Once I started running, everything changed.
It’s definitely the biggest thing that’s happened to me this year.
(Shoot me a message if you would like to join the DONUTS Strava club.)
In the last six months, I’ve clocked 192.6 miles over the course of 94 runs.
I had probably run less than 50 miles just for running’s sake in the 30 years prior, much of that being mandatory.
Last month, I hurt my knee.
I didn’t pay much attention to the little important details like stretching and warming up, even proper footwear. As a noob runner, just getting out and running was a huge deal. Just getting out there was good enough.
When you first start running, everything is an impediment to running. Everything is an excuse to not run. Everything is standing in your way.
We started in winter and there’s nothing I hated more than putting on that skin tight compression wear, stretching that stuff over my body, that feeling of being lowkey choked and suffocated by an overpriced spandex turtleneck.
So you looked past stuff like stretching in order to reduce the barriers of entry, reduce the friction.
Because perfection is the enemy of progress, I guess.
Just get out and run and you’ll be good, I’d tell myself.
So all of that contributed to my injury, which was a good wake up call.
I’m much more careful now.
And, you know, we’re all getting older.
But the best part of the injury was that I couldn’t run for a few weeks. Sometimes you have to lose something to appreciate what it means to you.
It’s funny because at first, the injury was a relief.
I could take a break finally. A breather.
The thing about running is that the anxiety of running never goes away. It’s like stage fright. You are always going to feel those butterflies before you step out into the lights no matter how many times you’ve done it before, no matter how experienced you are. You know you’ll get in the zone eventually. But the moment just before, the embedded uncertainty of the near future. You’re always going to feel that.
I still feel that with running. I feel it before every run. The burden of knowing what you’re about to endure.
And so to be released from that due to injury was just such a relief. It was a weight off my chest.
I was free.
But it was all downhill from there.
There was nothing directly insidious about not running but the evidence of it was everywhere.
My room got messier.
My writing felt less crisp.
My relationships weren’t as fulfilling.
I watched more TV.
To be specific, I watched more TV that wasn’t even very good.
Maybe it’s all in my head.
But reality is perception.
I’ve always considered myself to be more of a sprinter personality. Versus, say, a distance runner.
I’m naturally inclined toward the beginnings and ends of things.
When I can see the finish line, that’s when I can turn it up a gear.
Without sight of that finish line though and I can start to feel a little lost.
In life, there’s a bit of glamor when it comes to being the sprinter.
To living life fast and hard.
Everyone knows who the fastest guy in the world is. None of the other guys have names.
The only problem with this is that life doesn’t work that way.
Life is more of a marathon. Life requires a bit more faith because you can’t see the finish line.
It’s a grind.
And most of the time, there are no cheering crowds.
Life isn’t that glamorous.
The construct of the sprinter, then, is man-made.
You see this a lot with athletes.
Boxers are the prototypical example here. They live a prototypical sprinter’s life. The next fight is the finish line. And the two months training camp prior is a mad dash to get there. Then the rush of the big moment.
It’s a very satisfying way to live. You get to work super hard for a short period of time and then you get a huge payoff at the end of that super hard work. Then you get to relax until the next sprint.
It maybe isn’t that surprising then that boxers, at least among athletes, seem to have an extra hard time acclimating to life after fighting.
Because once the man-made constructs that support a sprinter lifestyle disappear, what then does one sprint toward?
There’s no middle ground in the sprinter lifestyle. It’s all or nothing. You’re on or you’re off. And you can’t stay on forever, so eventually, you’re turning off, you’re burning out. If you get turned off for too long, you might never turn back on again.
That’s no way to live.
And yet, it’s pretty much how I lived most of my life.
I mean look at school. Another man-made construct that is perfectly suited to the sprinter lifestyle. If you can cram the night before and ace a test, why live any other way?
It’s in your 20s though that the sprinter approach starts to break down.
The sprinter approach is great within the man-made construct where everything is clearly defined.
But the world is more open-ended than that.
Up until a certain point, I could always see the finish line, whether it was high school or getting into college or getting a good job.
Then you get there and you suddenly can no longer see a finish line, at least some sort of pre-defined one.
There is only this vague concept of living a good life.
This past weekend was really great. I really needed it.
It was my first real race, two in fact, a doubleheader Saturday and Sunday, since my injury, both in Central Park.
I had wanted to make sure my knee was completely pain free before I started running again and so I had only gotten back on the wagon the Tuesday before.
And let me tell you, I was dreading it so much. Having been out that long, it felt like I was back to square one. I had really let myself go, the sprinter that I am, during my runner vacation, so I had put on some pounds, too.
For that month or so, I had totally turned off.
And there’s nothing harder than turning yourself back on.
The first run was the most brutal.
With running, there’s nowhere to hide. You are forced to confront everything with the utmost truth.
That’s why running is so painful.
It’s because running is honest.
And so in that very first run on Tuesday, I confronted all the bad decisions I had made in the previous month, reminded of all my human foibles, chastised for being so weak, lambasted for totally sucking.
But that’s also the beauty of running.
It is a merciful God, a forgiving one.
After that first run, and I only ran two miles, I felt amazing. It was the best I had felt in weeks.
The moment after a run is consistently magical. It’s hard to describe. It’s a humble feeling, a joyful feeling, a tranquil feeling. It’s a grounded elation.
I was still fat and slow and weak, but that was OK.
Running doesn’t judge in that way.
Running isn’t superficial like that.
All running cares about is whether or not you are in the right place, on the right path.
All running cares about is that you are running.
So as long as you are running you will be rewarded with that thing that only running gives you, that feeling.
And I carried that feeling with me into everything else.
I did some major spring cleaning later that night. I was buzzing.
It was like I had been a zombie and a switch got turned on.
I was awake again.
I was running again.
And so these two races over the weekend were exactly what I needed.
Every race is a chance to get to know yourself a little bit better.
There are some races that I have coasted through.
Remember, this is running, not sprinting.
Sometimes you have to just show up.
It’s OK if you’re not perfect.
As long as you show up and you run, then you’re good, you’re just fine.
But once in awhile there is a race where all the stars sort of align and you are just feeling it.
You’re in the zone and you just go for it and discover new things about yourself, new feelings, new boundaries, new sensations, new strengths and powers, new confidence, new grit, new swagger, new understanding.
The kewl thing is that once you discover these things about yourself, you get to keep them. They’re yours now.
Running a race is this very tricky equilibrium that you are always trying to straddle. Really, it’s a pain equilibrium. You are always trying to push it just far enough. You want to get to that place of sustainable discomfort. Running is about how much you can endure.
What you learn on race day is that your threshold for sustainable discomfort is always higher than you previously believed.
I used to think that running would get easier as I ran more. Like, I would be so fit that running would be super chill, basically like walking, like I wouldn’t get tired anymore cuz I was so fit and sexy.
In a way, it’s similar to how I used to think how life would get easier. Once I graduated from a good school and got a good job in the city, I was set.
But I was wrong on both counts.
It only gets harder. In life, you just get better at dealing with it.
With running, it’s the same. The more you run, the more pain you can take, and in turn, the more pain you impose upon yourself.
Running, like life, is painful. A constant, grueling, dull, inescapable pain. And yet, we endure. Through that endurance, a strength blossoms.
This is something, as a sprinter, that I’ve had to learn and accept.
Sprinters don’t really understand that kind of pain. Sprinters think they have great pain thresholds because they experience extreme pain for very short periods of time. But it’s the certainty of fast release that makes it emotionally and mentally very tolerable.
To a sprinter, the pain of running feels relentless and claustrophobic.
Sometimes to a sprinter, that’s how life can feel, too.
So running is this very heady thing. It’s a mindset and a perspective and an approach.
For instance, if you feel tired, emotionally or mentally, you express that physically.
A big part of race day is just not allowing your mind wander to those places, those places where you acknowledge how tired or weak you feel. As soon as you do, your legs leaden, your feet start to drag, your shoulders drop. Your tolerance for sustainable discomfort starts to rapidly diminish.
The reverse is also true. If you keep your head up, keep your arms swinging, and just focus on your breathing, you’ll find yourself breaking through that wall, that threshold. You’ll find a second wind. You’ll discover something new about yourself. When you run with mental strength, you exude that physically.
It’s funny because that’s exactly the place I allowed my mind to go when I hurt my knee, when I got injured. Yay, I can take a break, I thought to myself. And so my legs leadened. My feet dragged. And my shoulders drooped. That mindset, that acknowledgement of weakness spread and manifested into every corner of my life.
That’s why, even in a race, running isn’t about being faster than other people.
You run with other people, not against them.
You only run against yourself.
Running is just about you.
It’s about who you are and who you are willing to be.
It’s about how far you are willing to go and how deeply you are willing to feel.
I sometimes think of running as like having a dog.
It’s always there for you. It loves you indiscriminately. It’s ever ready to provide you warmth and validation.
It’s a bit of certainty in an uncertain world.
Particularly with the type of work that I am doing these days. There are, naturally, times of deep reflection and anxiety and doubt.
I think in the past, I didn’t really cope with those sorts of feelings and moments in a constructive way. Instead I looked for escape. Like partying or TV or drinking or video games or chasing girls.
For most of my life, I’ve been running away.
I should have just been running.
Incidentally, my favorite part about running has nothing to do with me.
At a time and an age where everyone is super busy focused on their own very important things like work and relationships and babies and mortgages and existentialism and what have you, running has provided a common ground, a thread.
At a time when people are drifting, running has deepened bonds of friendship and brought us together more closely than ever before.
It’s become a common language by which we can express our personality and our values while giving us a regular excuse to enjoy each other’s company.
There is then that ultimate joy of working together toward a singular, grand goal, a camaraderie instilled by a mutual suffering for a greater cause.
Along those lines, running taught me how little I really need.
Even as late as last year, I would concede that my vision for my life could best be described as grandiose and extravagant.
It was the type vision a sprinter would have.
Bordering on arrogant and gratuitously glamorous (but with an elegant and minimalist/muted aesthetic, of course, pretentious but normcore).
Honestly, back in 2016, I still dreamed of taking over the world.
(Not literally, you know what I mean.)
It’s like I always needed to paint this illustrious and prestigious finish line, to create this overarching fantasy that I could sprint toward.
And of course it had to be ridiculous and over the top as to properly motivate me.
But something really weird happened this year.
All of that sort of dissipated into the background.
It’s probably still there in my brain somewhere. I mean that stuff never really goes away, I’m sure.
But it’s definitely not front and center anymore.
I don’t have that grand vision for my life anymore.
In truth, I think all I really want is just to do stuff on my own terms while also spending time with the people I love.
For most of my life I’ve been a sprinter. (And you know, I probably always will be. It’s who I am. It’s where I came from so it will likewise define my continued growth as a person.)
For most of my life, I’ve always wanted to be somebody. That’s a sprinter’s mentality. A sprinter only exists in relation to everyone else. That’s how being fast works. So being somebody is critical to a sprinter’s sense of self-worth. A sprinter can’t just be himself. He has to be better than those around him.
But these days, I find myself remarkably relaxed about being absolutely nobody. Because running doesn’t care. Because with running, no one else matters. The only component of running is that you be you, that you become a better you.
So these days, I find myself needing that sort of stuff less and less, the flashy sort of stuff.
These days, I’m no longer looking forward to finally making it in life, that sprint across an artificially constructed finish line—such that everything before was just a warmup for everything after. That until you get there, you haven’t really lived. That until you get there, your life hasn’t really begun.
Because why live for tomorrow when I can go for a run today.