The most nervous I’ve ever been in my life was before my junior high track meets. I’m not kidding. I’m down with public speaking (even after forgetting a speech on stage once, in high school); I love traveling alone; and I can tolerate a fair amount of muted agony during “networking” events. It was those track meets that did me in.
I ran the 800 meters (two laps around the track), which was pretty much the worst race ever—too short to settle into a comfortable pace and long enough to feel like prolonged torture. I usually placed in the top 3 or 4, so I wasn’t terrible at it. But for hours beforehand, I could think of nothing but the boiling pit in my stomach, conducting frantic mental searches for an escape hatch right up until the starting gun went off. (Unsurprisingly, I ditched the track team after 8th grade.)
But those days of dread were edifying. After one lackluster race, my coach pulled me aside and asked, “Did you really run as hard as you could have?” (I know, I know, sports metaphors.) To understand the impact of this innocuous and fair question, you should know that I was a straight-A student at the top of my class in a small town. My nascent sense of self hinged on being a good student and a hard worker, and I was used to teachers and coaches knowing this and always giving me the benefit of the doubt.
This was the first time one of them had directly questioned my level of effort, and I was stunned. I answered him candidly: “I guess I could have run harder.” He then gave me a piece of advice that echoed for years, despite its after-school-special quality.
He told me that I should feel like I’d spent every ounce of energy I had by the end of a race. Otherwise, I’d always know that I could have done better—and worse, I’d never really know how much better. It sounds so common-sense now, like such a quintessential coach line, but it was one of those moments you don’t realize is a moment until its impact on you becomes clearer over time.
As I got older, I recalled my coach’s kind frankness and matter-of-fact insight often. His advice eventually crystallized into a mantra that I began to call upon in other contexts of my life: Give all of yourself to this.
For a long time, nothing proved itself more often or more strongly than the returns I received when I gave all of myself to something—and the general malaise and dissatisfaction that settled over me when I didn’t. It was one of those core principles that lives just underneath your conscious awareness—close enough to the surface to pop up regularly, but submerged enough to surprise you every time.
Then, in January 2011, I started running again, sort of by accident. It began, as it often does, as a New Year’s resolution. I signed up for a local running group, Austin’s Rogue Running, in a half-hearted bid to start exercising more.
As a harmony-seeking INFP who hates to disappoint others, I figured I could trick myself into sticking with it by joining a group effort with people who would notice if I stopped showing up. At one of our first meetings, we filled out a “goals” worksheet, and I struggled to find something to write down that wouldn’t betray my low expectations.
Those first few months were as arduous as I’d come to expect running to be. I scoffed at references to a “conversational pace” (which does, in fact, turn out to be a thing). I skipped the time trials (timed 2-mile sprints to benchmark your pace). But I kept showing up, knowing there was no competitive climax to dread and no performance expectation other than my own, which I couldn’t muster the energy to conjure anyway.
This was an unfamiliar and not entirely comfortable approach—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t getting as much out of the program as I should be.
And yet, I soon found myself running 3 miles at a clip. Then 6. Then 8. When I ran my first 10k six months later, entirely by choice, it came almost as a surprise: was I really running races again? More to the point, how was I running 6+ miles comfortably all of a sudden? When did that happen?
It struck me: ironically, it was by not giving all of myself to it or expending every ounce of energy I had. It was by doing the opposite. My running program advocated taking things slowly, so the weekly increases in distance were almost imperceptible. We were chilled about it. You just showed up, and you ran. Again and again and again.
One day that summer, during a long run, one of my running buddies mentioned that she was thinking about training for a half-marathon in November. “Good for her,” I thought, but thirteen-plus miles was way more than I ever imagined myself running (or wanting to run).
But I just kept showing up, and sure enough, I found myself entering that half-marathon too—and then another one a year and a half later, because I’d kept running for a full two and a half years by that point. I still hadn’t shown up for a single time trial—a trend that now felt like a symbol of my personal philosophy on running—but
I was never the best runner in my group, or the strongest, or even the most dedicated. I bonded with my closest running buddy over our shared lack of desire to get competitive. The self-professed “type B” runners of the group, we’d hang back and keep a consistent pace, rather than striving to be the fastest in a speed workout or run the steepest hills. We stuck with the program. We did the workouts. We logged our miles. We just ran.
Still, when it came to racing, it was hard for the lifelong high-achiever in me not to hear my junior high track coach in my head, sweeping me up in the frenzy of goal paces and personal record times. So at the start of my second half-marathon, I made a conscious decision to go slowly and not worry about it.
As I rounded the corner to the finish line of that race, I distinctly remember thinking, “I’m done already?” I felt great—I could have kept going, even. Then I saw that I’d still beaten my last race time. Not by much, but the difference in how I felt was huge.
At a get-together later that week, one of my fellow runners recounted how she’d finally beat her sub-2-hour goal. She’d felt like throwing up for 10 minutes afterward, she said, but she’d finally done it. In that moment, a blooming realization finally crystallized. I didn’t want to give all of myself and expend every ounce of energy on running, even during a race, and that was okay. I really did just want to run.
This may seem quaint, but for the first 30 years of my life, I’d defined myself by my achievements—by my ability to be the best, to do things perfectly, to never let myself off the hook (without feeling deeply ashamed of myself, at least). I’d measured my success by how exhausted I felt at the effort. If it was too easy, I was faking it. If it felt simple, it was dumb luck.
It wasn’t just that I’d learned to expect myself to be great at whatever I did, even if it was exhausting and dread-filled. It was that I’d developed an internal compass for avoiding anything I knew (or feared) I wouldn’t be great at. I mistrusted my natural proclivities and disregarded my present capabilities.
My big sports metaphor had drowned out a simpler, subtler message.
It turns out that running is the guide—not racing, not PRing, not “leaving it all out on the course”. Just running. You do it, and it gets easier. You keep running, and you get stronger and better at it.
Sure, you can make every run about beating your last time or burning more calories or moving up your app’s local leaderboard. But all that really matters is that you run—slowly, quickly, for 20 minutes, for an hour, for two hours, up hills, across flat straightaways, around tracks, down trails, through the neighborhood, however and wherever you can.
Over longer distances, this idea has fine-tuned my ability to tolerate discomfort without searching frantically for shortcuts. Running has taught me to calm down, be patient, and let things unfold at their own pace. It’s made me an expert at knowing when to stop forcing something and just accept what exists at that moment. Because by the time you’re at mile 8 or 12 or 16, you don’t necessarily feel great. And that’s okay. You can let the discomfort come and go as it pleases and still feel relaxed and completely confident that you’ll get there. You can take a deep breath, shift your focus, and keep going.
It’s now nearly six years after my tentative and uninvested return to running, and I haven’t stopped. I’ve simply settled into a more leisurely routine of 3- to 4-mile jogs, which I pause altogether in the 100+ heat indices of summer in Austin. I don’t race anymore. I don’t do speed workouts or set pace goals. I just run when I feel like it, for as long as I feel like it.
I just run.