Something incredible happens after about a mile of running. It stops feeling hard. This is a revelation to me! Ancient memories of elementary school gym class, running the mile, feeling winded, sore in my ankles, knees, and hips, a stitch in my side, and gasping for air, had me convinced that running is a form of elective torture. But maybe it doesn’t have to be?
I run. I don’t run fast. I can’t run far. But I am improving, running faster, running further. And to my great surprise and delight, I am learning that the discomforts of running are often fleeting and balanced with a healthy dose of delight and enjoyment. In these moments, my body feels like it is flowing, gliding across the ground as my feet spring forward, gazelle-like. It is a lie I tell myself, or at least a happy fantasy, as no one would describe me as fleet-footed if they watched me run by, but this illusion of power and grace is good enough for me.
Is this the mythical “runner’s high” I’ve heard about? Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t feel high, I just feel ok, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable, a weird pressure behind my left knee, is that a blister forming on my right big toe?, hyperaware of each plodding footfall, each huffing breath. In the first mile or so, running is an exercise in optimism, it will get better, I remind myself as I push through it. And it seems absurd, until, suddenly, it does get better. And it is like this Every. Single. Time.
I keep expecting it to feel natural, easy. I am amazed it ever feels easy, but when does it feel right from the beginning? Does it ever feel that way? What does it take to get to feeling at ease from the start? How many miles do I need to put in? How fit do I need to become? Am I simply too large to be at ease in this sport? Runners are typically far leaner than I am, far leaner than I aim to become. Maybe the extra stress on my joints from my larger body means it will never feel like a natural fit. I have chosen weight-training and muscle-building over becoming swift and lean. At least, for now.
How cool is it, though, to realize that I can run and not hate it?! And why didn’t anyone ever tell me it gets better?
I played with running for a while before I figured out what works best for me. I suspect I have more trial and error ahead of me. What I have learned so far is that I need a good walking warm-up before I begin to jog, or my knees and hips yell at me, and I can’t go as far or as fast. Related to this, after a hard effort, I need to walk a while, or I get shaky and lightheaded. Apparently it has something to do with the blood pooling in your legs or something. I dunno. I just make sure to walk half a mile or so at the end. I’ve learned that unless I want to lift less often or less strenuously, I really only have one day a week right now that I can run. I just seem to need the rest time on the other off days.
I have learned that what I eat before I run really matters. No one tells you running starts to stop sucking after a while? Well, no one tells you it upsets your stomach, makes you want to poop, and gives you diarrhea for hours if you have too much fiber before a hard effort. I get it, it’s gross. But a little warning would have been nice. I have to carefully plan meals on my running days. This is another reason I can only fit it in one weekend running day a week. Avoiding fiber all day so I can run in the evenings doesn’t seem like a good long-term strategy.
I am still learning that the sport of running is all about the head-game. This has been a surprise to me as I’ve nerded out, reading Runner’s World articles and such. But there really isn’t a whole lot of talk about technique. There’s a lot of talk about mental strategy. How do you push yourself when you’re tired? How do you get your head ready for a long run? Or a fast run? How do you prepare yourself for the psychology of a race? This is not what lifters are concerned about. All the fitness literature I’ve read that is lifting-focused is on technique and programming. Generally, weightlifting gurus don’t seem all that concerned with your head. But runners are.
I am learning that this make sense. I can run further when I am mentally prepared for the effort. I do better with upbeat, empowering music in an ear, too. Hard-earned knowledge, like the fact that the aches and discomforts will ebb and flow are reassuring when it is difficult. It will get better. I find it reassuring to know that more-experienced runners have to train themselves to remember this fact, too.
So, I guess in that way, I am already a runner. Maybe it’s not a lot, but I’m putting in the miles. Maybe it’s not fast, but I am focusing on the work. I’m going out there and doing it, over and over, and learning along the way. And, honestly, it’s a wonderful, unexpected thing.
Marjorie Hundtoft works as a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .