them to run? Guess what, you can run too! You were born with that genetic material and knowledge. You didn’t unlearn this information, you simply stopped doing it. You can restart any time.

But you think you have a funky gait? Maybe you do. As a PT I’ve analyzed many runner’s gait, often videoing them and replaying them in slow-motion. I’ve seen some eyebrow-raising form. But guess what each of these people were doing, even if their pattern was distinctly… unique? They were running. Everyone has their own particular structural anatomy that contributes to their running form. 

If you have a particular injury of area of weakness you might want to have an expert look at it and give you some cues. But if you are injury-free and roughly symmetrical in your gait, as funky as you may think it is, don’t worry about it. I’ve been told (several times by different people) that I have an odd, distinct arm swing when I run. Oh well. We’re not all going to look like Eliud Kipchoge when we run. Don’t let your self-consciousness stop you from running. 

3. It hurts

Well first, what hurts? A specific joint or area? If you can point to it with a finger and it’s sharp then yes, you should probably stop and seek some expert advice. If what you mean is that this whole running affair is generally and progressively uncomfortable, then keep at it. You may need to adjust your plan. A common mistake is being too gung-ho and doing too much too soon. In this case, the excessive discomfort you’ve imposed on yourself may deter you from continuing. So back off, follow a consistent and reasonable training plan. Don’t expect instantaneous results and understand that your body takes time to achieve notable changes in fitness.

Also, recognize that running is never going to be a completely pain-free affair and therein lies some of its beauty and appeal. If it was always easy and felt good, would it be as rewarding? In a culture that often sets 0/10 pain as the goal and provides ample opportunities to ignore or numb our pain, running presents a safe arena to push into and explore discomfort. Running can be a place to discover that it is often in spending time with and embracing pain that we learn the most about ourselves and grow in character.

4. It’s boring

Well, how do you usually run? Do you always run on a treadmill, always run the same route, always run the same speed? Yeah, it can be boring.

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Get creative, mix it up, learn what you enjoy. Saying running is boring is kind of like saying you don’t like to eat chicken. Maybe you don’t like unseasoned grilled chicken but have you tried it fried and with barbecue sauce? Or wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese? Get outside and find a scenic route. Run in nature. Find a running group. Try a track workout, a fartlek run (look it up). Change your playlist. Run without headphones and focus on your breath. There are literally infinite possibilities!

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Does this look boring? (photo taken at a WarriorDash event)

5. It’s bad for your knees

Okay, I was going to try to avoid ranting in this area, but seriously, do you know how many times I’ve heard this?! You know what’s bad for your knees? Being sedentary and overweight. You know what running helps you avoid? I’ll trust you to connect the two.

All the research I’ve seen is overwhelmingly in favor of running for joint health. I have yet to find a single, medical study that demonstrates that recreational running is bad for your knees (there is some evidence that if you have a pre-existing knee injury then running can exacerbate it or if you are super-high mileage and perpetually overtrained). 

Also, from personal experience, I have a surgically repaired ACL and have limited meniscus in my right knee, I can attest that running has not bothered my knee. There are things that bother it: high impact sports involving cutting, jumping, twisting. And sometimes even long-distance cycling. But it often actually feels better and more mobile with running regularly. 

In Closing

I acknowledge, there are some adequate reasons for not running, though honestly they are few and far between. Even people with seemingly disqualifying medical reasons have been runners. I went to school with a competitive triathlete who is legally blind. A double leg amputee has finished the Ironman. Nike recently sponsored an Oregon track athlete with cerebral palsy. I’ve seen examples of people who have competed in running events with varying stages of cancer, cystic fibrosis, and even ALS. So what’s your excuse again? If you don’t want to, fine. But think carefully before you say that it’s too hard or that you can’t.

I’d like to end by noting that I’m not saying everyone has to be a runner. There are numerous other healthy activities out there that may suit your personality or passions better. I just wanted to show some support for running, since it is a personal passion of mine, and I feel like it often gets a bad rap. I don’t want you to rule it out because of unwarranted fear or hatred and to at least consider it as an activity that you could come to enjoy under the right circumstances. I was once a skeptical non-runner myself but I gave it a chance and it has been good to me.

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I know, I know, super corny… but true! And also, a cute puppy.

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