January 15, 2005

on running

I've been running a lot lately, and further than I used to think I could. After barely running for the last month, I ran 4 miles on Tuesday, and another 37 minutes (maybe 3.5 miles?) tonight. I've been thinking that by the time I leave California I'd like to do a serious challenge run, something over 10 miles. Maybe the 11 mile roundtrip to Wildcat Camp at Point Reyes, or something up in Tilden Park - I have the feeling that the Inspiration Point trail goes a long, long way. It's a long way to come from sophomore year of college, when I'd never gone running and maxed out, after a couple of months, at 2.5 very slow miles. Even further from high school, when I would get up before 6 for aerobics classes at the Y (can you imagine? me in an aerobics class?) but refused to run under any circumstances. Except, of course, from enemies or to the bathroom.

I know a lot of people who hate to run, and because I used to feel that way, I think some of those people could learn to love it. Not everyone, of course. I come from a family of runners, which in this case means a family full of reasonable but not spectacular athletes and addicts. Everyone in my family gets a rush from doing too much. I remember deciding where to go to college, and choosing the place that would kick my ass. It did - I had no idea how to handle it for the first two years, and would find myself at the end of the semester with a massive pile of back work; so I'd have to work almost straight through for two weeks to get it done, and then I'd feel awesome. This isn't a healthy way to do things: I get a lot done, sometimes, and I like running, but I'd be better off working steadily. We also have a lot of addicts - cigarettes and alcohol, and most of the women in my family have eating disorders. It's the same feeling, right, except starving or binging instead of schoolwork, or exercising compulsively instead of pushing yourself right at a particular moment. And feeling like you have to kick your own ass to be alive is often really unhealthy. If you like it, though, if you really enjoy doing things that are incredibly difficult for you, you might like running. It also helps to be ok at it, and to have good joints: if your joints are bad, running is going to do you very little good.

I don't really think running is good for your body, except for the cardiovascular stuff. For being healthy, as opposed to good at a particular activity (running, boxing, skiing, anything that takes intense cardiovascular power) or high on endorphins, I think walking and yoga are probably both a lot better. Or non-competitive swimming. Walking and swimming have enough resistance to keep your bones strong, yoga gets you flexible, none of them destroy your knees and ankles like running does. There's a cult of running that says that it's the only serious exercise, but that's total nonsense. If you want to love your body and be healthy, you should do whatever physical activity makes you love your body and be healthy. Walking, swimming, yoga, aerobics, canoeing, squash. The people who think their own kind of exercise is the best can all go to hell. For me, though, running is amazing. I like the high and the cardiovascular resource, but I also just like how it feels.

I started moving towards running after high school. I'd taken these weightlifting classes - all women, supportive environment, ages from 15 to 75 - and I kept doing circuit training the summer after I graduated. I also started doing the elliptical cross-trainers, because they were low impact and didn't make my breasts bounce. In all seriousness, that was a major reason that I hated running. I played pick-up ultimate, which involved running, but that was ok because I had some goal (catching the frisbee! blocking my opponent!) to distract me from the way my breasts bounced. Back to the elliptical trainers: they also helped me build up enough cardio fitness that when I went to college and lived with two other people who wanted to take up running for the first time, I could do it. It was fun - we'd go on sunny afternoons and run about 2 miles, very slowly, and then drink tea and bake things to avoid thinking about schoolwork. One of them has since switched to yoga and bicycling as her primary exercise, and the other runs marathons. Go figure. When I decided to play on the ultimate team, I could just barely sort of maybe if I tried really hard keep up with the rest of the team and be completely exhausted at the end of warm-ups. I remember one round of sprints nearly made me cry during the spring break training trip. I quit. It was a kick-ass team, and I contributed just about nothing.

But it made me a runner, sort of. I couldn't have started from scratch and gone running; I needed the gradual build-up. I ran intermittently, always slowly and about the same distance - 2 miles, occasionally 3 - until last spring. I'd been running pretty consistently just then, and I had this realization. I wasn't turning around because I was exhausted or expected to be exhausted at the end. I was just sick of it. I was bored. Running the same route in Philadelphia day after day is boring as shit. It was a great thing to realize. I ended up asking a good friend who can outrun me over any distance to flat-out do me a favor and go running with me to keep me company, and it was a revelation. I could run for almost an hour at a reasonable pace, and I could run almost indefinitely if we went slowly enough. I think the difference between 2.5 miles and 5 is a lot less than people think. It is for me, anyway. I'm running 40 minute increments now, and I want to go out on Sunday and make it 75 minutes because I think it's possible. I haven't run that far in almost a year.

That friend and I actually ended up with an arrangement that I loved, and which is by far the best running arrangement I've ever had. He would run from his house to mine at his pace: about 4.5 miles, and a 7 or 8 minute mile. We'd have some water, drive up to Fairmount Park, and do a nice hour-long cooldown for him, which was my run. I never ran too fast or far for him to keep up with me, and he could push me a little but he didn't need to for it to be a good run for him. The only time I did anything like maxing him out was on this fairly brutal hill, which for some reason I felt like running up. Of course, then he moved to DC.

Running alone has never worked very well for me, until just now when I started running at one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. That's pretty helpful. Treadmills make me crazy, so that's not really an option. I've also learned that I have to be careful about eating when I run. I need to eat before I go, so rolling out of bed in the morning and running out the door is no longer an option, and I can't eat right before I run or I'll want to puke.

I eat an enormous amount when I'm running. I think this would happen with any physical activity, though: whenever I'm really active, I feel like eating anything in my general vicinity. Over the last year I've even started craving meat, something that has never happened before in my nine years of vegetarianism. There are people who run a lot who are vegan, but I don't know how. Actually, I called one of them when I felt like no matter how much I ate I was still hungry, and said, "What did you eat?!" and he said, "Well, I ate probably two pounds of tofu a day. Sometimes three." Oh. Right. My current strategy is avocadoes, because I'm in California and they're in season. I'm trying for one a day, but it might get too expensive.

I have to drink a lot of water. Juice is actually better, because then I get calories too. And stretch - stretching is awesome. You do it for five minutes, and then you're not sore the next day. My friend who I used to run with who did the marathon also has a training technique that she swears by: run five minutes, walk one. Repeat for 26.2 miles. She said it doubled her mileage immediately to walk one minute out of six. I haven't tried it, but everyone I know who has loves it. The major thing I do is to go slow. I'm not super-interested in going fast, so I don't. Sometimes I'm really slow, sometimes I go a little faster, but I'm never going much faster than a 10 minute mile. It's nice. By the time I'm done with my run, my whole body has sort of warmed up and loosened and stretched out.

Those are my running tricks. But I think the most important thing is that if, on balance, you hate it, you shouldn't do it. Do something else. Do something you like. There are so many awesome physical things to do in the world that no one should have to be miserable exercising.

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