To pick just one gift that running has given me is hard. I could say awards, a skewed perception of portion sizes, more reasons to enjoy beer, some semblance of abs, adventures, friends, and a million other things. However, I’m only allowed to pick one, so I’ll go with the most important one: my sanity.
Running came to my rescue as a struggling teen and as a very sick young adult. Through those years, running became my normal and while it has its own highs and lows, it keeps the rest of my life on a more even-keel at the same time.
Like many others, my internal battles started at a relatively young age. To make matters worse I struggled with acne. I started taking Accutane and happened to be one of the .01% of people who experienced the side effect of extreme psychiatric problems. My typical teenage highs and lows turned into Everest and Hades. The aggravated depression transformed into panic disorder, nights of pacing, bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, behavioral changes and mood swings that could could only be likened to Upstate New York weather, 80 degrees one minute and a white-out blizzard the next.
In junior high and high school, I was a member of the varsity track team. I had no idea then what a good outlet running was for me; it wasn’t just another school activity. I played soccer in the fall, which I liked, but didn’t love, and I ran track in the spring. My parents were always pretty adamant about not being a three-season athlete because of academics and home responsibilities. (Also, let’s be real, it was my pre-driving years so they had to chauffeur me around). But winters for me, without running all over a field or around and around the track, were blue.
Finally one year my parents suggested I add indoor track. Maybe it was because I was an asshole teenager who they wanted out of their hair or maybe it’s because they realized what the team did for me during my times of extreme emotions. Running gave me good friends, structure, healthy exercise, and it gave me motivation to work for something. Running gave me a bit of time each day where I didn’t feel sad, anxious or overwhelmed; I felt normal.
In college, some of the same struggles were there like in high school, albeit not as extreme. Once again, running was still that part of the day I felt most at ease. Early wake-ups, long days of classes, the impending late nights of work and homework. Those 1-2 hours at practice was the break that kept me going. Some kids in college stay sane by drinking in dingy frat houses, I stayed sane by spending hours running intervals around a banked wooden track in a dingy old gym.
And then, when I was 21, I got sick. the doctors didn’t know the cause of my illness and confined me to a hospital bed in a small room. With no running and limited social interaction, memorizing the TV schedule and nurse rotation became my biggest daily accomplishment. I spent weeks fearing the unknown, as well as needing help with everything that I had been doing for myself for years. Simple tasks such as eating, going to the bathroom (and hopefully making it) or changing clothes turned into team efforts. I lost my independence and didn’t know where life was going.
When I got home and started healing, the best that I could do was walk. Because I was physically fit before getting sick, I rebounded relatively quickly from the surgeries and down-time. The mental struggle, however, was far more challenging to overcome. I had dropped out of school and couldn’t resume working or driving for a while, so I was stuck at my parents’ house with nothing to show for myself but a few new surgical scars. I started going for walks with the dogs. Those 30-minutes a day made me feel like I wasn’t living in a cell, they made me feel more human again. Walks turned into run/walks which turned into “training” and running my first 5k. The scars didn’t matter, my independence grew, and returning to work and school was a positive addition to my days of running and getting back on my feet.
Over the last few years, running has been the grounding factor in my life that was basically anything but stable. When I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with my life and job path, running was the thing that gave me incentive to improve at something, and helped me realize I wanted to work for more.
When my relationship was going downhill faster than a bobsled, running was my time of day I could let it all out. The emotions, the anger, all of it came out on the run and kept me level-headed. When I called off the engagement and left on my own, running gave me the stability and sanity that wasn’t present in most other parts of my life at the time.
These days, things are far more stable than they have ever been. I have a good job, some wonderful friends and I’m in a strong and healthy relationship. For the first time I can truly say I’m happy with my life, and feel confident in where I’m at and the decisions I have made. That doesn’t mean I don’t get that same sanity saving perk from running that I did when I was struggling. I still have those times I need to escape from life and just feel normal when nothing else does. Running has been and will always be a part of my normal.
Let me be clear that running never solved any of my problems, and I would never tell someone that it can replace legitimate help if you need it. Time, hard work, reaching out for help, and getting up every time I fell down is how I solved my problems. But for those 30-minutes or more a day, running helped me cope and allowed me to shift my focus to myself or sometimes to nothing at all. Getting out and running allows me to look around and put life into perspective. Sure, there are always going to be issues in life, but knowing that things could be far worse and knowing I can get through hard situations is how I stay sane.
Thank you, running, for my daily dose of sanity.
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