Someone told me the other day that I’m trashing my body. It bothered me because I know exactly what it means to trash your body, and I’m most definitely not doing that anymore. Then I spent 35 miles thinking about the difference between destroying your body and making it stronger.
I started running competitively in 8th grade. The only thing I remember from my first year on the cross country team is that throwing up during practice or a meet is a badge of honor. During subsequent years I discovered that so is running through an injury, and also if you’re still standing after you crossed the finish line then you didn’t go hard enough. Our coach used to say “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and I thought about that constantly then and for many years after. The summer before 10th grade I was running twice a day every day. The greatest running buddy I ever had was during that time; we were perfect together because we were evenly matched and we hated each other. Nobody has ever made me train harder.
I took a break during my first year of college, then started running again the summer after my freshman year. I honestly thought it was good for me. I ran around campus by myself and trained intervals on the track. I still believed more pain more gain; I’d run sprints until I’d collapse on the finish line, and if I threw up then I knew I’d worked hard enough. I started racing again, short distances, always obsessively hoping to break my personal best times from high school. Have you ever read Once a Runner? Let loose your demons and wail on.
I was destroying my body and I knew it and I glorified it. I think in a lot of ways our culture supports that mentality. I stopped running when I started practicing yoga seriously and I finally realized how valuable my body is and how important it is to take care of it (and how very much I wasn’t taking care of it). I believed then that it was the running that was the culprit and I demonized it.
Years later, I realized that as good of shape that I thought I was in from a daily yoga practice, I could barely make it up to my third floor walk up without getting out of breath. I decided I would start running again, but barely. Feeling the way I did about running, I considered it a punishment and I forced myself out the door every day. I made a deal with myself that I would run one whole mile every day, but that was all I had to do. One mile on the trail around Cheesman Park. I had a friend that was just starting to get into running and we’d hike together sometimes. Somewhere along the way we started running together, and at some point we started running trails. I was tentative to get back into what I considered to be such a cruel sport, my mind was resistant to change. But something miraculous happened, and it was that nothing bad happened. I got stronger but my knees weren’t hurting and I wasn’t getting stress fractures. Where I’m from, a cross country race might include one “hill” that takes a couple of a minutes to get up. Here in Colorado, you can spend hours ascending and I fell madly in love with that challenge. On my first fourteener hike, I remember barely dragging my ass up it when a woman ran right past me. I thought about that woman a lot, and it was why the first fourteener I ran up was Gray’s. I especially could not believe that people RUN DOWN mountains, but after I started it just takes a little bit of practice and you start to feel this amazing flow-picking your route, placing your feet, feeling the rocks.
My view of running has fundamentally changed. It’s an incredible challenge, but it doesn’t hurt me anymore. I won’t let it. Anything can be punishment if that’s the way you see it. Just like anything can be an opportunity for freedom. Anyone can run themselves into the ground, it’s much harder to take good care of yourself. I don’t always want to run; sometimes it’s really hard to drag myself out there. I used to tell my students to go deeper, to stay longer, not because I told them to, and not because they think they should. But because they want to, because it feels good. And let me tell you, it always feels good. Even when it’s hard or I’m sore or the weather isn’t good. Several of the best moments of my life happened running in the mountains. Some of the worst, too, but I will not let those break me. This world that we live in gives us few opportunities to feel the full spectrum of human emotion. I feel bad for those that aren’t willing to suffer, to feel the lowest of lows, because there is nothing like the highest of highs. I run mountains because it makes me feel strong, powerful, and free.