I received a great gift just over a year ago, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. In 2011, my daughter graduated from high school. A friend took a picture of us, and, to celebrate our grand event, put the picture on Facebook. No problem.
Except when I saw that picture, I didn’t recognize myself. Sure, there I was smiling proudly, my daughter graduated with honors as valedictorian of her class. But I had gained so much weight that the smile seemed, in an odd way, a pained grin.
The pain continued as my wife and I went on vacation a few months later. I surprised her with a walking tour of the best restaurants in Seattle, but I could barely get through the tour. Here we were as a couple getting on with the next chapter of our lives, now officially empty-nesters, and I couldn’t walk more than a couple miles without running out of gas. Not good.
Something Had to Change
I determined at the end of that vacation to finally get in shape. And, yes, I’d made that same promise to myself in the past. But between my shocking weight gain and my pathetic energy level, it was time to do something about it. So I started, slowly and tentatively, running. Very slowly and very tentatively.
A year ago I couldn’t complete a mile without gasping for breath. I had to run a little, walk a lot, and run a little bit more. This went on for months. But then, almost magically, my body started to transform.
Yesterday, I ran five miles at a pace of 10 minutes, 11 seconds a mile. What a difference 12 months makes! I run just over 20 miles a week and have competed in a few local races, placing at the top of my age group. Oh, and by the way, I’ve also lost 50 pounds. All these things, as cool as they are, are not the real reasons I run. They got me started, but here’s what keeps me going. Each were a complete surprise.
1. I run because it clears my head.
I’ve always had trouble turning off the thoughts in my head about work. My mind is always going and my brain is always thinking. As a solo consultant with a home office, that practice had become even more pronounced. Mostly, that’s a good thing. My clients pay me, first and foremost, to be a thought leader. But it was beginning to produce hopelessly distracted weekends and constant sleepless nights.
The surprising thing about running for me is that it turns my brain off. On the days I run, I sleep the sleep of the dead. On the weekend, most runners go on what’s called their “long run.” I do the same and end up forgetting about work completely, returning home ready to focus on my family. The next surprise for me was this: the clearing of my brain made for greater creativity when my thoughts returned to work. Amazing!
2. I run because it calms my emotions
More than what it does for my mind, however, I love what running does for my emotions. Whatever troubles have accrued during the day, they are gone after a run. No, not the actual circumstances, but the tension those circumstances created. Not very many anxieties can survive repeated 10 minute miles and the endorphin rush that occurs afterward.
It’s my understanding, although I am far from an expert on the subject, that most forms of exercise have this effect on us. The book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Dr. John Ratey documents this phenomena. Reading this book was part of my inspiration to get started running, especially as I saw myself in a middle-aged grouch named Bill that Dr. Ratey talks about in Chapter 5.
3. I run because it strengthens my character
Here’s where running has challenged me to the core: there are so many ways to quit in it. I can choose to run slower than I know I can run in a race or a workout. I can drop a workout completely because of a little water in the sky (Okay, I live in the Northwest, a lot of water in the sky). And I can cling to comfort and ease, refusing to push the envelope of my personal limitations.
Every run is a gut-check for me and an opportunity to stare down my demons. I’ve learned how to be persistent in the face of pain, determined in the pursuit of my goals, and patient when progress is slow. Quite simply, and surprisingly, running has made me a better person.
Don’t Kill the Horse!
The nineteenth-century Scottish minister, Robert Murray McCheyne, uttered these words on his death bed at a mere 29 years of age, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”
These words are even more true today in the twenty-first century with 24/7 demands on our time. Our body is the only horse we’ve got to do the work we’ve been given to do, both personally and professionally. We must care for it well and keep it healthy and strong. In the process we’ll also clear our mind, calm our emotions, and strengthen our character. How’s your horse?