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Not Quite Running Free
Posted by soph
7th Aug 2018

You know that it's not just running for fun when you methodically enter all of your runs for the next few weeks into both your phone and paper calendars. Exercise has always been a central part of my life, and I've played a lot of competitive team sports along the way, and now that I haven't been in a team for over a year, my relationship with exercise has become a bit more transparent.

Sometimes I tell myself and other people that it's something I'm doing for enjoyment, for clearing my mind, for staying healthy. I love to paint this picture, of running as a form of body-mindfulness, paying attention to my breath and the movement of my body, noticing how I feel, being in the moment and feeling alive. But I also know that this picture is something I'm running towards, and am still very far away from.

As soon as I realised I could really run again, after struggling with a football-induced knee ligament injury for a couple of years, it very quickly became a Challenge. I chose a half-marathon six months away, researched training plans, and started pushing myself towards the goal of beating the time I'd run some years back, before the injury. I was very focused on working towards my Big Goal. I even created myself a chronic achilles strain because I jumped up my training too quickly halfway through, and then rigidly stuck to my training plan because it was a Challenge. And as soon as I finished that run and missed my time by a couple of minutes, I was planning the next Challenge. And even though I actually met the goal on the next one, I was kicking myself for not having gone just a bit faster.

My runs are about going at a specific pace, for specific distances, all of which are meticulously planned to get me towards my goals. They are about self-monitoring. They are about self-control, as if they would hold the rest of my life in place, as if without them everything might slowly deflate and crumble. They are about proving myself. It's as if, were I not to be able to stick to my training goals, which no-one else even knows, there would be a great downpouring of shame. But the goals are elusive; it's never really enough. This is not really a peaceful way of running. It's quite stressful.

In fact, it's a bit like having some kind of military sergeant in your head. Mine has been there for years. My team sports were always an area where I was trying to prove myself, and where I was never as good as the sergeant wanted me to be, which resulted in a lot of disappointment and changing sports. Now that I'm just running "for me" rather than for a team, I would quite like to lose the sergeant.

But although I know it's not helpful to move with this feeling of "you must do this or you're not good enough", it's what I've been doing for so long that I also know it isn't helpful to chuck it out all at once. I recognise that it's some kind of coping strategy for life, so I'm trying to work from within it.

So I don't beat myself up about the way I run. I let myself have my Challenges, and push myself, and focus on times. And at the same time, between the updates on my times, I try to pay attention to my body, and look at the trees and the water I run past, and feel a sense of flow within me. I might only going slowly towards that picture of mindful, attentive, clear-headed, peaceful running, but at least I have the picture in mind, and however slowly I'm going towards it, is enough.

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