Running Happy

11.23.09: Why I Run

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I am often asked why I choose to run, to pound my body through 10-milers even when my son woke us up 8 times the night before or my daughter is adamantly opposed to going in the jogger. The answer is complicated.

After all, what sane person would really choose running over sleep on a day when five hours seems luxurious?

I run because I can. Because have legs that work and can carry me miles. I have arms that can pump and a brain that can push me for miles. Not everyone has their health and I remind myself of this fact each time I lace up my sneakers. My body will do this as long as it can.

I feel most alive when the headwinds are blowing and the air is cold, but my body is warm, when I am pushing the limits of my capability through speed training or slogging out one more mile on an endurance run. There is nothing quite like the feeling after a particularly long run, when you know you have given everything you have to one thing.

Of course, when I love something, I love it fiercely, totally, all consuming--my family, my closest friends, my work and my running. It is not that I am never apathetic, it is just that the things I love, I love beyond measure or as Britney Spears once said, “to lose all my senses, that is just so typically me.” And so it is with running, dear Britney. I lose all my senses, I love it so.

Running itself is a great measure for life. I tend to think the way people approach running is also the way they approach their lives. Are they slow and steady? Fast and fierce? Do they get wrapped up in the competition? Or take it all way to easy? Are they satisfied with fine times? Or do they push their limits without ever feeling satisfied?

My husband and I have athletics in common. He started at a young age and excelled, lettering in three different varsity sports going on to play Division 1 in college. He would say that once you are in shape, you can always get back to that point. I agree. For those who never were when they were young, the work can be much steeper, but the reward that much richer.

After all, sports teach discipline and passion. They foster a sense of competition that can be useful in terms of avoiding mediocrity. And most of all, they provide a sense of pride, an easy measure of oneself against others.

Used correctly; sports can make all the difference in the world, especially to young girls. When I look at my daughter, so perfect in her innocence, I can’t stand what I know is ahead for her. “I am the most beautiful girl in the world,” she says at almost 3, hugging herself, a proud smile on her face. But I know she won’t always feel that.

I know she will look in the mirror and find flaws. She will be too short, too fat; her nose will be too big, her hair too curly. I am her mom and I would do anything to keep that at bay, but I can’t hold the world back (even though I will always give it my best shot) and sooner or later, she will catch the feminine self-doubt that infects us all.

No one knows this better than me. And though, you would not know it from looking at me, I was once not so thin. I thought I was fat, though I probably wasn’t really. It is just that I was skinny (painfully so) my whole life until adolescence when I got curves and then when my mom died, I would down entire buckets of ice cream in a single sitting. For months I ate this way until I was overweight, teetering on the outer edge of 170 pounds (I am 5’5”, roughly 50 pounds more than I weigh today).

It was around this time that we moved from the Midwest to the Northeast where people were a lot less forgiving about weight. And so I started running. And not eating. And purging what little food I did eat.

I never had a full-blown eating disorder, but I was definitely familiar with the self-loathing that goes with it, the desire to rip fat off my body one handful at a time. They say, “once a fat girl, always a fat girl” and I don’t know if that is true. I do know that each time I was pregnant, it was painful and terrifying to put on the healthy weight for fear I would not be able to lose it (and thanks to running I did). I will never be completely pleased with my body even though I am certainly thin by any standards.

Running has made me stop worrying about that as much. Yes, it has given me a flat belly and toned legs, but it has also made me focus on eating healthy (with the exception of a few ice cream-led slip-ups here and there) and on making sure I have the calories to sustain long runs. It allowed me to take the focus off the scale and put it on something else: speed, endurance, health—the things I would like my daughter to focus her energy on as well.

It has done more than that as well. Running has also given me a confidence I did not have before. If I can run this distance, this speed, this rhythm, I can do anything else. More than that, the endorphins have saved me from postpartum depression; sadness and stress that would make others curl into a ball and cry. I always have my running. These are the times when I feel our relationship will never be equal. Because no matter how much of myself I can give to running, I can never give it what the sport has given to me.

When my daughter turns to me someday and asks me why I run, these are the things I will tell her. She won’t hear me complain about fat or about losing weight. She will hear me talk about races and competition. She will hear me talk about balancing my nutrition and making sure my pre-race meal has an equal amount of carbs and protein to fuel the long run ahead. She will hear (I hope) me worry about my health and treating food like the fuel it is.

I hope she will be a runner. Not just because running is the single most empowering, life-affirming activity I have, but also because I can’t wait to pound the sidewalk with her, the wind blowing our hair, chatting about everything on a long fall run together. It is my favorite not-yet-memory I have of her.

So, when someone passes me when it is pouring rain, their hood pulled tight, their Asics soaked through, running as hard as they can, I never wonder why. No, in fact, it is the “other people,” the ones who don’t have their sport about whom I wonder. After all, wouldn’t the world be a much happier place if we all found something that gave us so much?

Osama Bin Laden wherever you are, think you might bury the hatchet if you had something else to occupy your passion. Perhaps skiing? I hear the snow in Afghanistan resembles Aspen this time of year.

Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.