Run your own race.
I remember the first race I ever ran. I was twelve years and old and it was a middle school cross-country meet. I remember when the fake gun went off and everybody around me started sprinting cold. Holy smokes, I thought. There was no way I could match that pace. My breathing was heavy and jagged. My gait was awkward and almost diagonal. I dragged my feet along as we passed in front of me and everybody’s mother. I remember at that point I almost gave up, imagining the shameful relief of joining the moms on the sideline. But I didn’t. I kept putting one lanky leg in front of the other.
Then, about a mile into the three-mile race, something changed. I became aware of the powerful feeling of my leg muscles pulling my hips and waist forward. I felt the soles of my feet pounding the ground through cotton socks and light shoes. My arms moved rhythmically, my shoulders straightened, and my eyes seemed to clear. I looked ahead and focused on the back of the runner directly in front of me. In moments,
I felt myself automatically pick up speed and pass her. It was totally exhilarating. I remember thinking, “Wow. I can do this… This is fun.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just discovered the ancient practice of meditation—through running. For the first time, albeit unintentionally, I had focused my mind on bodily sensation, allowing my body to execute motion free of thought— a kind of meditation. I remember it felt like an out-of-body experience; I was watching my body from above, and I was amazed at what it seemed to be doing free of my interference.
In any case, from that point of running became a big part of my life. I joined the high school cross-country team and regularly finished top ten in the state. I qualified for the prestigious all-New England meets. I received dozens of letters every day from Harvard, etc., asking me to apply to their college. But I didn’t go to college for running. At the age of seventeen, I suffered a bad injury to my Achilles’ tendon and had to sit out my senior year of cross-country.
After that I lost a lot of my self-confidence and motivation. I still ran, but halfheartedly. I knew I would never again run as fast as I did during my high school glory days. I sunk into a depression. I thought I was worthless every time somebody passed me running on the sidewalk; my sense of self-worth was actually tied to my ability to run fast.
I recently sunk into a similar funk due to a delicate emotional situation. After having been in the midst of training for the Austin marathon, I simply lost all motivation to run. I lay in bed each day watching NetFlix. I drank cup after cup of black coffee. I did anything I could to avoid thinking about the adrenaline rush I was missing.
Then, last week, I decided, screw it. I am going to run again. I’ve had enough. So I strapped on my pink holy running shoes, pulled on purple tights and found my sports bra. I took a sip of water and walked out the door.
I was a little afraid of my abilities. I’d never gone so long without running since my high school slump. What if people judged me? What if other runners ran by me on the sidewalk? What if I couldn’t run as fast as I used to?
Well, I had certainly lost speed, but I kept going, just like that first race in cross-country. I ran at a speed that worked for me – steady and slow, focusing on my form and the sensation of my body moving. I kept my legs moving in slow circles, my pelvis extended forward, my shoulders straight and tall. Things fell into place, and I felt good. I got into it. I smiled at passing cars and leaped over curbs. At stop lights, I stretched and looked at the sky. I remembered the good feeling of exercise.
I only ran two miles that day, but it felt good just to get out there. The next day I rested, and then I ran another two miles, and two days later another two miles. Sure, I was running in a week what I used to run in one day and my back hurt and I’d pulled my calf muscles, but I had decided to be kind to myself and not even compare myself to my old, “better” self.
That’s what the adage, run your own race, means to me. In a literal or metaphorical sense, it can be essential to mental health to realize that there are slow and fast portions to any race – when it goes uphill, downhill, flat for miles. And as I keep running and accepting the changes in pace, I will no longer accept my own excuses for feeling bad about myself. I needed a break from running, and I missed the marathon, which has been a lifelong goal, but there will be another marathon, and I started running again when I needed to.
I’m not going to give personal advice. I’m here to share the imperfect story of my health, and to say that I’ve found it vastly more beneficial to accept temporary weaknesses until I’m ready to build up strength. In any case, I’ve noticed that my mood improves drastically each day I decide to get my shoes and socks on, open the door, and put one foot in front of the other.