My Running Story
The life-altering magic of just putting one foot in front of the other
I’ll be on vacation by the time this newsletter installment goes live, launching myself halfway across the globe, far away from Los Angeles, up up and away on another wild Goonie adventure.
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The beginning of the summer has been packed with activities and milestones, from my decision to kick off this newsletter to my son’s graduation from high school. This vacation will see me continuing that busy trend, linking up with friends from the other side of the globe for some exciting travel around Taiwan.
And while I'm always excited for the purifying catharsis and sense of adventure that comes with international travel, I'm almost equally eager to establish a completely different, slower tone once I return.
If the month of June has been marked by rapid-fire changes and bustling activity, I want to ensure that the month of July is a month of rest, recuperation, and introspection. I see lots of iced tea and lounging on the balcony in my future.
While I'm on vacation these next two weeks, the newsletter will be on a brief hiatus. But come July, I hope to return clear-headed, refreshed, and with renewed focus and perspective.
With all that aside, I hope you enjoy this week's story. It's a piece about my relationship with running. A simple activity that has brought me more peace and understanding of self than nearly any other interest I hold dear.
Thanks. See you in July.
This is my story about running... But don't worry. This is a story about middle age, too.
I first took to running when I was in my early 30s, looking for a simple form of exercise that I could consistently engage in a few times a week. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone since that intimidating but doable 3.1 miles seemed the best place to start.
I remember spending my evenings after work carefully following the app's guided run/walk workouts on the bike path outside my community.
When you start running, the running itself feels like death, and you wonder with complete incredulity why anyone would want to do this to themselves. At that point in your running journey, it simply does not compute. You don't get it.
The riddles and mystery of running and the discovery of that elusive "runner's high" aren't things that reveal themselves until later in your running journey, locked behind a paywall of initial effort and commitment. Your ability to stick with it and make running a permanent and sustainable part of your life is entirely dependent on persisting through that preliminary period of discomfort until you reach the point where you find the simple magic that lies beyond the pain.
Many novice runners won't make it more than a few months. They will never get past the initial bout of distress that comes with prolonged stress on a cardiovascular system that can barely keep up with a flight of stairs, let alone a 20-minute run.
One thing you learn very early on is that pacing is everything. I think most true beginners try to run far too fast. They run at whatever pace they think "running" is, which is often a pace that is simply unsustainable at that stage when the body is still being forced to work out of what is essentially a sedentary state, not yet adapted to the rigors of consistent cardiovascular work. They make it to the one-mile mark red in the face and utterly breathless, their lungs gasping for air. The thought of running two more miles on top of that seems impossible, and after a few sessions of coming up against this unforgiving wall, they decide that running is just not for them, and they quit.
I never intended running to be anything more than a necessary evil that I could put myself through a few times a week in order to maintain fitness. That was it. I didn't see the romance in it. I couldn't envision any benefits beyond that. My goal was to be able to run 5K, and if I could just repeat that every time I needed some exercise, then great, mission accomplished.
I would do the same run every other day, down the bike path along the dry riverbed of the Santa Clara River, underneath two overpasses, the second of which my turnaround point was.
That was it. When I was back at my doorstep, it was 3.1 miles.
After a few weeks of this, I went out one day, embarking on my usual run, along the dry riverbed and underneath the first overpass. However, this time, as I passed under the second one, I realized that I was still feeling pretty good, not nearly as fatigued as I'd been weeks prior.
My body had adapted to the demands I had been putting on it.
I spotted a utility pole a little further down the bike path from my usual turnaround point, narrowed my eyes on it, and continued onward.
A new frontier.
After that, my only goal with each successive run was to push my turnaround point a little further down the path each time — That next fence pole, that trashcan in the distance, that crack in the asphalt up ahead. Even if it only pushed my total distance an extra ten feet, my lone objective was to outdo myself every single time.
Always forward, never backward.
I was finally "getting" running.
I became obsessed with gradually pushing my distances until one day, I literally ran out of bike path, turning around where the asphalt dead-ended into the dirt before heading home, running over 10K and effectively doubling my original distance.
Running is a very personal thing, a form of exercise well-adapted to an introvert like myself. It's a solitary activity where your only opponent is the person in the mirror. You become addicted to subverting your expectations of yourself, incrementally pushing your limitations until you begin seeing yourself in an impossible new light. It's the ultimate confidence booster, and the mental benefits spill over to every single aspect of your life.
I joined races. I continued pushing distances until I somehow found myself getting seriously locked-in, busting out 3-hour long runs each Sunday morning before the sun rose, my forehead layered with salt by the time I made it home. I was doing things that I never dreamt I was capable of.
And then I got old.
I eventually hit a point where my body appeared to be rejecting any further attempts to nudge its limitations just a little bit further. As a sufferer of scoliosis, it seemed that all of the tiny imbalances in my body were compounding the further I pushed my runs, giving rise to a series of nagging injuries. My right knee was the first to go, my slightly uneven gait causing a concerning residual pain that began showing up after long runs, soon making itself present after the shorter ones as well. My left ankle was next, repeated impacts and micro-pronation issues stacking upon themselves and giving way to pronounced tendon pain.
I had suspicions that another affliction, commonly known in the medical community as "aging," probably had a part to play in this whole opera as well. My bones and muscles were not bouncing back like they used to in my younger years. I tried taping up my knee, playing with my gait, and fighting against a crooked spine that refused to cooperate, all with no luck. I felt defeated and helpless and made the difficult decision to take a break from running until my injuries healed.
After about a month's rest, I finally laced up my shoes and hit the path again, and within minutes the pain flared-up once more.
I walked home.
My wonderful romance with running had reached its sad conclusion.
I was gutted. Heartbroken. Running was a well of confidence I could draw from at any time, and it had dried up. The years went by, and I moved on with life, finding peace in slower-paced forms of exercise, like cycling and hiking.
Every now and then, I would look at the race medals and bibs hanging from my wall with fondness and a fleeting hint of nostalgia. I was never a fast or elite runner, but I was proud of them and what they stood for: pushing oneself, prevailing through discomfort, the potential that you doubted you had inside but somehow manifested into reality.
Ten years later
It's 7 am, and the sun has not yet broken through the thick marine layer as I amble under Ventura Pier. The seaside breeze is comfortable and cool, and the faint scent of offshore kelp infuses the air.
The scene at the start line of the Ventura Beachfront Run awakens a powerful sense of nostalgia. The vendor booths are stocked with plastic water bottles, bananas, and free tote bags. It's weird how a decade can feel like yesterday once you place yourself back in a situation that was once a huge part of your life. Yet, I can't help but feel a little out of place as I watch the runners with their fancy water belts, arm bands, and complex pre-race stretching routines. I grab my bib from the registration tent and pin it onto the front of my shirt.
I've been away from the sport for so long that it's easy to feel like an impostor. But after a long absence, I'm here, ready to run again.
As the clock nears start time, the runners begin slowly migrating behind the timing pad. I insert myself among them. Three minutes to go, then two, one, and I feel slightly nervous. I shouldn't because I've been through this dance many times before. But the ten-year gap and my aging body still have me questioning my abilities.
The final countdown starts, and I'm feeling light on my feet. The whistle blows, and it takes a few seconds for the crowd to begin funneling through the gate and past the timing pad.
Soon my foot hits the pad, and my race begins.
I lean into it and begin trotting out a slow, deliberate rhythm as I rub elbows with the runners beside me.
The first couple of minutes and my bones are a little rigid. These are a different set of running legs than I had ten years ago, but I turn them over a few more times, and gradually, they begin to wake. I'm warming up, breaking free from the thinning crowd.
The ocean breeze hits my face, and I feel good. I pick it up a clip and look at my watch. I'm running just under a ten-minute pace, and I have to remind myself to conserve and hold some of it back for the last mile.
I round the first bend, and the Great Blue Pacific unravels itself out in front of me. An endless horizon. A new beginning.
It's been just over five months since I decided to return to running. I don't know if the old injuries are lying in hibernation, just waiting to wake up as I build my base and extend my distances. But at this moment, they do not exist. They never have, and I feel amazing.
The high is back. I never thought I'd see it again. I'm locked in, and my spirit has come alive.
Pure ecstasy. Some people skydive, others go motorcycling.
I welcome the high and can't resist its calling to pick up my pace. I dial it up slowly... 9'30", 9'15", 8'59", and at 44 years old, I'm flying.
I glance down at my feet and watch them move. One foot in front of the other. I'm here with them, but I'm no longer in control.
The high has taken over.
Aaaand another one bites the dust. That’s it for this week. Any other runners out there? I’d love to hear about your own relationship with this simple sport (or whatever form of physical activity you’re passionate about) and how it’s transformed your life. Sound off in the comments! Since MidThoughts is still in its infancy, your feedback is vital in growing this community and delivering compelling content that resonates with you.
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All right. I’m off to get my bags packed and my online check-in complete. I’ll be putting the newsletter in stasis for the remainder of June, but be sure to join me back here in a few weeks for another hot, piping cup of middle-age inspiration to wake you up and rattle those aching bones back to life.
Thanks for reading MidThoughts! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.