A few years ago I decided to learn to run. I was needing more aerobic exercise and I was tired of paying for a gym membership to do an elliptical (which I almost never used). I have always been scared of running, for a couple of reasons. One, at a certain point (like 2 minutes in!) my body would go into panic mode and I would practically hyperventilate. Fear. Of being away from home on the side of a road and having a migraine take me down. Fear. Of my head exploding when my heart rate went too high. If that wasn’t enough, I also had a very loud tape re-playing in my head from childhood. It said that I was not a runner, that I looked so funny when I tried. It said, “you are really not athletic enough to run.” It was from this place that I set myself to run. To get to that first mile, I had quite a mountain to climb.
I bought a heart rate monitor first. I had never considered, in real terms, how much I could raise my heart rate without my head feeling like it would explode. I guessed that there must be a sweet spot, and if I stayed at or below that place, then I could train myself not to panic. So I walked. I walked fast. I would run as fast as I could for 15-30 seconds. I panicked a lot. But I also learned what my heart rate felt like. I learned how to raise my heart rate without immediate panic. I helped myself relax into it. It was painful, don’t get me wrong, but I kept at it. And finally I could run (a little distance) without a panic. This was a major milestone.
But those tapes kept running in my head — I was not athletic enough to run. I looked stupid. And then a new one “what the hell was I thinking?!” I committed to a half mile. There were a couple of times I sat on the side of the road and cried my eyes out. Mostly, I think I did it out of grief. Grief that I played those tapes for so many years, and I really believed they were true. Grief that it had taken me so long to move through it. But I kept on. And I panicked. And cried. And screamed at my husband several times. But we kept on.
A half mile seemed so short. It seemed like I should be able to do it. And eventually I did, but the mile seemed so elusive. Still. I kept collapsing, and crying. Looking back, it seems like a lot of drama, but sometimes the drama we play out in our minds is incredibly powerful driver of real life. And that was certainly true for me in this instance.
So I finally stopped. I stopped running. I looked at my why. Why did I want to run? Why did this feel like such a need for me? And what I came to changed everything. I wanted peace. I wanted to feel openness and free. I wanted to trust myself. I wanted to know myself. It wasn’t about the distance. Or the time. Or the image. It was about me finding peace and trust.
I stopped comparing myself to every other runner I ever saw. I gave myself permission to look stupid, or feel stupid. I stopped giving myself so much judgement. Mostly. So I picked it up again, and ran for a different reason.
After that point I stopped trying to run, and I just ran. I gave myself only two very strict rules: run as slow as you can and breathe. SLOW. VERY VERY SLOW. BREATHE. BREATHE. BREATHE
Instead of aiming for a ten minute mile, I paced for a 15 minute mile. Yes, technically I can walk faster than that. But I literally forced myself to run at a 15 minute pace. I worked to let go of the “you’re so slow” shame running through my head. I practiced breathing. A meditative breathing. And slowly, it began to work. I could keep my heart rate down, and keep on going. And after three months I ran a 15 minute mile.
After that, I let go of the distance and worked toward 30 minutes, regardless of distance. I stopped tracking it entirely. And I could eventually really run a long way. I ran a 5k, and then a 10k. When I ran the 10k, I felt like a superwoman. I wasn’t aiming for a time. I was only aiming to finish the run. And I did. My husband ran with me too, and offered lovely support and reminders to SLOW the f*&% down. I did not break down with a migraine. I did not hyperventilate. And I had fun. Still I cannot call myself a runner. BUT I can run. And that is enough.
Now I know. I can run a mile. To be honest, I still haven’t erased those childhood tapes entirely. I still can’t say that I love running. But I can say that I can do it, and can do it again. And, the fear . . . the overwhelming fear is gone. That. Is. Huge.
The distance to a mile is not just geography. It is not just physical. The emotional distance of a mile was one of the longest and deepest miles I’ve ever traveled. And going that distance changed me inside and out.
P.S. If you want to try out the heart monitoring strategy. Consider using this monitor. It worked great for me. You can do it!