Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reasons to Run: Breaking Down Barriers

Running has done so much for me - physically, mentally, even spiritually, depending on your definition of spirituality. It's helped me get, and stay, in reasonably good shape. It's been a lifeline when I'm depressed; sometimes it's the only thing that gets me up and on my feet. And it's connected me to a larger community, an inclusive, welcoming community with common values and objectives. It's made me feel less alone.

One goal I have for this blog (assuming I don't fall of the blogging wagon again) is to share the "gospel of running," so to speak. ;-) That may sound a little silly, but I think running is one of many potential catalysts for personal change and growth; it's also one that happens to be relatively inexpensive and doesn't require much equipment. I realize that not everyone wants to run, and that other people use other activities - yoga, climbing, religion, therapy, etc. - as catalysts for change. But it's worth touting running as an option.

One reason I love running is because it breaks down so many internal and external barriers, allowing people to be more real and vulnerable with themselves and one another, and more accepting of differences. For instance:

1) In running, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, country of origin, political beliefs, etc. do not matter. They just don't. None of these factors have anything to do with the act of running. Running bypasses, if not destroys, superficial barriers that seem to cause so many problems in our world and that blind us to our common human experiences.

2) In running, weight and appearance do not matter. When I started running, I was embarrassed to run on city streets because I felt fat and thought people were laughing at me. Granted, it is possible that someone may have made fun of me - but certainly no other runner has ever taunted me. That is simply not the running way. True runners respect and encourage other runners - regardless of how they look or what their pace is - simply because they are challenging themselves. As for bystanders who make fun of a runner's appearance? ...Well, they're the ones just standing there, or sitting in their cars in morning traffic. Who are they to cast judgment?

If you're afraid to start running because you're worried about how you look, try to find a place where you feel at least a little safe from the eyes of others, like a quiet park. Better yet, migrate to where the experienced, dedicated runners work out, like a local track, because even if they're in better shape, there's at least a 99.9% chance that they're going to support you and respect you just for getting out there and putting one foot in front of the other.

3) In running, people understand that everybody poops! Run for a while and you will quickly discover that the usual societal taboos regarding bodily functions don't really apply in the running world. Pooping, passing gas, puking, intestinal distress, figuring out where to pee when there's no bathroom available - these are all topics that runners tend to discuss with enthusiasm. Most runners have their fair share of stories involving said topics, and most runners don't blink twice when their running buddies have issues with bodily functions during races or training runs. It goes with the territory. Run for a while and you are sure to encounter a situation where you regret last night's dinner or have to duck behind a tree.

Poop levels the playing field. Again, it's about shared human experiences.

4) In running, pace does not matter. Well, it does matter a little in that if you run with other people, you have to figure out a way to accommodate different speeds. Either you have to split up (which is fine - you're still running together in spirit), or someone has to run faster while someone else runs more slowly (also fine, as modifying your pace will offer an additional challenge to the workout). But generally speaking, runners recognize that it's about the personal challenge. For some, moving from a 10-minute-per-mile pace to a 9-minute pace is a huge accomplishment; for others, running 20 miles at a 9-minute pace is a relaxing run. The important thing is that people meet their own personal goals and, if they so choose, set their own personal records.

5) In running, there's not much room for faking it. Especially if you're pushing yourself. When you run, you're breathing harder, you're focusing on how your body feels and on how far (or how long) you've been running, and there's less room for worrying about what other people think of you. And that is a really good thing, especially when you run with other people. As I've mentioned before, I've had a tough time making and keeping friends because I'm very self-conscious. But with the people I run with, I have little choice but to be myself - even when that means I'm frustrated or tired or grouchy. They see me when I'm not at my best, and that vulnerability provides more fertile ground for these relationships to develop.

6) Running breaks down mental barriers and perceived limitations. This is one of my favorite things about running. When I started, I thought I couldn't run for 10 minutes without stopping. Then one day I did. I thought I couldn't run for 30 minutes without stopping. After a while, I could. I was sure I wouldn't be able to run a marathon. It was a struggle, but I crossed that finish line. Running gives me an opportunity to surpass my own expectations for myself, and that in turn gives me hope/confidence that maybe, just maybe, I can surpass my own expectations in other areas of my life. In this way, it's helped me see that I am capable of change and growth, even when I feel stuck.

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