I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I wake anxious in the middle of the night and sometimes lie awake for hours, and in the morning, I’m exhausted and agitated. I grumble through coffee and granola and email, as the sun beats in on me (as it has been since five a.m.). I feel fidgety and annoyed at nothing and wonder how I’m going to make it through the day, and then, I remember: my physical therapist has given me permission to run in minute-and-a-half bursts, as long as I don’t exceed a total of twenty minutes. It’s the closest thing to a real run I’ve been able to do in months. I stretch, put on my shoes, and head out, feeling better even before my walk turns into a shuffling jog.
Having suffered through two bouts of injuries this past year, both of which deprived me of running for months, I can say with absolute certainty that I am a better person when I’m running. When I’m running, I have a singular objective: move the feet as fast as you can, move forward, go that way, go, go, go! It’s refreshing. When I’m running, all the discombobulated thoughts in my head coalesce into a stream of consciousness that, even if I’m not fully aware of it, is sorting itself out as I move. Even at the sad pace at which I’m currently forced to jog, I can feel the anxiety falling away. For those minutes, things make sense, or if they don’t, I’m not as bothered by it. This does not happen when I’m walking. Don’t ask me why.
The other day, as I plodded through my allotted twenty minutes, I started thinking about the fact that I only got into running to replace dancing. When I quit dancing, I needed something that gave me the same bodily high, and while running is not exactly the same, it’s the closest I’ve found. I thought about all the things we stumble upon by accident—hobbies, places, people—that, after a while, can become intrinsic to who we are. Anyone who runs understands how hard it is not to. I’m grateful to have always worked with physical therapists who are runners—they get it. They’ve all told me to start running again while I’m still in pain. I’m sure this is sound medical advice. I’m also sure they know how it feels to be chomping at the bit.
So I run in pain, and though I’m healing, if I continue to be in pain, I’ll still run. My current physical therapist told me it didn’t matter if I was in pain while I ran. He said, “I wish it didn’t hurt, but what you need to be concerned about is if it hurts the day after.” Ah, the aftereffects. Perhaps it’s easier to deal with pain in the moment, harder to suffer the repercussions for the days and days that follow. Thankfully, I haven’t yet. I’m hoping that continues. But even if it doesn’t, I will keep running. I am a better person when I’m running.
At my last session, my physical therapist asked me if the route I run has hills. I told him, “Yes, a few. They were harder at first, but now they’re getting easier.” He blinked at me. He said, “Your body adapts quickly.” I nodded. I thought, My external body, yes. I put on muscle like a Nordic mastodon. Last summer, when I hurt my knees and a different physical therapist told me to do leg lifts, within weeks, I’d developed muscles above my kneecaps that had never been there before. My external body adapts quickly. My internal body—namely, my heart and lungs—does not. Compared to the rest of me, my internal body is downright glacial.
My heart beats hard while I’m running. My asthmatic lungs go into overdrive. For me, running is exertion, no matter how quickly or slowly I’m going, no matter how short or how long the route. I am not built for running. I am built, perhaps, for carrying buckets of water while slogging through the fjords. Having access to neither buckets nor fjords, I run, and so, running is a choice. I am a better person when I’m running, not just because it helps to alleviate my stress (though that’s certainly a factor), but because it reminds me that I am making a choice. My external body will adapt, but running will always be hard for me. I make the choice to run anyway.
Through everything that’s happened this past year—finding and quitting jobs, finding and losing love, injuries and complications and the sometimes unbearable problem of continued existence—I’ve had to change a lot about how I conceive of choices, how I adapt to change, how I view my life and its progression, and perhaps most significantly, how I relate to God. I’ve had to make major strides in learning what I can and cannot expect from Him. I’ve had to let go of my attachment to signs and intuition and what I think I understand, let go of the enormously great temptation to believe people (including myself) when they say they just “know” something is going to happen for me. We don’t know. We can’t. We have no crystal balls, and I have reached a point where I’m teaching myself to accept that the only thing I know for certain is that God works all things to the good of those who love Him—for His purposes and not necessarily my own, though I hope and aim to align more with His purposes the more I grow in Him.
Much of this is hard to accept. I’m a dreamer. I’m a ruminater. My mind is like a toddler who’s just learned how to run, and it will tear away from me and take off the second I let go of its hand. I can’t keep letting it wander into the dark patches of the forest, nor can I let it spend all its time fantasizing about the blue skies and crystal-clear waters of “this could be your future.” It could be. Or it couldn’t. I can’t know, just like I can’t know if I’ll get injured again if I keep running. I make the choice to run, just as I make the choice to believe in the goodness of God—whatever that may or may not look like in life as I know it—and just as I choose to stop being heartbroken about all of the things that are beyond my control. (Sidenote: I recently wrote an article for Spirituality & Health about my attempt to wait gracefully for love, which has a lot to do with what I’m talking about here, and which you may read by clicking here, if you are so inclined.)
People like to say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Like most things people like to say, this isn’t always true. For me, it depends on the situation. I’ve fought to keep running a few times now, and before, it was always because I “had” to. Because I couldn’t imagine not running. Because I was afraid of what not running would do to my thought process. Because I was afraid of what not running would do to my body. But this time, somehow, I let all that go. Rehab wasn’t nearly as arduous. When I relaced my shoes, I still felt trepidation, but I tried to think, Today, I run, and not go beyond that, not catapult my mind into tomorrow and the next day and the next. I still tell myself that, and I’m getting better at it. So in this instance, it seems that what didn’t kill me is, indeed, making me stronger, if only because it’s changing how I conceive of expectations.
For years, friends and family have touted me for my bravery—my willingness to move to new places alone, to travel alone, to chase after goals that will likely get me nowhere. I’ve always responded with some variation of, It’s not bravery when it’s not a choice. I had to move if I wanted to get out of a place where I didn’t belong. I have to travel alone if I want to go somewhere. I have to follow my passions because to not do so would be to deny who I am. But see, those are choices. I could’ve chosen to stay where I was, to always stay, to not do what my heart requires. I could choose all of that, and I wouldn’t be me, certainly not the “best” me. I am a better person when I’m running because while I run, I’m reminded that I’m making a choice: I’m choosing to be brave. I don’t often give myself enough credit for that.