Why I Run

I know that everyone has their own “something” that motivates them to power through their workouts, whether it be mental (overcoming some sort of personal obstacle), physical (losing those last five pesky pounds), or emotional (a dire need for the effects of endorphins).  Those motivators can change over time, too.  Many years ago, I was plagued by a lot of negative mental, physical, and emotional motivators to exercise.  I lead a very unhealthy lifestyle growing up– I actually thought that going to the gym was something that only celebrities do (true story).

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I LOL every time I see this picture!  Me at my heaviest (135 lbs); before the break-up.  Obviously I wasn’t in photograph mode.

I started working out at the gym after a really bad break-up with my long-time boyfriend (we are married now, so we eventually made amends – more on that later).  My self esteem was terrible growing up, and my boyfriend had been the only person that ever really made me feel “good enough.”  All of a sudden, I was no longer good enough for even him.  My workouts and my actions were motivated by anger, low self-esteem, revenge, and a desire to change everything about myself entirely.  I wanted to look different.  I wanted to feel different.  I wanted to be different.  I wanted to be unrecognizable to my ex if I ever ran into him at the bar, at the supermarket– anywhere.  I wanted to show him that I was not the girl that he thought I was; that I was a girl that he would come to regret losing.  Proving him wrong became my sole goal in life; everything that I did revolved around him.  It was a completely unhealthy mindset that pervaded my entire lifestyle and sent me into a downward spiral of eating disorders, depression, binge drinking, and cigarette smoking.  All of this while getting “healthier” at the gym.  I exercised daily and furiously, driven by angry thoughts and angry music.  Once the pounds started falling off, I started meticulously counting calories.  I limited myself to 900 calories a day just to make the weight fall off more quickly.  This resulted in a host of other health problems, but that’s another post entirely.

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At 98 pounds, obsessive thoughts about food were taking over my life.

I lost the weight that I wanted to lose and then some, and I became a self-proclaimed “party girl”– quite the opposite of the sweet, reserved, shy, nerdy girl that I was growing up.  I had transformed myself into the exact person that I wanted to become, yet I was the unhappiest I had ever been.

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Binge drinking every weekend became a lifestyle.

Enter: running.  It was the fall of 2010.  I was previously living away but had moved home to be closer to my family, and I started working a new job with my cousin.  She loved running and had run several half marathons.  I had always admired her running skills, but personally viewed distance running as something I had neither the desire nor the ability to do.  I did run for exercise both indoors and outdoors, but always alone and always on a timer– either 30 minutes of steady-state cardio or 30 minutes of intervals.  It wasn’t something that I particularly enjoyed; it was more of a means to an end than anything.

I’ll never forget the first time she invited me to run on a local trail with her.  I hesitantly accepted (in my eyes, she was a “runner” and I was not.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself or hold her back).  She was eager to share her love of running with me, though, so I agreed to run with her.  We ran three miles together and talked the entire time, and I was shocked to find that I actually kinda enjoyed it.  We started hitting the trail after work regularly.  We didn’t run far– we were always chasing daylight, and daylight always won.  But we ran regularly, and each time it became easier and more enjoyable.  Eventually we started running together on the weekends, too, and with more daylight at our disposal, our runs grew longer and longer.  Finally– I was exercising not because I felt like I had to, but because I truly wanted to.  It was very enlightening to me, and I started to feel some sort of invisible weight lift off of my shoulders.  Although I was really starting to like running, but I still viewed it as a great outlet for my anger.  “If only my ex knew I was capable of running xx miles… He wouldn’t even recognize me now!”  I let those thoughts drive me to run faster and to run further.

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The entrance to the trail where my love of running first began.

After a few short months of casual running, my cousin talked me into signing up for a 5K.  “You’ll be addicted, I promise,” she said.  I was growing very fond of my new hobby, so although I was nervous I agreed to sign up.  I’ll never forget that first 5K.  I was inexperienced and started out way too fast in an effort to keep up with the other runners (the crowd was very small and competitive).  The course was tough, and my lack of experience was working against me.  Looking back, it felt like the longest 3.1 miles of my life.  I’ve run countless 5K’s since then, but none have ever seemed as long as that first one.  I can’t say that I was enjoying myself as I was running it, but once I rounded the final bend and caught a glimpse of the finish line I felt a sensation that I had never experienced in my life.  It was a perfect storm of relief, joy, and pride– all wrapped up into one emotion.  The goosebumps raised up on my arms as I pushed even harder to the finish, driven by the cheers of the small group of spectators that showed up to watch the race. Never in my life until that point had I felt so accomplished and so proud.  I felt my self esteem jump just a bit, and I liked it.  And just like that, I was hooked.  Just as my cousin promised that I would be.

I started running more and more after that, more for enjoyment than for exercise but still with an underlying sentiment of revenge and bitterness.  I started seeking out local 5K’s and registering for them– as many of them as I could fit into my calendar.  And, at the urging of my cousin, I did something the “former me” would have found completely crazy– I registered for the 2011 Pittsburgh Half Marathon.  I remember the thrill of clicking the “Register” button, fearing being unable to cover that sort of distance but excited at the thought of trying.  I didn’t have anyone to run it with me, but I didn’t care.  I was used to doing things alone, so this was no exception.

I tried to follow Hal Higdon’s novice half marathon training plan (which I highly recommend, by the way), but the bitter PA winter + my new-found loathing of the treadmill caused me to fall off the training wagon a bit.  I ran as often as the snow-covered roads would permit, but I had no clue if I had trained enough as half marathon day approached.  I didn’t care though– I had committed to running the half, and I wanted to at least try to run it.  I booked myself a room in a cheap hotel in the suburbs for the night before the half.  The only thing I remember from that night was being nervous and being bored– a combination which resulted in me smoking almost an entire pack of cigarettes in my hotel room by myself (which I highly do NOT recommend, by the way).

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The night before my first half marathon– my gear was ready, even if I wasn’t.

On race day, I was a bundle of nerves as I woke up a 4 am and started getting ready for the day.  I had no clue what to expect, and it was very exciting and rattling all at the same time.  I arrived downtown much earlier than necessary, so once again I sat there smoking cigarettes and fearing the journey ahead.

To make a long story {somewhat} short, the half was much harder than I expected it to be.  I hadn’t “respected the distance” in my training.  I was just simply unprepared.  I thoroughly enjoyed the thrill and excitement of the race during the first few miles– if you’ve ever run the Pittsburgh half or full, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  The entire city is alive, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the excitement of the crowds of runners and bystanders.  By Mile 10, though, I was struggling.  The cheering of the crowds couldn’t drown out the negative thoughts that were starting to creep up in my head.  My knee began hurting really badly, and I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to finish the race.  Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew.  Maybe I wasn’t cut out for running after all.  The further I ran, the more my knee hurt, and the more I told myself I couldn’t do it.  My emotions were amplified by the rush of endorphins that I was experiencing– but instead of those positive emotions that are fondly known of the “runner’s high,” my emotions were exactly the opposite.  Through all of the trials and tribulations that life had thrown at me until that point, I had never doubted myself as much as I did in that moment.  My rock bottom moment came right before the last water stop of the race– the thought occurred to me that maybe everyone who had ever let me down in my life was right.  Maybe I wasn’t good enough after all.  It was like all of the progress I had made towards bettering my self esteem those past few months went out the window at that very moment.  I felt angry.  I felt totally and completely defeated.  In my mind, I had already given up.

I remember holding back tears as I stopped to get a drink of water.  I didn’t want to go on, and I didn’t know if I could.  With less than two miles left to go, I just wanted to go back to my car and go home.  I realized, though, that the most direct way back to my vehicle was through the race route.  If I wanted to get home, I had to finish the race.  I wanted more than anything to give up, but the circumstances wouldn’t allow it.  Angrily, I started running again.  My knee hurt so bad that I could hardly bend it, but I knew that I had to keep going, even if I didn’t want to.

The closer we got to the the finish line, the more crowd support there was.  I focused on the crowd support and used it to help me continue on despite my physical and mental turmoil.

The greatest epiphany of the race (and arguably of my life) happened during the last mile of the course.  I’ll forever be thankful that I didn’t give up on myself before then.  I was running across the Roberto Clemente bridge and nearing the finish line when the spectators began cheering wildly.  I mean, really wildly.  I had no idea what was going on.  Although I briefly entertained the thought that they were cheering for me (wow, how did they know how hard I struggled to get here?!), I turned around to see if I could figure out what they were really cheering about.  It turns out that the first female finisher of the full marathon (Ethiopian Yihunlish Bekele Delelecha) was crossing the bridge right beside me.

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Yihunlish Bekele Delelecha (Source: http://www.post-gazette.com)

I’ll never forget the chills that came across me while watching her speed past me with so much determination on her face.  I’ll never forget how uplifting it was to hear the crowd roar as she went by.  Five years later, the memory still makes me emotional.

Her determination was contagious.  I realized the magnitude of what she was accomplishing, and I saw firsthand the determination she had to accomplish it.  I was beyond inspired as I watched her gracefully cross the bridge at a speed that I could only hope to run (for a much shorter distance) one day.  I suddenly realized how far I had come, not just in the race but also in life.  Although I was struggling, I knew at that moment that I had overcome the struggle.  Not just in the race, but also in life.  All I had to do was replace my self-doubt with determination.  If I could do that, then I could do anything.  The finish line was in sight, and I decided that nothing would stop me from reaching it; I wanted it too badly.  And nothing did.  I finished my first half marathon in 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Crossing the finish line was the proudest moment of my life up until that point.  It was more than just a physical accomplishment– it was an emotional and mental accomplishment for me as well.  It taught me that I am capable of doing so much more than I ever thought I could do.  It taught me that, with enough determination and persistence, I can achieve anything that I want to achieve.  I actually felt good about myself for a change.  I felt good about myself, and I didn’t need the approval or validation of anyone else to make me feel that way.  Finally, for the first time in a long time, I felt “good enough.”

Since that first half, running has become a regular part of my life.  I’ve run countless races and made a lot of like-minded friends along the way.  Running has allowed me to let go of all the resentment that I used to harbor and to find peace with my past.  It has allowed me to take control of my own life rather than to blame everyone else for my shortcomings.  Running keeps me happy and healthy.  I quit smoking and binge drinking years ago (although I still appreciate a good beer or two, especially after a long run).  I found forgiveness with myself and with my ex, and we are now happily married with a beautiful daughter.  I always say that running saved me from the downward spiral that was my life.  Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to find the peace and forgiveness that allow me to be the person that I am today.

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Finishing a full marathon in 2014 has been one of my biggest running accomplishments.

In short, I run because it teaches me that I can do more than I ever thought possible.  And that’s what motivates me to run and to exercise nowadays– a far cry from all of the negative motivators that used to pervade my thinking when I first started working out.  I used to run to try to change the person that I am; now I run because it helps me to accept the person that I am.      

What about you– why do you run?  What motivates you to exercise?