Running for the Birds

Finding motivation when you don’t get a “runner’s high”

The author runs in a race in San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, May 2016. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

Content note: Medical and weight issues.

This is not going to be one of those inspirational blog posts about how running cures depression or anxiety or any of the other litany of problems or illnesses that humans face. I am no role model when it comes to fitness or health issues, physical or mental. I am a slow and sporadic runner, and face internal battles against a stream of excuses nearly every day that I have a run planned. This morning was one of those days.

I wake at six, without an alarm, having gone to bed a bit before midnight. I lie there, trying not to fall back asleep, while justifying why I should skip my planned six-mile run. I’m sore from yesterday’s testosterone injection. I have the sniffles — maybe I’m getting a cold. There’s rain in the forecast — maybe there will be a thunderstorm. Life is pointless and it doesn’t matter whether I run or not anyway.

After an hour of this I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the computer, resigned to spending another day playing video games and getting angry at things I read on the web. By the time I finish the tea I’ve somehow convinced myself that I should run anyway, just to see the swans at the Palace of Fine Arts.

Running is the only exercise I’ve ever been able to stick to for any length of time. But “stick to” is relative considering how many times I’ve stopped and started over the past 20 years. I feel like forever the beginner, frustrated and highly prone to quitting. I remind myself that I should keep trying for the benefits:

  • Cardiovascular. At 48 I am at a prime age for a heart attack, especially now that I have a typical male level of testosterone in my system. My heart is a muscle that needs regular exertion to function well. Brisk walking, for me, is not challenging enough to do the job. Walking is my normal and preferred method of transportation; I’ll sometimes walk 2–3 miles, including hills, to avoid taking transit. Running is more concentrated and effective for my fitness needs.
  • Metabolism. Running first thing in the morning boosts my metabolism, helping burn more calories all day long. This helps keep my weight under control. “Health at any size” proponents might say that body fat doesn’t matter, but it matters to me. Having had a body weight ranging from 113 to 173 pounds over the course of my adult life (at 5' 4"), I know that I feel and function better toward the lower end of that range. What anyone else does with their own body is their own business — or should be.
  • Psychological. Running gets me out of the house. As my depression has worsened, it’s become more and more difficult to convince myself to leave home unless others are expecting me for a rehearsal, appointment, or event. While I don’t get the “runner’s high” burst of endorphins others talk about (more on that later), going outside to run is helping prevent me from becoming a total recluse or shut-in.

Running also helps me sleep better. Despite knowing all of this, I still have that battle with myself every morning. Intellectually, I’ve concluded that running is always better than not running, but inertia still tends to settle in.

Out the door finally just after 8 a.m., I emerge into a cool, cloudy January day. Shortly after I transition from my short warm-up walk to running, I feel a dull, throbbing pain in my right butt cheek, the site of yesterday’s testosterone injection. Normally this procedure is virtually painless, but occasionally it does hurt, and yesterday was the worst pain I’d felt since I’d started having injections done at my doctor’s office.

I grimace but keep going anyway, knowing that this is only a bothersome inconvenience, not an acute injury that will worsen with exercise. I weave between people on the sidewalk staring at their phones, wishing that I’d gone out earlier so there might be fewer pedestrians about. But sunrise isn’t until nearly 7:30 this time of year, and I dislike running in the dark.

After a mile I am at Fort Mason, a brief respite from most of the people and vehicle traffic. The friendly older man I often see at the Great Meadow, waving and saying “Good morning” with a big smile to everyone passing by, must have already finished his morning exercises and gone home.

I turn onto the wide walkways of the Marina Green, grateful that there is plenty of room for walkers, runners, and cyclists to pass each other safely. There are more cars on the adjacent road now, but they don’t bother me. My goal — the Palace of Fine Arts — is within reach.

Given how averse I am to being out in public nowadays, some might ask why I don’t work out in a gym, or drive to a more secluded area to run. Answering the second part is easy: I don’t drive. I have never owned a car. I don’t even have a driver’s license anymore; I got a state ID when I changed my name as part of my gender transition.

As for gyms, I don’t see why I should pay for a membership when we have mild year-round weather and I can run outside for free. Aside from my GPS watch (a nice luxury), my running gear is very inexpensive. I used to pay a lot for shoes, but now I get discontinued models from resellers at a fraction of the cost. My running wardrobe consists mostly of T-shirts I got from races.

Having a race to train for is one of my primary motivations for running. The closest I get to that endorphin rush that other runners talk about is when the finish line of a race is within sight. No matter how tired I am, I almost always manage a final burst of speed to cross it. However, unless I’ve just set a PR— which is increasingly rare nowadays — the euphoria dissipates quickly.

While running I don’t normally get into a relaxed mindset. My mind churns constantly, usually thinking about stressful things. I never wear headphones when I run; listening to music or audiobooks makes it too difficult for me to pay attention to cars, cyclists, and pedestrians who are often distracted themselves. So I am at the full mercy of my thoughts.

One time I do remember getting out of my head and fully into the rhythm of running was when I was trying to run a 5K in under 30 minutes. Having tried unsuccessfully for some time to pass that milestone, I took the strategy of paying closer attention to my cadence, or foot turnover. Listening to my footfalls on the pavement focused me and helped me achieve that goal. That was six years ago; I’ve had few comparable experiences.

Finishing a run feels rewarding simply because I am done and can go home and have a cup of tea and relax. The other benefits — cardiovascular, etc. — are much less tangible and immediate. I don’t have a training partner to congratulate me or hang out with afterward because running with others has not worked well for me in the past. My spouse Ziggy always cheers me on, but he’s much faster than I am, so it’s no longer practical for us to train together.

Arriving at the Palace of Fine Arts, I am rewarded immediately by the sight of a majestic swan, standing in the grass just off of the entry path. It almost feels like he was waiting for me to arrive. I know that isn’t really the case, but as I rarely see these swans out of the water, I am cheered by this close encounter. I give him a wide berth as swans have a reputation (perhaps undeserved) for being aggressive. Undisturbed, he lifts his wing to preen himself as I continue my run.

Circling the lagoon, I enjoy the view and the absence of tourists, who often crowd the walkway taking and posing for photos. I spot the usual assemblage of other birds, including ducks and night herons. The swan who greeted me is still in the same spot as I leave the area, heading back the way I came.

A light rain begins to fall as I near home. I have, successfully, completed another workout. Reluctant as I was to leave the house this morning, the thought of seeing the birds got me into my running shoes. I am still the same flawed human as I was when I got out of bed, but the swan encounter made my day a tiny bit brighter.