Running is hard.
Let me try that again: Running, for me, is hard.
And I also kind of love it.
This is an oxymoronic truism that I’ve lived with for the 35-plus years I’ve been comfortable balancing upright on two legs. There is video footage of me, as a child, trying to run sprints across a playground. In it, my dad, who is also the cameraman, can be heard cheering me on. I have a lopsided smile on my face and am breathing hard. I’m not running fast, but I’m trying hard.
I tried less hard as I grew older. I was often last during every mile-run test at school, and eventually I stopped running it altogether. I opted to fail effortlessly rather than come in last trying my hardest.
In secret, though, I longed to run. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair, the burning in my lungs, the ache of tired legs. As my classmates ran, I closed my eyes and imagined being the fastest kid in school.
In my 20s I took up running in earnest. I had accepted that, while I couldn’t be the fastest person ever without trying, I could try a little and become the fastest version of myself.
Each week, I increased my mileage, and over time, I increased my speed. I welcomed my burning lungs and aching legs and set off to let the wind carry me one mile, then five, 10, and eventually 13.1 miles at a time. Once I even medaled in my hometown 5K.
My improvements were surprising to everyone who knew how I had avoided running for so many years. My dad pulled out the old video of me running around the playground to illustrate how far I’d come. People were proud of me. I was proud of myself.
And then, without a lot of thought, I stopped running. It stopped feeling great; it stopped being fun; I stopped improving. I took up strength training and discovered new loves: lifting, hiking, trapeze, dance.
Fast-forward to January 2020, nine years since I’d run with any passion or consistency. I am trucking up a small hill alongside Olympic runner Carrie Tollefson. She had invited me to be a guest on her podcast, CTolleRun, to chat about my volunteer work with Girls on the Run, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young women through the power of movement.
Carrie suggested doing the interview while running, an idea that initially made me cringe. But when an Olympian invites you to go for a “run-and-chat,” you don’t refuse. You put off the worries about keeping up.
The interview was a blast. It also affirmed what I already knew: I couldn’t really run anymore.
I casually complained about it to my coach, who didn’t miss a beat. Running has since been a consistent part of my training plan.
Coming back to this sport has been humbling but, miraculously, not disheartening. I know I’m not where I was nearly a decade ago when I comfortably identified as a “runner.”
I’ve learned that fitness is simply a set of skills that we prioritize and practice. I once prioritized running, I practiced it, and I got better. In the last few years, my priorities have been elsewhere. It would be silly to expect that I could pick up exactly where I left off, much like my childish dream of being fast without putting in the work.
The best lesson I’ve learned through fitness, but which transcends fitness, is this: Start where you are. I know that I can’t get anywhere if I don’t acknowledge and understand where I am right now. If I expected to pick up with the same speed and prowess I once had, I’d either throw in the towel out of disappointment or risk injuring myself trying to recapture the past.
Meeting myself in the present moment and using that as a judgment-free jumping-off point has helped keep me safe, get fitter, realize goals, and achieve more than I’d thought possible. I try to cloak myself in this attitude not only when I’m attempting something new but, frankly, every time I work out.
Starting where I am means that something can be hard, and I can love it, and I can get better — whether or not I’m ever the best.