Challenge: Becoming a Runner

ELEANOR TAYLOR | REGULARS



When I was a little kid, my sisters and I would go for ‘runs with Mum. She’d get in her gear and we’d dutifully follow behind her – normally dressed in tutus or superhero costumes. Dad would back us up, speed walking with the pram. As Mum ran and my sisters and I got bored after about five minutes, we’d hop onto the pram and go get babycinos with Dad and let Mum run in peace. Up until this year, that was essentially my only experience with running.


I did rowing at school, we had to run two kilometres before our gym training each week, I hated it and walked most of the time. I would laugh it off saying “I’m just not built for running!” and then gesture to my broad shoulders and height as though it was a basic fact. About two years ago I decided to start going to the gym regularly, my cardio of choice was cycling (ironic because I have an irrational fear of bikes). Then, in the year of our Lord 2020… Covid-19 happened. The gym closed and I found myself in an odd spot. What could I do, if not Zumba? Not much it turned out, I refused to genuinely try running because I had defaulted to hating it. I think hating running is a common attitude. I never understood why someone would run. It seemed painful, tiring, and boring. In hindsight, don’t knock it till you try it.


At the start of 2021, I decided to give it a go. I don’t know what motivated me to take on this hell-sport, I can only tell you what I have gotten out of it so far.


IMPOSTER


I ran 5km for the first time in February with a time of 50 minutes. In March I decided to get a proper pair of running shoes and to start following runners online. In a fit of inspiration I even joined the reddit thread ‘r/running,’ launching myself into the online community.


There is an image of the “runner,” she eats salads and drinks smoothies. She wears her hair in a cute high ponytail and is petite, lean and tan. She’s also probably white.


I am an XL up top and was an XL down bottom. I am a sweaty mess 24/7 and have asthma which means I make quite an attractive wheezing sound sometimes. It is safe to say I felt outclassed. A couple of years ago, a person I had just met told me I should start exercising. I thought this was an interesting judgement from her as at the time I was working out five days a week. Based on my appearance she evidently felt her advice was warranted. At my school formal I was told I was brave to wear the dress I did, Even with your stomach! That was a long time ago, but comments like that created wounds in my self esteem that fester to this day.


I am only realising as I write this now, that part of me was committed to becoming the idealised runner, even if I didn’t know it. I told myself I just wanted to be able to run 5km. I got 5km and told myself I wanted to be faster. Once I’d achieved this I told myself I just wanted to lose a few kilos. I became obsessive with my appearance and felt like a shapeshifter, gradually morphing into who I thought I needed to be. I did lose weight through this challenge, enough that people noticed and told me I “look healthy” – that's the socially acceptable way of saying someone isn’t ‘fat’ anymore. But when I looked in the mirror, my butt had left the building, my hip dips were more prominent and I almost felt manish. It was the oddest experience, like seeing a stranger in the mirror. Even once I had lost weight and was running 5km in 30 minutes on a regular basis, I still didn’t feel as though I fit in.


When I say comparison is a trap, I mean it.


As for the performance aspect, seeing people who could run 5km in half my time left me both awestruck and insecure. I felt like an imposter in this space. Am I a ‘runner’ if I run really slowly? The answer to that is simple. If you are someone who goes for runs, you are a runner. I had to remind myself that I was doing this to connect with myself on a deeper level and achieve my personal goals.


THE LINE


There's a weird line between obsessive behaviours spurred on by mental illness and a healthy routine. I love working out and do it five or six days a week. Do I do this because I am obsessive and adhere to my daily routines with robotic precision? Do I do this because I enjoy it and want to be healthier? To be honest, I don’t entirely know and suspect it's a bit of both. I think I do have an unhealthy obsession with working out, but at the same time aside from medication, exercise has been the best thing I have done for my mental health. I am more stressed and tense when I don’t exercise and get this urge to move. At the same time, when I don’t exercise I catastrophize. I get thoughts telling me I will lose fitness from one day off, that I am weak-willed and fat and unworthy of anything good. I don’t have an easy solution to this issue, and running has evidently not cured my anxiety. I hope that as time goes by and I continue working on these problems and on improving my mental health, I can learn to live with my anxiety and to ignore my negative internal monologue.


MOTIVATION IS A BITCH


It turns out, motivation is not a reliable source of energy. When I went for my first run, I felt like I was flying, as though I could do anything, wondering; How was I so wrong about this awesome activity? I ran as much as I could, five days a week and this lasted for three weeks. One morning I woke up and it was just gone. I simply could not be bothered to run. Luckily, I am great at forcing myself to do things so onwards I trudged, shuffling miserably into my running gear and onto the footpath. I definitely still have days where I feel like Usain Bolt, and I have days where I walk more than run. Days where I want to curl up and read instead, and days where I do just that. Most of the time, I am able to get myself into a good pace just challenging enough to sweat, without draining all my energy for the day. I can roll along listening to a podcast feeling pretty zenned out.


Ultimately though, doing things requires discipline. I have learnt that you simply cannot rely on motivation, she is unreliable, clocks out of her shift early, and sometimes just ghosts you. Making something a new habit is about taking advantage of motivation when it strikes, but also exercising discipline (pun intended). Working out became a part of my daily schedule, something that was non-negotiable unless I was sick or incredibly tired. I am yet to have a day where after I finish a run, I regret it.

EMPOWERED


I have always been a socially anxious perfectionist, living in a perpetual state of insecurity. Combined with my own mental struggles, I have arthritis, asthma, and an immune disease. It is weird to be 20-years-old and physically unable to do some things. Luckily, I can run and I love it. I love being able to move my body and know that I’m giving back to it by building muscle and cardio fitness, releasing endorphins, and improving my headspace. I love that I can run anywhere whenever I want, I don’t need equipment or a gym membership to run. I feel strong and free when I run. Although I still find myself having days when I feel really insecure about my appearance or my 5km run time, I am learning to coexist with my body and to see its changes as moving towards a healthier me.


When I run, I am amazing and talented and fit and fast and thriving. The world shrinks to just me and my mind, bouncing along the Pacific Highway, adrenaline pumping, and that is why I do it. In a way, running is selfish for me. This is a thing I do where I am the centre of attention, no one else matters.


I run for myself, not for others.


I don’t exercise to lose weight or to look hot—some great side benefits—I exercise as a form of self care and giving back to myself. I’m still working on developing a well-rounded lifestyle, improving my mental health and accepting myself at every stage.


TAKEAWAYS


I love running, the benefits it has given me far outweigh any cons. Through running I have discovered insecurities I never knew I had, but this has enabled me to work on them, to identify and patch up problems with my mental health. It's not much compared to elite runners or the girls I follow online, but my 5km run time is now 30 minutes, and I feel like I have won a marathon.