Why am I running?

I’m returning from a little blogging hiatus (that ran a bit longer than intended). Here’s a photo from one of the reasons for the disruption.


Puente Nuevo & the hills surrounding Ronda (Feb 2015)

Last month, Dr. 24Hours and I took a trip to Spain. It was supposed to be an 8-day stay that extended to 9, thanks to inclement weather on the U.S. East Coast “stranding” us in Madrid another 24 hours.

It took some time to recover from jet lag, etc. Then some time went into a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Women’s History Month.

I’m picking up my series on changing career paths (part 1 here). But first a quick post on another topic, one that’s part of a reason I don’t blog more frequently.

Jennifer Polk, a career coach working with grad students and PhDs, hosts a twice-monthly Twitter chat #withaPhD. This week the topic was “balance”. There were several interesting threads, such as how we define “balance”, whether it’s even the right concept for what we mean, and how we achieve it (whatever we decide to call it). (Jennifer has curate the chat on Storify.)

There was a particular concept that seemed to resonate with many and yet clearly represented a tension point in practice. A point that we acknowledge as important yet seems to be one of the first anchors to give way when more weight or pressure is added elsewhere.

Taking care of self.

There is no singular thing. There is no one-size-fits-all.

I’ve been learning over the years what the formula looks like for me. Decent nutrition. Sufficient sleep. Clear breaks from work. Regular meetings with a counselor. A circle of friends I can be open with. Consistent exercise.

Exercise is one that, like others, has cycled in and out. Typically running features heavily. At times, I’ve managed a good streak for 3 or 6 months or so; other times, I’ve let it slip away when things start piling on. Right now, I’m in an “on” cycle – 9 months and counting.

Last spring, Dr24 and I ran a half marathon together, with a few other friends. It was his first, and my first in about seven years. The previous months had been chaotic – wrapping up things in Boston, going on my first real vacation in over a decade, moving, settling into a new job and embarking in a new direction for my career. I wasn’t properly trained. We finished. It was slow. It hurt.

I didn’t do much again for a few weeks, maybe a month. We started running again, separately and together. We talked about fitness goals. Another half marathon together? Sure. A full? Hmm…

Why am I doing this?

In the past few years, I’ve begun to realize that, for me, exercise was about far more than vanity or pride – either of physical form or accomplishments. It’s about more than a way to maintain a weight or cardiovascular fitness.

Exercise has a profound impact on my mental and emotional states too. And this aspect is just as important to me, maybe even more so.

I’ve had some major stressors in my life over the past several years (haven’t we all?). But I also seem to maintain a steady level of anxiety about … well, any number of things. The anxiety often leads to considerable self-flagellation over my perceived failures. Then I start thinking about other things that I have or am screwing up, giving me more to worry about. It’s an ugly and exhausting cycle.

Exercise is one of the things that helps me manage this. It’s only one element (others include regular sessions with a licensed counselor), but it’s an important one for me.

It gives me something to do for an hour or so a few days a week, besides sit and mull over my failings. Somehow it helps maintain my emotional center. I still have cycles of anxiety and dejection, but they’re less frequent, and the  height of the drop and the time to rebound are smaller when I’m exercising regularly.

When there’s an active stressor, exercise cuts through the intense emotional front, so that I can think more productively about it. Sometimes I’m pushing so that my mind is focused on just getting through the workout. Sometimes I’m working through whatever thing is at the front of the queue or springs out of nowhere. Running especially is a good place to direct the edginess I feel when I’m upset or angry about something, brings me to a place where I can consider options.

In the past year, I’ve realized additional benefits too.

Exercise is something I can do on my own, but there are ways to make it social. I spend most hours of most days at a desk. Although I don’t mind and even like being able to work on my own, sometimes I need a bit more human interaction. But I’m not really the person who strikes up conversation with strangers at a bar. Exercise has given me entry points to social interaction. Most weeks, I meet up with a running group, and once a month, we grab dinner together. I hit a group class at my gym once a week, and even the small talk helps me feel a bit more connected.

Committing to these things – the run group, the class – also establishes some daily temporal boundaries. They help me stick to a schedule, to leave work by a particular time rather than doing “just one more thing”. As someone who’s been prone to working long hours to the point of (near) burnout in the past, this structure helps.

Running also has its benefits for my relationship with my partner. Dr24 and I regularly run together for an hour or two most weekends. We run at a slower pace than our usual weekly runs, so we can carry on a conversation. It’s this sacred time when it’s just the two of us – no emails, no TV, no Twitter, no calls. Just us.

There’s also the sense of accomplishment. It comes in the form of kicking ass on a run and exceeding my expectations. It also comes when I have a crappy workout, because, even though I might still be cranky, I did something.

It comes down to this: My runs and my workouts are time for me. These are tangible things I do for myself, with multiple benefits. I do it for me, today, and what I do today is also for the benefit of tomorrow and the day after…

What do I want?

Exercise is an essential part of my plan for taking care of myself. It contributes to my whole self – physical, emotional, social… And so what I need is a way to sustain it.

When Dr24 and I talked over fitness goals (often on our long runs), I set a goal of maintaining half marathon fitness. I wanted to be able to run a half marathon, trained to a point where I didn’t despise running at the end. I didn’t want to train for an event and then let go of what I’d gained.

How’s that working out for me? Well, this weekend I finished my fourth half marathon in less than a year. It took 2 hours 5 minutes. That’s more than 30 minutes faster than the first slow, painful half last year. It’s my personal best. At the end, I didn’t only not hate running – I was exhilarated. It was a great capstone – a wonderful weekend with friends, a great run with my partner, a (13.1) milestone to remind me my work is paying off.

20150322_170645Oh, and about that marathon? Barring unforeseen injury or other circumstances, I’ll #RunWithTheMarines (and Dr24) in October.

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2 Responses to Why am I running?

  1. Betty says:

    Congratulations on setting a new PB!! I started running a lot once I started grad school. It helped clear my mind from all the experiments that weren’t working and gave me space to think about science and life. Good luck in hitting all of your fitness goals!

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