The Courage to Start

Most of us runners have had friends and family say, “Oh, I could never run.” They are too fat, too slow, too busy, too out of shape, too afraid, or so they say. However, we know those are just things we tell ourselves to justify our reasons for not doing something. We know, because we’ve been there.

All runners have to start somewhere. Some begin running later in life in attempt to lose weight or improve their health. Some started running as kids and ended up on track and cross country teams. Others took that first run with a friend not knowing how far they could or would go. Starts can happen intentionally or accidentally, and they can occur over and over.

I’ve been running since I was 12 years old, but not consistently. I’ve taken months-long breaks because of life, injury, and laziness, but eventually the urge to run returned. That first run (or really, runs) were not fun. I slogged through slow miles with my knees and sides aching. My fitness was certainly gone, and all the reasons I had avoided running for several weeks seemed justified in those beginning steps. But, I also knew that if I could come out the next day and the day after that then I would reconnect with the love of running. The euphoria and endorphins would again consume me, and I would be smitten.

And that did happen, every single time.

We all have goals that we want to accomplish — run a marathon, change careers, buy a house, write a book — and while the end results seem glorious, the path to get there is daunting. And, when you are looking up a mountain, it’s hard to find that bravery to take the first step.

But, we can’t get there if we refuse to start. The joy, the love, the glorious success will remain figments in our imagination unless we begin.

Yesterday, I went to see a new therapist. Just like running, I’ve been in and out of counseling since I was a teenager, and I was seeing a regular therapist up until last November when I lost my health insurance. In that time out of counseling, my mental health has taken a nose dive, and I’ve been in a pretty dark spot for a few months. As humans, we tend to linger in the negative. It’s an easier, comfortable spot for us, and as someone with depression and anxiety, it’s more familiar to me than joy and happiness. So, when I am there, it’s hard to get out.

Yet, that’s not how I want to live. I want to control my mental health, not the other way around, and to do that, I need help. Reclaiming my mental health isn’t a quick fix, but a long journey of processing thoughts and emotions and filtering the truth from the false. Starting back in therapy feels like training for a marathon without any specific end; it will be a long painful journey but I can’t find content unless I start.

The first appointment, like the first run after a long break, felt a bit awkward, almost as if I forgot how to do this. But then I warmed up, and by the end, I had re-found that high. Not all of my session will feel this good, I know that, but I am not in this for the quick high. I want the long-term benefits, and so I am willing to give it my all week after week.

We often think we can’t start until we are ready. We need more of this or that, or we should wait to begin after such and such. The truth is, now is as good of a time as any to start. You don’t need anything more than what you at this moment but rather just the courage. From there, you can figure out the rest.

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It Hurts

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Often, when you are running, you experience pain. Sometimes it’s sharp,
maybe in your knee or calf. The body likely needs rest, stretching, or
examination by a doctor. That’s the kind of hurt that shouldn’t be ignored nor one you should push through.

There is another kind of pain, though. It’s achier, and it lingers. It is
harder to find the source of this ailment, meaning there is no quick fix. All
you can do is keep going and hope to forget about it long enough that it dissipates.

Running hurts. That is a fact. Yes, there are times when we are injured, but
there are also times when your body is just going to hurt. This is a kind of
pain that we all experience, no matter how long we’ve been running or how fast we are. We have an off day, our calves are tight, or we ate something that our stomachs don’t agree with.

It’s important part to know what is injured pain and what is just running
pain. A few years ago, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I went out for a run to shake my legs out from a Turkey Trot. I noticed pain in my right hip, a sensation that I knew almost immediately was more than wear on the body. Of course, I was in denial about it and didn’t get it check out for months later, but I could tell it was the type of hurt that would likely need medical attention. Eventually, I learned that it was a labral tear, and I had to have surgery to repair it.

Today, though, I had some pain in my left glute. This was different that my hip pain. It was more of a soreness. I knew that I just kept going, the issue would likely work itself out and I would feel better. Five miles later, the pain was lingering but definitely better. Some active foam rolling and I should be good.

We have these kinds of pains in life as well. Hurt that is deep and
unrelenting, that has followed us from year to year, that needs to be addressed with therapy and inner self-work before one can heal. And, hurt that is part of life’s normal ups and downs.

Right now, I am in graduate school. Something is always due, and I doubt if
I am actually retaining enough information to be a competent counselor. Also, money is tight. I left a good paying job with benefits to pursue my master’s, and while I stopped earning a steady income, the world didn’t stop demanding money from me. I work two jobs to pay my bills, which is barely enough and leaves me little time to do that homework let alone have a social life. These days can be really hard, and the finish line is so far from my peripheral that I am not entirely sure it is there. However, this is part of the process. Graduate school is not easy, and nearly everyone I know who has done it has had some excruciating days. But, this hurt is part of the process, and it’s different from the one a year ago when I was extremely unhappy in my career and knew I needed to change. That unhappiness needed to be addressed, which is why I quit my job and enrolled in school. This one, though, needs to be endured by acknowledging it, learning from it, and continuing on.

It’s not always easy to understand the differences in pain, in life or
running, and sometimes we’ll keep going when we shouldn’t or quit before we should. Those aren’t mistakes, rather lessons to help us better understand ourselves. (Note: Be very careful about continuing on when you are experiencing emotional or physical pain. It’s OK to consult a professional while deciding to continue, and remember your health should be the number one priority.) When something is really wrong, quitting or stopping is necessary, but it can also feel like an out when you are experiencing the just because pain. It’s tempting, for sure, but it might not be the right answer. It’s up to you to determine what is best.

Enduring pain, when it is the just because kind, is part of the process. Nothing with great accomplishment is easy, and so we must put up
with the trials to get to the finish line. However, that strength is in us. You
can’t ignore the pain, but you can not dwell on it. Rather, find that strength
and rise above it. Eventually it will disappear, you’ll see that finish line,
and overcoming the hurt will be one of the highlights.

The Mile

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On Thursdays, I run with a local training team, and today’s workout was centered around a timed mile. As the coaches explained it, this mile would help give us a good idea of what pace we should be doing our other runs, and more importantly, act as a measurement of our progress. In the fall, we’ll do another, and if all goes correctly, we’ll be astonished at how faster we’ve gotten.

This mile test scared me. My strength as a runner (and also when I was a competitive swimmer) is endurance. I am not quick, but I can keep strong paces for several miles. This spring, when training for a half marathon, some of my speedier miles were at the tale end of 10, 13, and 15-mile runs. One fast mile? I wasn’t sure I could work up enough acceleration to produce a time I was proud of. Which was another source of anxiety. I feared that my mile time would show that I should be running my long runs at a slower pace and that I’ve been tampering with my ability to run a good race by going to hard in my workouts. Lastly, I don’t have much experience with a timed mile. The last one I did was when I was a junior in high school during track.

Let me talk about track for a second. I hated it, but I knew it was the only way to keep up my fitness for cross country season. For the long distance girls team, I was the slowest runner, which meant that my coach, Mr. Gusso, paid me no attention. I cried after every race because I wanted to be better than I was, but my times got slower. (“Girls times always get slower,” Mr. Gusso told me. Cool guy.) I specifically remember running that mile race as a junior, because I was planning not to go out for the sport my senior and I was thrilled that it was my last one. Never again, I thought, until I decided to be all sporty and join a local running team and they were like, “hey this will be fun” and I wanted to give up running for forever so I didn’t have to do this dumb thing.

Can you tell that I was in my head just a bit?

For at least 24 hours before the workout, I thought about skipping the group and doing it on my own. By myself, I could do it on the Lakefront Path or in loops around a nearby park. Without anyone else nearby, I wouldn’t be as ashamed at the time on the clock.

This happens to us a lot when we are scared, of both little and big things. We try to bargain our way out of doing something hard because we are afraid of failing. Instead of skipping the run, I started to question why I had the urge to do so. So what if I didn’t run as well as I wanted? How would that change my attitude towards running or myself as a runner? What importance does it really have?

Hardly any.

The truth is, it didn’t matter how fast I ran that thing—above or below an arbitrary goal—because I would go home that night, eat a cookie, and go to sleep. Then the next morning I would continue on with my training.

When I questioned my fear, it lost its power. Sure, I was still nervous when I toed the line, but I knew that it would be over in less time than it takes to wait for the bus.

A big inspiration was the other runners. They divided us into groups, and because I was in the second group, I watched from the inner field as the others completed the trial. Some of these were veteran runners, but many new. They were of all ages and sizes, but they were doing it. For them, the time was irrelevant. Rather, it was just accomplishing the goal. If they could look at the mile and devour it, so could I.

And, I did. The first loop hurt my lungs, but my pace quickened in the second loop. I settled into the third, and by the fourth, I couldn’t believe it was almost over. I recorded a 7:32 pace, which is good for me and doesn’t need any comparison.

From Glennon Doyle Melton

Running reminds us that we can do hard things. Sometimes that’s run a mile, sometimes that’s run 26 miles. While challenges in running seem minuscular compared to those in life, like divorce or the death of a loved one, our spirit and strength in overcoming them are built of the same materials. In running, we understand our courage, and if we can muster it up to run a fast mile that makes us nearly vomit, imagine what we can do when life breaks our heart.

That’s why I showed up to the run today. Overcoming this little fear and giving that mile my all is good practice for other challenges, and when they come, me and my 7:32-mile will be ready.

The Start Line

Here it is, the first post of the Running Therapist blog. Welcome! I am really glad you are here, no matter what journey brought you to my corner of the internet.

So, who is the Running Therapist and why do they think they need a blog? Short story: My name is Heather (she/her pronouns), and I am a writer and runner and currently in graduate school to become a therapist.

All three of these things—running, writing, and counseling training—are a thriving force in my life, but they seemed separate. Different entities demanding my attention. I wondered if there could be a space in which I brought them together, fueled all of my passions and carved my own space?

Long story: I started blogging in college as part of an assignment for one of my journalism classes, and I really enjoyed the format. As a young reporter, I found blogging as a good outlet to pound out my feelings while practicing my writing. The blog complimented the work I was doing in my 9-5. When I was 25, I joined the Peace Corps and blogging was not only a useful tool in sharing stories with friends and family back home, but it was a source of comfort when I was feeling like a stranger in an unfamiliar place. I continued blogging back home, but after my Peace Corps service, my posts lacked focus and purpose. At this point, I also started to write more for publication (mostly unsuccessfully), which after a while started to pushout the joy of writing. For some time, I’ve been wanting to realign my writing with blogging, finding a new forum to sink my teeth in and a community where I can grow.

In 2018, I made a big change in my professional life. I decided to my leave my job, change careers, and go back to school to become a therapist. This fall will mark the beginning of my second year (of three) of graduate school. Counseling is a tough profession, but it’s one that I’ve been called to pursue for decades. My life’s goal is to help others feel not alone, and therapy has made an impact on my life. However, there were always reasons not to become a therapist. Eventually, I stopped running out of them, or they just had less power over me than previously. I knew that I would one day regret not trying to become a counselor, so I redirected the ship. 

While I love being a student again, it comes with some undeniable stressors. Running is one of the best medicines for stress. The year before I went back to school, I had hip surgery to repair a labral tear, and the recovery was brutal. Running had been a mainstay in my life since I was 12—seeing me through job decisions, breakups, moves, loneliness, anxiety—but several months after the surgery, I wasn’t healing the way I expected. I thought that I might not run again. The body is a miraculous thing, and eventually mine strengthened and I was able to run again. First for 20 minutes. Then 3 miles. Then 8. 10. 12. 15. I was a runner, again.

Soon, I was enamored with running. The only books I read, outside of textbooks, were ones related to running. I browsed running stores and watched clips of Des and Shalane on YouTube. All I wanted to do was talk and consume running.

I used to love running blogs. Whenever I was training for a race, I would check them daily, devouring race reports and workouts. They were a fun way to feel like you were running with a group, even from afar. But, these days, most running blogs have gone quiet. Former bloggers have adopted new platforms, like podcasts, or moved all of their content to Instagram or Strava. That stuff is still motivating, but I miss real, thoughtful blogs.

Thus, The Running Therapist.

But this blog is more than a selfish combination of all the things I enjoy. It’s a deeper look at the connection between mental health and exercise. In these posts, I will pull apart the lessons from both and how they can help us grow and find out way in the world.

Many people will say that running is their therapy, and as Oprah once said, running can be directly related to many things in life. From running the mile you are in to taking your rest days, running is full of good life advice. I want to explore that while uncovering some harder truths about mental health and running. 

It’s important to note that I am NOT a licensed counselor, and that my comments here are NOT meant to be therapeutic and medical advice. Please know that I am a student, learning as a I go, and am only sharing my thoughts to help those that may have similar ideas.

Also, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a special runner. I am not particular fast nor have I overcome great adversity to run. I just run because it makes me feel whole. I hope to share parts of my running life, but I am not a pro or coach. Just in case you wanted to compare times here.

Again, thank you for joining this journey, and I hope you will contribute your own ideas and thoughts in the comments section. Let’s bring back running blogs and fight mental health taboos.

Onward.