I’ve never been remotely athletic. Growing up, I was always the last one picked for kickball, and was also usually the one crying at the end of the game after catching a ball (or two) to the face. I steered clear of team sports, hated P.E. class, and always preferred a good book to any kind of sporting activities.
As an adult, I grew to understand and appreciate the importance of physical fitness. I made use of my gym membership, enjoyed walks and hikes, but still avoided anything that could be termed a “sport.” I wasn’t competitive, wasn’t very coordinated, and anytime I did try, I was left feeling embarrassed at my general lack of physical prowess.
When I was in my early 30’s, I went through a devastating breakup. It left me reeling, questioning my own judgement, and feeling like I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and was barely able to function. In the midst of all this angst, a girlfriend of mine, herself an avid runner, suggested I try it as part of my healing process. I literally laughed out loud. “You know I’m terrible at sports.” I said. “That doesn’t matter,’ she said “with running, you’re only competing against yourself.”
She said running did more for her than just keep her in shape. It calmed her, centered her, and could pull her out of a funk or dark day faster than any other remedy. “Going for a run always helps me get out of my own head,” she said. She also mentioned that mythical “runners high,” even though I’d read plenty of conflicting info on whether or not it was a real thing.
Despite my misgivings about participating in a “sport,” I bought myself a pair of running shoes and out I went. My first runs were terrible. Even though I considered myself to be in decent shape, I could barely run a mile, my feet hitting the pavement like they had thousand-pound weights attached. In less than five minutes, my lungs were on fire, and I was gasping for breath. After day one, I was sure I’d never do it again. But for some reason, the next day, I went out for another short run, and the day after that, yet another. My runs slowly went from one mile, to two, to five.
As running started to become part of my regular routine, I realized that not only was I feeling stronger and healthier overall, I was feeling better about a lot of other things. My sleep had improved, my moods had stabilized, and best of all, I wasn’t thinking about my ex so often. On days where I woke up feeling unhappy or unmotivated, I knew that if I went for a run, my problems wouldn’t miraculously go away, but I’d at least feel more prepared to face the day.
I eventually got brave enough to sign up for my first 5K. Memories from my childhood flooded me prior to the race, and I prayed I wouldn’t come in dead last. Surprisingly, I didn’t. I finished somewhere in the middle, with a time that was a personal best. At that moment, I understood what my friend meant. My only competition was me and my own goals. I realized that the running community wasn’t just elite competitors, but people of all skill levels, all ages, all sizes. And while the race itself was different for each of us individually, there was a sense of camaraderie amongst all of us. As much as I hated team sports, I loved that we were all, somehow, still a team.
Twenty years later, I’m still running. I’ve done plenty of 5 and 10K’s, as well as a handful of half-marathons. I feel strong. I feel happy. I feel confident. That mysterious runner’s high is definitely real, at least for me. I can’t say I don’t still have days where I don’t know exactly who I am or where I’m going in my life. But I do know this; I am a runner. And today? I’m going for a run.
Jody Ellis is a freelance writer who specializes in beauty, health, travel, fashion and style. Her work has appeared in publications such as LennyLetter, Huffington Post, BBC Future Planet, Civil Eats and Eater.