On any given grey mid-winter’s morning, with my seasonal affective disorder in effect, it can sometimes take all my physical and mental energy to move one heavy leg a short stride ahead of the other. On these days, I try not to think that this needs to be repeated 7,500 times to finish that 7-kilometre neighbourhood run, battling undulating hills and tirelessly switching between the sidewalk and road to dart pedestrians. And yet, I faithfully tie up my laces—and have done so for the past decade, logging on average five runs a week—to show up for myself: my past self, my present self, and my future self.
This relentless drive is the spirit of a runner—an energy that is unstoppable. Who else in their leisure consciously spends upwards of thirty minutes running outside during polar vortexes or heat warnings? Gives up their evenings with loved ones to rest for the next morning’s painfully long run that may later result in tight muscles, or worse, shin splints? Wakes up before dawn on their days off to compete in a race for a finishers’ medal that has zero monetary value, and everyone receives?
This is the runners’ way.
The trinity of running—for my past, present and future self—is one of the most impactful lenses in which I can view the spirit of the sport.
The Spirit of a Runner’s Past
Ever look back on any given hardship and wonder how you made it through? In hindsight, we could list the benefits that life’s challenges produce in terms of strengthening our resiliency muscles, creating a narrative of perspective—etcetera, etcetera. And as runners, we may not necessarily see the value of our running habits until long-after the hardship. For instance, six years ago, during a familial mental health crisis, all I could do—outside of copious amounts of sleep—was go for a protracted run each day. It’s also how I coped with a misdiagnosis, job loss, and the COVID-19 pandemic. These experiences have taught that, moving forward, I know I will be able to rely on the restorative powers of running for obstacles that may present themselves today or tomorrow.
The Spirit of a Runner’s Present
I take great pleasure in the cerebral; the downside is that it can leave me feeling detached from my physical body, especially from my hands and feet. For many years, my mind floated through the seasons of life with my body trailing until a crippling panic attack manifested, revealing the limitations of chronic disembodiment. I quickly became fearful of walking itself—that, at any moment, I might collapse. I tried various treatments until running proved to be the most effective physician-prescribed antidote.
Now, on a good day, each stride seamlessly propels my body forward, the wind brushing against my face. I inhale bursts of pleasure as I watch the contours of my shadow bouncing along with me. In these moments, I feel capable, strong, and savour my body’s ability to run—to move freely. My brain, too, benefits, from significant boosts to creativity and problem-solving. During these runs, I can create, brainstorm work-related or interpersonal challenges, and feel so hopeful for the present day.
On the harder days, a run—even if all I can manage is 3.5 kilometres (i.e., the equivalent of about twenty minutes)—will release enough endorphins that I am in a marginally better state of mind than if I had easily opted out. By now, I have enough experience to understand that a run today is both a run for yesterday and one for tomorrow.
The Spirit of a Runner’s Future
In 2018, about seven years into running—representing ten 10Ks, four half-marathons, and one marathon—I scaled down significantly. I started teaching evening courses at a community college, in addition to my day job. The tradeoff of having an abundance of disposable income was less time and lifestyle creep. I swapped out homemade meals for delicious culinary dishes from local multicultural eateries. Eventually, I had to swap my size six jeans for a larger pair, but it wasn’t the minor weight gain that resulted in my aha moment. It was an intense visual imagery of a future doctor’s appointment, decades from now, in which the physician informs me of high blood pressure. How could I feign surprise when this hypothetical hypertension would be the cumulative impact of a lifetime of day-to-day lifestyle choices? I resigned from teaching, tied up my laces, and initiated the long process of reestablishing my running habits—all for the health of my future self.
In what ways has running helped your past, present or future self? Talk to me, and we’ll put your responses in the next issue of iRun.