Sunday, November 6, 2016
Running Forward, Not Away
A year after my diagnosis, I started running. I had never been an athlete; I was the nerd who competed in Youth in Government, Speech and Debate, and Mock Trial. But, I wanted to improve my health and fitness. I could barely run a quarter of a mile without keeling over exasperated and exhausted. I scoffed at – and resented - people who claimed to enjoy exercise. To me, running felt like torture. Nonetheless I was set on getting in better shape; I became determined to run a full mile without stopping.
While my vision got weaker, fitness became a way for me to get stronger. After a year of “running” (more like speed walking with short excruciating bursts of jogging) combined with yoga, pilates, and strength training, I accomplished my goal. I ran my first race: a 5K. Surrounded by enthusiastic masochists seeming to enjoy the frigid early morning, I huffed and puffed to the finish. Although I did it, I was the slowest of my friends. I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of pride. I felt tired, worn, and defeated.
I kept running, but I didn’t sign up for another race; running was for me. It was my way to disconnect from pressures at work and school, or conflicts with family and friends. I ran through my feelings. I ran through pain. I ran to disappear inside myself, retreat to a private world where I could overcome anything. Running provided me the time and space to be in my body. I learned to listen to my muscles, feel my breath, trust my stride. I started to crave how running encouraged me to be mindful and present, attentive to my surroundings. I improved my mileage, ticking up to longer runs – 7, 8, 9 miles. Without realizing it, running became something I began to truly enjoy.
As running became a more prominent part of my life, I considered running a longer race. Living in the Bay Area surrounds me with countless beautiful courses, and it was an enticing fitness challenge. Yet, I worried that a race would strip running of its intimacy. It would convert my solitary respite into a crowded competition. Candidly, I doubted myself. Would I be able to navigate the course? Was it feasible to train on my own? Was I strong enough, dedicated enough? Could I actually be a runner?
Several years later, and just a few months ago, I ran my first half marathon, accompanied by a friend. Running not one but 13.1 continuous miles made me feel empowered and proud. Similar to my first 5K, I huffed and puffed to the finish. The last couple miles were agonizing. I felt tired and worn, but very far from defeated.
Training for and running a half marathon helped me prove to myself that I am still mentally and physically able. As someone who often feels failed by my physical body, pushing myself to run farther and faster verifies my strength and stamina. Running makes me grateful for what my body can do, rather than limited by what it cannot.
When people hear I run, often I get a response riddled with concern, “Do you run alone?” Yes, I run alone. I am deliberate about my running routes. I only run in daylight. I map my paths ahead of time. I have a scanning and tracking strategy while I run to ensure I do not miss obstacles. Like most things I do, I run differently by running with low vision. I've now run a few smaller races on my own, always on familiar courses, and I now trust I can run more.