Thoughts on thoughts (Subtitle: A long personal post about my experience with running addiction and associated issues)

No, I’m not stoned. By “thoughts” I mean thoughts related to running and running mentality in general. Any runner knows that running is addictive, and that stopping suddenly and especially for long periods of time can wreak havoc on your life both physically and mentally. When I first stopped running (well, kind of) in 2013, it was pretty rough for a few weeks, although I didn’t truly stop running (or hiking a lot) until that July after I got back from Colorado. After that, I took over a year off of running, during which I swam, biked, did yoga, and – primarily – started lifting. If I hadn’t started lifting, I think things would have gotten worse. But I did, and they didn’t.

Lifting actually did me a lot of good, especially since I started eating very well during that time too. I began to build muscle and lean out. I’d be at the gym for two to three hours every day. I felt healthy and happy, and my body image was pretty good. I peaked towards the end of last semester, back in April. And then summer happened.

This past summer was rough for a number of reasons. I was taking three classes at a community college – physics, chem, and calc. I’ve been doing communication studies for the last two years, so making the switch to science and math was challenging and time-consuming. I was out of Ann Arbor for most of the day and often got back long after the gyms here closed (the gym there cost too much), so my lifting decreased dramatically. I was starting to run a little, but still not much compared to how much I thought I should be doing. I wasn’t lifting nearly as much as I thought I should be lifting. The quality of my eating habits started to drop. My motivation waned. On top of that, both my relationship and my grandfather’s health were very rocky.

All of this had its toll on me. Simply said, I didn’t feel like myself at all – low motivation, low level of caring about things, dissatisfaction at life… generally not the happy-go-lucky gal that I tend to think of myself as being. Once classes ended, things started to look back up, although my body image and mood were still not nearly what they were in the spring. I thought I was exaggerating my memories of my own feelings from the summer, especially June. But while reading back through my journal a few nights ago, I noticed a pattern starting even in April. So many entries ended in an assessment of my mood that day being “sad” or “depressed” or “bleh.” Bleh, in my mind, encompasses poor body image, sadness, and typically vague anxiety that just won’t quit. There were some good days – days when I bothered to run or eat something healthy or see people. By and large, however, it was a dump. J’avais le cafard, as the French would say. Literally, it means “I had the cockroach,” but the essence is “I had the blues.”

So I started thinking about how everything over the past two years was connected. 2012 was my high – starting ultras and being in great shape. I had high hopes for running. I spent most of 2013 injured, but still running and hiking and road tripping until the end of July (though I distinctly recall laying on a crash pad in the California sun, just having thankfully, barely, Not Broken Down in Death Valley, and feeling utterly disgusted with myself – so things were not 100 percent hunky-dory). Then lifting did a great job of keeping me active, fit, and generally happy. And over the summer, I lost it.

I’m the first to admit that I have used running as a crutch – relied on it too much to maintain happiness and physical and mental satisfaction. The same goes for many, many runners and other high-volume athletes. Addiction. So in a way, my time off of running provided me with an opportunity to ease myself off of that crutch that I probably would not have sought out otherwise. It was primarily lifting, but I’ve also adjusted my mentality rather significantly. In the past, I have relied heavily – too heavily – on running to both provide and gauge my life happiness and satisfaction. Now that I can’t run or don’t lift for two or three hours every day, I have made myself mentally adjust to the fact that it is okay to derive happiness from things other than physical exertion. Gasp. Things like spending an afternoon hanging out with friends and cooking instead of running then eating soy chicken stuff alone and binge-watching Netflix to ignore feelings and quell rising anxiety. Things like running just a few miles with friends instead of feeling the need – the compulsion – to run ten miles because it’s social and fun and good for your soul. 

On the flip side (there’s always a flip side, isn’t there?), I also worry that I’m leaning too far in the “for your soul” direction – not pushing myself enough, allowing myself too much lenience in what I’m eating. I question my own thoughts and motives and feelings. I doubt myself. And that’s not okay. It makes it nearly impossible to tell the difference between working hard and working hard for the wrong reasons – body image, obsessive exercise, that sort of thing. In a weird way, though, being injured and worrying about getting re-injured has almost forced me to maintain a balance and therefore I don’t have the option of worrying about whether I’m working hard for the wrong reasons. Instead, I question whether I actually need rest or if I’m just being lazy. There it is, the L word. It all comes back to that mentality. And I’m working on it.

To wrap all this up, a personal update (as though all that weren’t personal, HA): I’ve been running, slowly and safely building up distance. The farthest I’ve run recently is about 15, and 8 to 10 is more typical. I’m hoping to do a 50k by the end of the year, but if I don’t, then I don’t. I’m working really hard to not pressure myself too much (while also pressuring myself enough to word and not be lazy – that blurry line again!), because if I do that then I might get injured again, and I’d be back to square one. But fall is nigh, and with it is that crisp, damp, chilly October air that sparks the trail runner’s imagination and brings back memories of cross country races years ago, of specific fall runs and of just how the trees look as they wax maroon and gold and burnt orange over the still lake and under the ever-clouded grey October sky. On a short tempo run a few days ago, I heard someone coming up fast behind me and, without thinking, sped up. She wasn’t going to pass me. And she didn’t. For the next 1200 or so, I kept up what felt like a sub-7 pace, until I hit my turnaround point. I gave her a nod as she continued past me. The runner can leave cross country, but the cross country never leaves the runner.

peace love and foggy fall runs through quiet trails in the early hours of morning before the world stirs,

PS. I had to rewrite the end of this since WordPress failed to post my first one, so it’s a little lackluster.  😦  I think I got the gist of it.

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