There are a variety of reasons why people start running. Motivations can range anywhere from wanting to improve one’s health, to becoming part of a community, or to trying something new. Long-distance running strengthens both the body and the mind, allowing you to test your limits and discover that you can achieve much more than you ever thought possible.
In this way, running is both an exercise and an exploration. With nothing but the empty trail in front of you, the act of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, teaches you deeply about yourself.
As pretentious as it sounds, I started running because I hoped it would turn me into a better person.
I wanted to be the girl who went to cross country practice after school and ran all the miles. The girl who hit her splits every interval and smiled into the cool-downs, spreading the kind of positivity that was infectious. I wanted to be the girl who carried a water bottle decorated in stickers everywhere she went, who made fruit smoothies and oatmeal bowls for breakfast, who ran because she loved it and loved it because it made her happy and strong. I wanted to be the girl who felt that passion so deep it ached.
I joined the cross country team in high school. I ran every day and I fell in love with it. My world became wooded trails and squishy track, summer heat, rainstorms, wind, and miles—so many miles, sometimes split into 800s or 400s, or run all at once in one big stretch of sweaty, heart-beating time. I made some of my best friends and experienced some of my best days. Running opened many doors for me, helping me to foster a deep love for nature and fresh air, a reverence for the earth. It offered me the freedom to let go of the world for an hour or two every day, with nothing more than the wind and the cadence of my breathing to occupy my mind.
I felt healthy, fast, and strong. Still, I was only a mediocre runner. After two years, my steady yet diligent work brought me to a standstill. My race times failed to show improvement despite the effort I put into each workout. Attending each practice, stretching and icing afterward, and getting enough sleep wasn’t enough. So I reappraised the situation to try and figure out what was lacking.
The summer after my sophomore year, I discovered a dangerous secret: the less I weighed, the faster I ran.
And this is the killer rule of long-distance running. Being lighter on your feet makes everything easier. Faster runners spend significantly less time with their feet on the ground than average runners, and it’s easier to get your feet off the ground when there is less weight to heft. Intuitively, it makes sense.
But there is, of course, a limit to this rule. There is a point at which thin becomes too thin and muscle begins to atrophy. There is a point at which sheer willpower alone will not get you through a workout, no matter how determined you are, and the only thing that will help you is to actually eat.
It’s a delicate balance. Or maybe it just seemed delicate to me that year, when I was weighing my options: to eat a proper meal and stay at the same weight for the rest of the season or to go hungry and get faster. Now, the answer seems obvious, and I know I made the wrong decision then. Health should always come first.
Years later, it still hurts to think that I ran my fastest race when I was at my lowest weight, at the most malnourished I had ever been. It doesn’t seem fair. In my mind, running had been equated with healthiness, and faster meant stronger. Clearly, that wasn’t always the case.
Nowadays, I no longer run on a team and I no longer compete in races. This is the decision that is best for my physical and mental health, even though it often makes my heart ache.
The point of this article is to stress that your health should always be your top priority. No matter what. Even if it means relinquishing your goals. Even if it means giving up something you love.
To all the runners out there who have an insane passion for this sport, who are working as hard as they can, who are doing all the right things—eating properly, sleeping enough, cross-training, and so on—but are still failing to achieve their goals, I see you. I’m with you. I know it hurts and I’m here for you.
The roads, the trails, the mountains, the distances…all of it will always be there for you. Your health and happiness take precedence. Look out for yourself. Take care of yourself.