On the day that I decided to quit running, it was unbearably hot outside. It was late August, deep into the dog days of summer, and even though it was after 5pm and soon the sun would set, the temperature remained in the 90s and the humidity was even worse. Leaving my air conditioned office and stepping outside into the heat felt like I was entering a sauna, which was not something I’d ever had any desire to experience.
Running is all about being comfortable being uncomfortable; when training for a race, even more so. It’s important to train in all kinds of weather because you never know what kind of weather you’ll get on race day. In over ten years of running, I’d run races in perfect, cool, breezy spring weather, and I’d also raced in the freezing cold, in snow and slush, or in the heat, my face turning hot and red as the sun beat down on my head. I always wore a hat and sunglasses when I ran. In addition to being comfortable, I sort of liked feeling like I was in disguise, like if someone I knew happened to drive by me as I ran, maybe they wouldn’t recognize me.
That day, I wore my favorite purple Nike shorts and an orange racerback tank top. Even though I loathed neon and bright colors, I tried to wear visible colors when I ran, after nearly getting hit by a car at one point when I first started running. The shirt was too long and baggy, but at least I’d be seen. I reluctantly left my air conditioned apartment, and I started running. It was immediately unpleasant. It was so hot, the air was so thick that it felt like a wall. I couldn’t get my lungs and my legs on the same page. My legs wanted to move, they didn’t understand how hot it was, or if they did, they didn’t care. I was winded and panting after less than half a mile. I tried to slow down, taking smaller, slower steps, barely moving, feeling like I was walking instead of running or even jogging, but it didn’t help at all.
I stopped running and walked a few paces. I tried to remember that summer running meant adapting to conditions like this, it was just part of the job. I didn’t know why I thought about it like that – running was certainly not my job and it never would be, I was strictly a hobby jogger. I was beginning to realize that running no longer felt like a hobby to me. It felt like something that I had to do, even if I didn’t want to, like going to work or washing dishes. The rest of the run continued this way – I’d try to run, make it less than a mile before I needed to stop and catch my breath, question what I was doing and why I was doing it when I didn’t want to, and repeat. I looked at my GPS watch what felt like hundreds of times, checking how far I’d run and how long it had taken me, an annoying habit that I couldn’t seem to stop.
Eventually I finished my loop of the neighborhood and ended up back home. I felt a sense of finality, like maybe this was the last time I’d ever run. It was then that I made the conscious decision to free myself of my obligation to running. I knew my family would ask about my running, like they always did, and I’d have to tell them that I had quit. But I didn’t want to run anymore. I wanted to do something else. I didn’t know what, all I knew was that running used to be fun, and now it wasn’t.
I started running because my parents made all of us – me, and my older brother and sister – choose a sport to participate in during high school, and I hated team sports. I hated that if we lost a game or a match, it might be my fault, and the rest of the team would hate me and hold it against me forever. My sister played volleyball and my brother played soccer, and they both tried to assure me that it wasn’t like that, but to me it felt like nothing more than a way to make enemies, and I was determined to come out of high school unscathed. The only way to accomplish this, I thought, was to fly under the radar.
Running cross country ended up being an excellent way to do this because I was always solidly in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t the fastest girl, but I also wasn’t the slowest. I blended in. And even though we were technically a cross country team, when we ran races, it never felt that way. There was a solitude to it that I found comforting. If I ran badly, no one suffered but me, and that knowledge is what helped me drag myself to practice after school when I’d have preferred to be laying on the couch watching trashy afternoon TV.
I wasn’t a good enough runner to be recruited for university cross country teams, so in my senior year of high school I decided that I wasn’t going to run for a college team. In theory, my running days would be over after I graduated from high school. I’d done what was asked of me, I could put that I ran cross country for four years on my college applications (though I had no understanding of what this would do for me, considering what a mediocre runner I was), and now I could be done. But less than a week into the summer break between completing high school and starting college, I found myself lacing up my running shoes. Something felt missing without the required 6am group runs that my high school cross country team did during the summer. I didn’t understand it, because I hated those runs and I resented that I had to wake up early all summer while my friends who didn’t run got to sleep till noon. No matter the reason, I felt like running, so I ran most mornings during that summer, even if it was just a couple of miles, and figured that once I went off to school I’d stop. I’d probably be too busy with classes and campus life to worry about running anyway.
For awhile, I was right. Between moving into my dorm and getting used to life with a roommate and without parental supervision, several weeks went by before I even considered going for a run. Sure, sometimes the idea of running popped into my head, whenever I was bored or anxious and didn’t know what to do with myself, but I didn’t know how to explain my compulsive running to my new roommate, who I was determined to get along with and not give myself a reputation as the weird runner girl in room 6C. I hid my sneakers under my twin bed and didn’t mention anything about running. But eventually, it was one of those cool, crisp fall mornings, and I wanted to enjoy it. I tried to hide what I was doing, but my roommate must’ve heard me moving around and getting dressed, and she rolled over and asked me what I was doing.
“Just going for a run,” I said nonchalantly.
“Oh, cool,” my roommate replied. And she turned over and fell back asleep.
I ran at least semi regularly during my four years at university. Some weeks I’d run every day, other weeks I’d only manage to get out there twice a week. It depended on how overloaded I was with studying and homework, how many parties I went to, and how much I drank at said parties. It wasn’t until after I finished college that I discovered a whole new part of running: races. Not races I had to run because I was on the cross country team, races that people signed up for voluntarily and paid money to run.
After graduation, I moved back in with my parents. I wasn’t happy about it, but I had nowhere else to go and no job, and I needed a place to live. Being back in my childhood bedroom as a fully grown woman felt strange, like an out of body experience. I was myself, but I could still see myself in my room as a child, sitting on the floor, playing with my toys, diligently doing homework at my desk, staying up past my bedtime to use my laptop and chat with my friends online. Now I sat at the same desk, on a different laptop, applying for full time jobs in offices with health insurance and retirement benefits.
I signed up for a local 10k. It felt like a safe distance, far enough to challenge me and require some focus, but not nearly as far as a marathon, and therefore a less demanding training schedule. I found a training plan online, printed it out, and taped it to my wall. Each day after my run, I crossed it off on my calendar, which gave me immense satisfaction. Despite being hopelessly unproductive in my real life, when I ran I was working toward something, making progress, and the most exciting part was that I was improving. I was becoming a stronger, faster, better runner. Nothing else in my life had ever made me happier with myself than when I looked at the training log I kept and seeing my times improve, or when I hit a new personal distance record – five miles, six miles, seven miles. My first race went so well and was so much fun that I decided to keep doing them. This was what I think of now as the running honeymoon phase, that brief period of time when, after you start running seriously, you’re making consistent improvements, which in turn motivates you to keep going, the idea that the next personal best is just around the corner. I’d spent eight years quite literally running on autopilot, without thought of how far I went or how long it took me. In high school, I just did what our coach told me to do, and in college I ran out of boredom more than anything else. Now it was just me. Even though I had no money, I bought a GPS watch so that I could more easily track my times and distance. Having so much data at my fingertips was a blessing and a curse. If I was faster yesterday than I was today, I had to know why. Was something I ate weighing me down? Did I not sleep enough the night before? Was I distracted? Suddenly each run was an opportunity for analysis.
I continued like this for a few years. Life changed. I got my first “big girl” job in an office and moved out of my parents’ house into an apartment with a roommate. I worked nine to five and bought business casual clothes. I paid bills, I went grocery shopping, I meal prepped. Sometimes after work I went to bars with friends or coworkers for happy hour. Sometimes I went home with a boy, sometimes a boy would come home with me. On some days I thought that I wanted a boyfriend, but most of the time I felt too preoccupied. I stopped drinking beer and started drinking martinis because I thought no other drink could look as classy and elegant in my hand.
I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when I began to lose my love for running. It happened slowly, over a period of time, maybe even years. It stopped being fun. I was tired of waking up early to run during the week and being exhausted by 8pm. I spent every run staring at my watch, waiting to be done. I stopped registering for races. I began to resent the amount of money I had to spend on running shoes and running clothes. Every run felt like crap, and after every run I managed to convince myself that the next run would be better, it had to be. Somewhere along the way, running had morphed from a passion to an obligation. Most of the time, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that my parents would eventually ask me how running was going, and I didn’t want to tell them that I’d stopped. It felt embarrassing somehow, even though in the end I was worried about nothing. I was out to lunch with my mother one Saturday afternoon when she asked me what race I’d be running next. I told her I wasn’t running as much anymore. She didn’t appear disappointed. She just nodded and ate another spoonful of minestrone soup.
Now, five years later, the thought of running came to me while I was scrolling social media. An old teammate from high school was training for her first marathon, and she often posted about it. Nothing too detailed, just enough for me to feel excited for her and be glad that she was having a good time with it. Training for a marathon can be a slog. What surprised me was that I found myself feeling envious. I missed that feeling. How long had I been missing it? I couldn’t even say. I still thought about running sometimes, of course, but my thoughts were passive and always in past tense. I’d remember a particularly important high school cross country meet, or crossing the finish line of my first race, or I’d see someone running as I drove home from work and remember those days, relieved that I didn’t have to do that anymore. This was different. Instead of thinking of running as something I used to do, it was something that I could do now.
The next morning, I was still thinking about it. I expected that I’d eventually busy myself with something else and forget about it, but I didn’t. I went into my room and dug out the one pair of running sneakers that I’d kept around, a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, and an old sports bra. I got dressed and went outside, inhaling deeply. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a point of getting some fresh air. I worked so much now, I’d gotten promoted twice, and now I had a fiancé and a wedding to plan. Being outside had stopped being a priority a long time ago. I wondered why I had let that happen.
I started to run. It felt easy at first, I couldn’t help but run faster than I should’ve been. I knew I’d tire myself out easily that way, but I didn’t care. After a few minutes, I stopped to walk, catching my breath. Then I ran again. I kept repeating this process. I had no idea how far or fast I was doing, and there wasn’t a single part of me that cared.