I first began running for a simple reason: I wanted to prove my dad right.
A rather uncoordinated (read: klutzy) kid, I’d tried and whiffed, badly, at almost every team sport. Buried in an old photo album at my parents’ house, there’s a softball team photo in which I’m red-faced from sobbing; my dad tells me it’s because I’d been hit with the ball moments before the camera clicked.
My kind, ever-patient dad — a three-sport athlete with a bone-deep love for the games of football and baseball — never once showed disappointment at my apparent total lack of athletic potential. He kept showing up at my games (even though I mostly rode the bench or looked for four-leaf clovers in the outfield). He kept offering little bits of advice and encouragement that really should have helped me improve. (“Step toward the ball when you swing!”)
One day, while driving me home from a soccer game (in which I’d trotted up and down the field hoping that I looked like I was trying to score) my dad turned to me with what I thought then was a ludicrous idea. “Have you ever thought about running track?” Of course, I hadn’t. “Because I think you’d be pretty great at it.”
It was exactly the vote of confidence I’d needed. That weekend, I went out with my dad for a four-mile loop through our New Jersey suburb. Green trees spread overhead, ducks splashed in the pond and sweat poured down me as we tackled one hill after another. “Just make it to the next stop sign,” my dad urged. Once we’d make it there, he’d ask me to pick another goal point in the distance.
It was totally addictive: setting one tangible goal after another, and methodically accomplishing each and every one. Before I knew it, we were rounding the final block and sprinting toward home. We looked at a map together after the run, and I was stunned by how much ground I’d covered on foot. I was hooked.
Today, I run for those original reasons and so many more. I run because it makes me feel connected to my dad and my brother. I run when other things in my reality — my career, my relationships, my responsibilities — feel off-kilter. Running is predictable in a way that not many things in life are, and that is comforting. I can always lace up my shoes, lock the front door and put one foot in front of the other, breathing deeply and shaking out my limbs, until I’m miles away from my computer, my cell phone and my to-do list. No matter how good or bad or just mediocre of a day I have, I can guarantee that spending an hour running outdoors will make me feel good — usually, way better than good. All at once, it’ll make me feel alive, powerful, humbled and grateful. Stress will dissipate with each passing mile; worries and anxiety will burn away with each hill conquered.
At various points in my life, running has alternately served as a meditative, mind-clearing pursuit or a cathartic, productive one, through which I’ve worked on specific problems and made big decisions. As a writer, I often turn phrases or fragments of thoughts over and over in my head while I’m running, eventually settling (if I’m lucky) on the best way to express an idea. For me, what happens in my head and in my psyche when I run is as significant as the physical benefits.
Some of my closest friends also happen to be runners, so running has actively forged some of the deepest human bonds in my life. While researching this article, in fact, I reconnected with some close runner friends with whom I’d lost touch, and I was reminded that the miles of sweat and mud, the tearful or joyful races and the daily ritual we’d once shared of flying up and down trails can create something truly remarkable. These bonds between runners last a lifetime, I’m certain.
During my twenty-ish years of running, my weekly mileage has varied widely, from 40 or more at my most focused and healthy, to nil while dealing with chronic shin splints and stress fractures. Despite the frustration and pain of injuries, I continue to run because the benefits running brings to my life and wellbeing far outweigh these side effects. I run because it helps me to be the best version of myself.