Always a Runner

For a moment, I feel like a fraud in my “Runner” sweatshirt as I set off on my walk around my adopted home of Budapest for perhaps the last time before heading back to the U.S. for the next six months. I have intentionally put on my walking shoes that I can’t run in (unless it is to catch the tram). I have no interest in running today. I haven’t for about a week. But I don’t want the guilt of being outside, in running-ish clothing, to push me to run when my mind and body are telling me to take a break.

I did want to run just a week ago, running up a mountain in Obuda on a whim, running around Budapest like a kid in a candy store. And, perhaps, I will feel the need to run again when I am back in the States, in the middle of another amazing, but stressful semester. I just don’t want to run now, even after I’ve finally found the “perfect” training plan.

Two years ago, this lack of motivation to run would have sent me into an emotional tailspin. “I don’t even want to run!”  “What does this mean about my identity as a runner?!” “Who am I even?” And, worse, those echoes of my demons: “Oh no!  If I don’t run, I’ll gain #alltheweight!” “How do I eat when I’m not running?!”

Always in motion, but stuck in the past?

I still feel some of those concerns now, of course. I can’t erase decades of programming that began with my mother, bless her heart, about the link between exercise and weight. It takes daily efforts to dissociate from these thoughts that I’ve been socialized to have – that looking a certain way equals success. Honestly, I still have to fight to feel like I deserve to be happy and loved even when I’m not exercising to extremes and restricting my diet to the minimum needed to work and run and sleep (repeat). Running used to ease those fears and often silenced those voices.

But I don’t feel like running. I feel like walking. Perhaps yoga, later, but perhaps not. I’m not perfectly okay with this, but I’m getting there. Partly, I’m able to be okay today with not running because I finally recognized that exercise, in and of itself, has very little to do with my weight (this has been largely supported by multiple studies – and as I always ascribed my 100-pound weight loss in large part to running, it’s good for me to hear). But also I have a life full of things that are, for the moment, more important to me than running. So instead I will walk.

As I walk around Budapest in my non-running shoes, I realize that my struggle not to run, my fears about who I am without running, are symbolic (or, indeed, symptomatic) of my greater need to find peace without movement. An object in motion will continue in motion until an opposite and greater force compels it to stop. I had been in motion for so long, running, moving, working, and traveling, that I didn’t know how to stop.

Moving forward by staying still

I’ve come to realize over the past few months that my biggest struggle is staying still. This is true when it comes to running, but also true when it comes to where I am living, what I am doing, and where I am going. I am not the only runner who struggles with rest days, to be sure, but I struggle to rest every part of my body, especially my mind.

Until this holiday in Budapest, I was always either working or writing or running or reading or planning. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish professionally and as a runner. But just like training hard all the time leads to overtraining, being on all the time leads to burnout.

Moving constantly will only lead to returns on investment as long as the work I am doing is quality. Boredom is a key aspect of creativity, something that is imperative to writers, researchers, and teachers, but it only comes when we slow down or stop. Working simply to avoid resting, to avoid being bored, will not result in PRs in life, just as running for the sake of running won’t lead to PR’s in races.

So, in contrast to many of the motivational memes that characterize the new year, I’m not seeking to move more in 2018, but to move less. Indeed, this is why I have re-visited my yoga practice and focused on finding a personal practice again, instead of focusing on being a yoga teacher as I have for the past few years. Through yoga and meditation, I am re-learning something I lost in my childhood: how to recognize how my body is truly feeling and respond to that without being constrained by what I think I should want. And I’m focusing on something I have never been able to do: to stay in one place, silent, without even an agenda of what I must think about.

Running and stillness

When I run, I want to run because I love to run, because it feels good, and because I love the challenge of an ultramarathon. When I run mindfully, running may even help me to find stillness, yes, even in motion. But as I learn how to listen to my body, when I don’t feel like running, I won’t.

Not wanting to run can feel so permanent. It is the permanence of never running that scares me the most.

But I know from past experience that I’ll want to run again before the end of the year, most likely before the end of the month. But if I never feel like running again, if I never race again, that is okay. What I’ve experienced as a runner – from being at the top of a mountain in Helena, MT, when the sky turned green in advance of a thunderstorm to finishing 100 miles with the company and support of my closest friends – will not disappear from my memory if I never take another step.

What I’ve learned from running – from the mental strength to finish a 50-mile race that became a 57-mile race after a missed turn to the ability to push harder even when it hurts – helps me every day to take on what seems impossible. I couldn’t have finished my dissertation without the strength I gained from ultrarunning. Running empowered me, helped me to lose 100 pounds, and brought me to Salty Running.

Yes, I am a runner. Even without running, running still gives me courage. And while I expect that running will be a part of my life in the near future, even if it isn’t, I am always a runner.

Have you ever had a running identity crisis? Struggled with stillness? Tell us about it.

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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  1. “I had been in motion for so long, running, moving, working, and traveling, that I didn’t know how to stop.”- You perfectly described a huge chunk of my life with this sentence….spot on.

    I definitely have, and still occasionally do struggle with stillness. This post is such good timing as I was thinking about this last night on my run. It was cold, dark and late but I was so glad that I got outside. For many years I know that in that situation I would be anxious, wanting it to just be done, or not even attempting to shut my brain down for that 45 minutes. Somewhere along the line (in my case, pregnancy and becoming a mom did a lot of work on me- in a good way), I started being able to truly run mindfully, enjoy the time even if it’s not the most ideal. So instead of being worked up last night, I trotted through my dimly lit side streets taking the time to feel the cold, notice the snowflakes, appreciate the stillness as most people were already bundled up inside for the night. I still struggle with being present at times, because my brain has been wired to think about whats next or what I could/should be doing. But it’s a work in progress like most things will always be.

    Thank you for this, a good reminder not to keep trying to be mindful and not fight the stillness.

  2. Thank you for this. I’m laid up with the flu, and had to miss a race this past weekend (and my sort of goal race is in two weeks). But stopping to listen to my body is a constant struggle. So I’m glad I paused and listened and didn’t do the race when the symptoms came on…and this helps me remember it’s not the end of the world. I know that sounds silly, but running is such therapy for me and I’m really frustrated without it. Not to mention feeling useless while my husband cares for our recovering kids (who are pretty mostly recovered, thank goodness for modern medicine). Anyway. Thanks for the perspective.

    1. I understand that completely – that element of stress relief is part of why I likely won’t quit running completely! But finding other avenues for relief has been good too – even a good cycle workout can do it for me!