Today I ran 14 miles. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be running that kind of distance one day, I would not have believed you.
My life currently revolves around training for the New Orleans marathon four months from now, which will be my third marathon. Long-distance running is as much grueling and painful as it is exhilarating and empowering. I developed a love for running in my late 20’s and am now in my last year of my 30’s, so I’ve had a long time to ponder why I run and what running brings to my life.
At its simplest, I feel that running makes me a better person. Each run brings an opportunity to connect with myself and gain a fresh perspective to life. On a larger level, it empowers me and strengthens my mind, body, and spirit.
“I always loved running…it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.” ~ Jesse Owens
One of the beautiful things about running is that almost anyone can do it. Other than comfortable clothes and shoes, you don’t need any equipment to run. I run wherever I find myself. At home it’s usually outside, unless the weather drives me inside to a treadmill. When I travel, running is one of my favorite ways to explore a new city or town.
While physical ability coupled with training and conditioning is crucial to prepare for a long-distance race, you can’t overstate the importance of the mental aspect of running. Mental toughness is critical, but the belief that you are capable of the feat ahead is vital to persevering over long distances. It has been my experience that the mental toughness cultivated as an endurance athlete transcends to other areas of life as well.
“The voice inside your head that says you can’t do this is a liar.” ~ Unknown
Before I decided to train for my first marathon, I firmly believed I could not run 26.2 miles. For many years I listened to the fears and doubts that I wasn’t a good enough runner, until one day I finally questioned those limiting beliefs. Why was I so convinced that I couldn’t run a marathon? The truth was, I needed a big goal like a marathon at that time in my life, something that would strengthen me from the inside out and empower me.
All I had to do was challenge my belief that I wasn’t capable of the marathon. From there, I started a ten-month training plan and slowly conquered greater and greater distances. As it turned out, I was fully capable of what I’d previously thought I wasn’t and most of my fears were unfounded. Completing my first marathon the following year showed me the power of my mind and the stranglehold of beliefs.
I view distance running—especially the marathon—as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles in life. The more you succeed as an athlete, the more those feelings of empowerment bleed over into other areas of life. After finishing that first marathon, I felt more confident at work, in relationships, and in challenging situations because I felt like a more capable person overall. That accomplishment showed me that if I could do that, then I could do this.
The fitness benefits of running are obvious. According to the CDC [link: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/data/facts.htm], only 21% of adults in the US meet the minimum recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week. * Coupled with the standard American diet, it’s no wonder that a sedentary lifestyle has led to an obesity epidemic and health crisis of massive proportions in the US. Finding ways to be active every day and enjoying those activities is a cornerstone of individual and public health.
Running without a goal can be enjoyable for the sheer sake of moving your body and enjoying the outdoors. One doesn’t have to train for a race or worry about improving on your last 5K time. If you happen to be a Type-A personality like myself, a race can be a powerful motivator to train and improve as an athlete. More important than the motivation behind the exercise is simply finding a physical activity that engages us and makes us feel good in our body. There is a freeing aspect to being outside, enjoying nature, and fully engaging in an enlivening activity.
The spiritual element to running is often understated in common discussion but is the aspect that keeps me running year after year. By connecting with my breath and falling into a rhythm of footsteps, running serves as a moving meditation. It is a retreat from the stress and constant busyness of life, as well as a chance to commune with nature. Running gives me the opportunity to connect with myself, work through difficult thoughts or emotions, and gain a clearer perspective on life.
Running isn’t always Zen-like, however. Particularly during long-distance runs, I come face to face with my innermost thoughts, fears, and emotions—my thoughts tell me I’m not good enough and I fear that I won’t accomplish my goal. Adverse conditions give us the opportunity to see the best and worst of ourselves in response to discomfort or pain, but through perseverance, we test the outer limits of our capabilities.
“Even when you have gone as far as you can, and everything hurts, and you are staring at the specter of self-doubt, you can find a bit more strength deep inside you, if you look closely enough.” ~ Hal Higdon
Race day is only one small part of the marathon journey. Training to run 26.2 miles starts anywhere from four to twelve months prior to the marathon, depending on your running experience. Undertaking a marathon training regime is a big commitment as it dominates your life, so much so that even your weekends revolve around long runs, proper nutrition and hydration, and recovery! Race day is the most exciting part of the journey, but most of the personal growth happens while preparing for the big day.
I experience an entire lifetime of emotions and sensations on the marathon course on race day. The excitement at the start line gives way to the realization of the daunting task ahead, which leads to a little bit of fear and “what did I get myself into?” Eventually boredom takes over as I realize that I will be doing this for several hours, but cheering crowds help keep it interesting. Pain builds as joints start to ache and muscles get sore, leaving me to wonder if I’ll ever make it to the finish line. Glimmers of hope arise as each mile marker passes to denote my slow progress. Amidst all of this, there are also beautiful moments when I reflect on my surroundings and fellow runners. Gratitude for all the hard work that led to this day washes over me, which serves as a poignant reminder that I am indeed capable.
Fatigue grows, as does hunger, which leads to fantasies about food, food, and more food. Cheering crowds and hydration stations provide brief adrenaline surges, but the pain is ever constant. One foot in front of the other—until you realize that you have three, two, just one more mile to go. Eventually you see the finish line and you realize that you will in fact finish, the goal is within reach. The joy, the elation of completing the legendary marathon distance, regardless of your time, is an incomparable relief. You look back and marvel at just how far you’ve come in mind, body, and spirit.
When I ran my first marathon, I ran it with the intention of it being my only marathon—just to prove to myself that I could do it. Shortly after crossing the finish line of that race, a fellow runner asked me if I would run another one. Without a moment’s hesitation I said yes, because despite the pain and fatigue, I had never felt so alive, so strong, so capable. That is the true power of endurance sports, the empowerment that transcends the running itself.
As much as I love running, I realize that it isn’t for everyone. There are numerous activities that can offer a similar physical, mental, and spiritual outlet. My hope is that everyone can find an activity that empowers them and enhances their life the way running has mine. It could simply be walking in nature, swimming, cycling, horseback riding, playing tennis or golf, or a multitude of other options.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to run, just like I don’t know how long I’ll live. But I do know that as long as I can, I’ll be out there running.
Jessica Ruff, Elephant Academy ApprenticeBrowse Front PageShare Your Idea
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