Make sure you are Running for the Right Reasons
Editors Note: Today’s post is a little bit different. At the end of June, I received the following email from one of our readers (Caroline). It was a reflection on an article we had recently posted. It was raw, It was vulnerable, it was beautiful. It also struck a cord with me as I moped around, recovering from Grandma’s. It caused me to reflect on the ways running has an unhealthy control in my life at times.
After exchanging a few emails back and forth, she agreed to post a slightly edited version of her email here. If you can relate to any of this, I highly encourage you to share your thoughts int he comments.
A couple months ago, Minneapolis Running shared Dave Thompson’s post It’s Not About the Marathon. Personally, I enjoyed Dave’s post because it’s a poignant reflection, but also for reasons beyond his intention. Here’s the thing – I’m finally recovering from a 12 year eating disorder, and many of Dave’s words are as applicable to my journey as they were to his marathon. What struck me first was that he ran “to prove that we can all achieve big scary dreams.” When I read that line in Dave’s post, tears welled up because those gentle reminders mean the world to me on hard days. But as I continued reading, Dave’s reflections became more and more relevant.
As part of treatment for this eating disorder, I gave up running. During that time, here’s what I learned: after four marathons, one year of successful 50K training, four triathlons, and more 13.1s/10Ks/5ks than I can count, I was running for all the wrong reasons. For twelve years, my running was compensatory – I ran to compensate for eating. A morning five miler made breakfast okay, and a 20 miler made a burger and fries okay.
I ran distance because I needed to feel worthwhile, and if I could run 26.2 miles then the size of my hips must be okay. If I could run a 25 minute 5K, then I was considered a real runner. And if I was a real runner, then I must be an okay person because all the real runners I know are really great people! Plus, then it meant that I belonged to a running community, and belonging contributes to worthiness and offers identity.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I relied on other runners to make me a stronger runner so I’d feel better about myself, and I ran with local groups and friends to feel a sense of inclusion. Today, in hindsight, I’m grateful that running helped me feel worthwhile when the grips of the eating disorder convinced me of my worthlessness.
Reasons for Running
Giving up running and learning healthy behaviors taught me that my reasons for running were not healthy, and my worthiness didn’t rest in my 5K time or how many marathons I ran. I learned that I didn’t have to run to eat, and that I can accept biking or yoga as a legitimate workout. My identity isn’t in running, and my running isn’t what defines me. But when it was time to start running again, the fear of not being able to run well and the pain of being out of shape held me back; I associated being out of shape with worthlessness. My eating disorder mind told me that walking was lazy and an illegitimate workout, but my treatment and recovery told me this didn’t have to be true. My wise mind knew that my walking, biking, yoga, and active lifestyle kept me in decent shape and that with patience I’d be able to run well again.
For now, I am not training for anything because I’m afraid it will trigger unhealthy running and symptom use. I’m learning how to run because I want to and because it’s fun. I’ve come to love biking and yoga and can recognize that they are valid physical activities. And, finally, last Thursday, I ran three miles. This isn’t significant by any stretch of the imagination – trust me, but, this run was different because I ran for all the right reasons. I didn’t run because I felt obligated to or because I felt fat, and I didn’t run so it would be okay to eat lunch. I ran because I wanted to, because I could and because it felt good to be in the sun. As I ran and paid attention to my body, I worked to detach from the shame I associated with stopping to walk, and the shame I associated with how long it took me to cover those three miles. Instead, I tried to be mindfully in the moment and remember that, as Dave said, “having fun was an important part of my journey,” too.
When I finished, I reread Dave’s post about his marathon. Just like him, it’s not about my three miles. It’s about why and how I ran them. It’s about being healthy and having the courage to leave compensatory running behind. It’s about having the courage to just meet my body where it’s at. It’s about having the courage to not define myself by my running. Like Dave, I am learning to “always focus on just taking the next step” and to “trust and enjoy the journey.”
Thank you, Nathan, for publishing Dave’s post – its authenticity resonated on so many levels. Dave’s journey and my journey are reminders that it’s not always about the race. It’s easy for us runners to get lost in the miles and the numbers, so it’s critical that we redirect perspective back to those things that are really important. The miles are not nearly as important as the attitude with which we run them. Are we running to hide something, get away from something, or to be something? Or are we running to be outside, to clear our head, or to enjoy ourselves?
Good training is always wrought with miles we don’t want to run and legs that are too tired, and we all run to relieve stress or frustration…but I think even those days ought to be healthy. So now, I’m looking forward to running just because, running when I feel like it, running hills because they’re fun, and running with friends for the honest relationships. I’m looking forward to more biking and yoga, and I’m looking forward to the freedom of not having to run to maintain an image or my worthiness. It seems to be a more flexible approach to running, and I’m nearly certain it’ll be more fun. After all, Dave said to “cherish today,” and my healthy mind tells me that life is too short not to.