XOMU: Why I started running (again)
The ONE THING I changed to make it fun, healthy, and sustainable
When I got out of rehab for the second time in 2000, I began going to the gym early in the morning, before work. I figured a healthy person with healthy habits would get up early to exercise, and I desperately needed some kind of evidence that I was a healthy person now that I had stopped using drugs.
From treadmill to half-marathon
I didn’t really know how to use any of the gym machines or free weights, but I knew how to use a treadmill. Despite never running a day in my life, I began jogging and walking in the morning before doing crunches and other core work. A group of women in the gym noticed me running and invited me to join them on their next morning run.
I began running with this group a few mornings a week. I worked my way up to three miles, then easily kept up with them for six, then tested some 8 to 10-mile days, and eventually, ran a half-marathon. I even expanded my training to include biking and swimming, and entered a few sprint triathlons. I had a solid 9 to 10-minute mile pace, sometimes surprising myself with 8-minute miles on shorter runs.
I loved running with them, in part for the exercise, but mostly for the friendship. They didn’t know I was fresh out of rehab when they met me. (I wouldn’t tell them about my addiction for a few months, in fact.) They just knew I was another healthy person waking up early to run. Seeing myself through their eyes was a big part of preserving my recovery those first few months, and them “adopting” me played a big role in my success.
However, my body wasn’t built for running, and this was long before I knew anything about mobility or strength work. After the half-marathon, I was in so much pain. A physical therapist gave me some rehab and strengthening exercises, and after a few weeks, I slowly went back to running. But our group was changing too. I got a new job, one woman moved, another had a baby, and two years of running together most mornings came to an end.
My fitness evolution
I transitioned from running to learning more about yoga and weights. I got into kettlebells in 2005, found CrossFit in 2006, then trained at Gym Jones when I moved to Salt Lake in 2010. I wasn’t running at all, other than 400M sprints as part of workouts—and I didn’t miss it either. I loved lifting weights, playing with bodyweight movements, and doing yoga. Avid hiking became my primary form of cardio.
A few times over the last decade-plus, I’d get the itch to run again. I’d strap on my shoes, hit the road, and… bonk. I couldn’t even run a mile. Sometimes I’d get just a quarter-mile and have to stop and walk! I knew I was out of running shape, but I was in good everything else shape. It didn’t make sense. A 10-minute mile used to feel effortless, but every time I’d try, it just hurt, and it definitely wasn’t fun. After a few miserable attempts, I decided that running just wasn’t for me any more.
Except maybe it was
Until this year, and our epic record-breaking snowfall. Come May, the mountains in Salt Lake were still BURIED in snow. Peaks I’d normally be bagging were still unpassable. Summits and higher elevation lakes still held 12+ feet of snow. I had some big hiking trips planned for summer and needed to get my lungs in hiking shape, but I couldn’t do it on the mountains just yet.
So one morning in May, I thought, “Maybe I should try running again, to get my cardio back for hiking at higher elevations.” So I set out and bonked AGAIN, after just a half-mile, just like the last few times I’d tried.
I walked/ran the rest of my 2-mile route, discouraged as hell—but this time, I was determined to figure it out. Maybe it was all of the self-work and commitment to showing myself grace I’d been doing in therapy. Maybe I was taking my own advice to stop comparing Current Me to Past Me. Maybe my brain just had a divine ah-ha moment. Whatever it was, something clicked:
What if I stopped trying to run 10-minute miles? (Where did that number even come from, anyway? It was stuck in my head as “the” defining metric of a “real runner”… but why?) Maybe that’s why running felt so hard. I was trying to impose a performance standard on my current body that it took my 20-something year old body months of consistent effort to achieve. Maybe I could just GO SLOWER.
The glory of thirteen minute miles
The next time I set out for a run, I didn’t try to maintain a 10-minute-mile pace, I just jogged. When I quickly found myself out of breath, I jogged slower. Then, even slower. Ridiculously slow, it felt like. I looked at my watch and saw my pace was 14:30. Quickly quieting the part of my brain that wanted to say, “This is barely faster than walking,” I stayed committed to the experiment and just kept going.
I ran 2.3 miles that day, with one walking break up a big hill. Two miles! In a row! My moving pace was just under 14 minutes per mile, and I felt like I had cracked the code.
A few days later, I ran 4 miles on a local trail (at 1,500 extra feet of elevation), with a few stops for water and a few walking sections. My moving pace was just over 14 minutes per mile.
A week after that, I ran 2.6 miles and for the first time, I didn’t need to walk up the hill. My pace was a solid 13 minutes per mile.
For the last three months, I’ve been running 2-3 days a week consistently. I’ve done several 6-mile trail runs, and developed a 5-mile route around my neighborhood. One of those routes features a hill that’s a solid half-mile long. And today I ran 5.7 glorious, beaming, delightful miles at a pace of… drumroll please…
12:55 minutes per mile.
I’m not making myself go faster. I’m not even trying to go faster. I’m just RUNNING! And it turns out, I CAN run. I’m enjoying the hell out of it. I’m having SO much fun. My shins don’t hurt. I recover quickly. I look forward to hitting the road or the trail. And yes, I AM A REAL RUNNER, with a proud pace of who-the-f***-cares-because-nobody-is-paying-me-to-run.
The other morning, I ended my route at a coffee shop. After I ordered my iced decaf Americano, the barista said, “When I see you, it makes me think I should get back into running. I’ve tried, and it’s just so hard now.” I immediately replied, “Go slower. Like, really slow. It still counts, and it’s made it so much more fun for me.” She said, “Huh. I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess I could!”
I wonder if you could too. Maybe with running or hiking, yes. But also, with anything you’re doing that could be fun, but just isn’t right now, because of the pressures you’re imposing upon yourself.
Let me know how that’s landing for you in the comments.
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