Why do I run?

I consider myself a fairly athletic person. There’s rarely a week that goes by without me doing sports. It’s either climbing, swimming, gym or running. Of all the sports I’ve picked up over the years, running seems to be the most controversial.

There are countless articles out there describing the meaningless nature of running and I’ve had friends mock me a couple of times for missing out on social activities to take part in a race early morning the next day. Even my mother tells me I shouldn’t run so much, as I would one day regret it when the knee problems start. She’s probably right.

But even as I went through a pretty horrible flu after running 15K in -6 °C, I’m still convinced running is one of the best physical activities you can do. Here’s just a few benefits from running, all backed up by scientific research:

However, this article is not about the health gains of running. It’s about the reasons why I run. I haven’t read a dozen scientific articles before deciding I’m going to start running regularly. It wasn’t a strategic choice, because I wanted to lose weight or build leg muscles. I started running solely because of the way it makes me feel in the exact moment I do it. An instant gratification thing, as opposed to a long-term strategy.

I started running regularly while I was doing my Master’s in Sweden. It was a very stressful period at times and my schedule was entirely occupied with either university, the library, extracurricular projects, house chores or maintaining some form of social life.

Having a busy schedule is fine and it can give you a really pleasant feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. But doing it for a prolonged period of time is not sustainable and it can easily lead to burnout. This is where running helps.

I started out with 2–3K runs in the evening and the effect was instantaneous. I felt a satisfying soreness in my muscles and my worries had evaporated from my mind — i was euphoric, carefree and impatient to tackle new challenges. I had found a drug and like any other drug it was addictive. With each next run I wanted to become better — to run faster, further and with less effort. I still do, by the way, that never goes away no matter how good you get.

A big part in my newly established addiction was the city I lived in. Sweden is a beautiful place and pretty much no matter where in the country you live there’s a solid chance there’s a forest within 10 min. walking distance from your home. Running alone through a green forest with only the sound of the wind in the trees can best be described as meditation.

My first “big” run back then was from my place to a nearby village, 5 km away. There and back, the total distance was 10 km, which is a pretty important mark in every runner’s history. What I didn’t know at the time was that if you can regularly run a 5K, you can easily also run a 10K. You see, running is, to a large extent, a mind game. It protrudes beyond physical toughness and requires just as much mental preparation. This becomes mostly true for marathons and longer distances, but we’ll get there in a bit.

I had done my first 10K and it felt great. Here is where I believe running can also practically improve your life. The mindset of setting yourself goals, working towards them and eventually reaching said goals is an integral part of running and it can be applied to any other field. Using the same motivation can make you more successful in everything you set out to do. Define the next mark, work hard to get to it, overcome it and move to the next one.

When I moved back to Sofia a close friend of mine suggested we go for a run. Up to that point I was only running by myself, so I wasn’t all that sure how that would turn out. It was awesome. So far I had been getting up early, going out in the cold out of inner motivation. Now I also had an external factor that was pushing me to wake up in the dark and go sweat outside in the still empty park. The beautiful thing is that it’s two-sided — your running partner is equally motivated by you to get up in time for your meeting at the corner of the park.

Little more than a month later I took part in my first race — a half marathon. It was yet another new feeling in the world of running. The adrenaline you get from competing alongside other runners and the cheers from the crowd propel you to run beyond what you previously thought were your limits.

In the course of the next 3 months I ran 3 more half marathons before winter. Exactly a year later i ran my first full marathon. The whole process from signing up for the race, through preparing for the long run, to crossing the finish line was an incredible journey. And the best thing was that I went on it with some of my closest friends. We ran together every week, discussed strategies and always had our goal in mind. It was a long process, which made crossing the finish line ever so emotional.

“If you are loosing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” — Kathrine Switzer

The marathon itself was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I thought I’d prepared myself, but I couldn’t be more wrong. They say you have to run 42 km in a week in total without effort to be able to finish a marathon. I did that for a month and a half prior to the event. It turns out you need to prepare longer and I found that out somewhere after the 25K mark when my legs started to disobey me.

Still, I managed to complete the full marathon in less than 4 hours, which was also my initial goal. The feeling was amazing. I remember somewhere around the 39th km I was honestly thinking I cannot make another step. Then out of nowhere a guy outstripped me and started running with the same pace I did. He just gave me a nod and we continued to run together. I understood everything he meant with that nod — “I feel the same way, man! Everything hurts, but we have to move on, there’s only a little bit left!” My pace increased so I can sync with his and we ran side by side until the finish line.

Again, this shows the power of the mind and the things we can accomplish with the right mindset. It’s another thing you learn from running that can be applied to any other field in a person’s life. This example of camaraderie also shows another huge part of running. Every runner feels like he belongs to this social group of people who like to push their limits and sometimes even intentionally force themselves to suffer in order to reach their goals. We all know why we’re doing it, though. There‘s hardly another rewarding feeling similar to overcoming your obstacles and expanding your boundaries after much struggle and hard work.

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