Trigger Warning: In this post I discuss symptoms of an eating disorder from which I have suffered. If this will trigger you, please skip this entry and check out my post about eating disorder awareness and resources. I'm rooting for you!
Running and I have not been on speaking terms in a while. My relationship with my running at one point was the most important one in my life: it used up most of my time, energy, and emotions. While it provided exercise, a hobby, and a structure for goal-setting and achieving, running also served as an excuse (for neglecting other pursuits and people), an obligation, and eventually a compulsion.
Unfortunately, my tumultuous affair with running coincided with - and became an integral behavior in - an eating disorder. I was constantly saying "I love to run, I can't imagine not running, it's my favorite thing! It makes me feel good! It makes me happy." But when I look back, it's clear to me that the compulsive aspect of my eating disorder, coupled with my intense and debilitating fear of weight gain, caused an unhealthy commitment to what can be a healthy habit.
What's healthy for one person can be destructive for the next. I know - or at least hope - that for thousands if not millions of people, running is a fun, social, rewarding, and enjoyable sport that increases confidence and self-worth. But while I plastered on a happy face and posted Instagram photos of my race bibs, I spent the majority of my runs reciting self-critical monologues about how I was too slow, too fat, too uncoordinated, too undeserving to be a runner. I convinced myself I was an imposter in the sport and constantly pushing myself to - sometimes past - my physical limits was the only way to redeem myself. As I got faster and took on longer distances, these fears actually intensified. I was convinced if I didn't break a PR on each race, increase my mileage every month, that I'd suddenly grind to a halt and all my worst fears would come true.
After making huge strides in recovering from my eating disorder, I finally felt strong enough to break up with running. My therapist and nutritionist had each, independently, suggested I think about scaling back on my runs, as both of them could clearly see this was still a crutch for me - a coping mechanism that played into my eating disorder's grip on my life. So after a final 10k in March 2015, I trepidatiously put away my Brooks and my compression socks.
On Tuesday afternoon, the weather was just perfect. I'd been cleaning up in my house for a few hours and decided to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. After doing a few sun salutations to warm up, I dusted off my shoes and laced them up.
"If you don't feel good about this, you can turn around," I told myself on my way out the door. "There's no goal time, no record to set. You're just going outside to see how it is."
At first, I was a little scared. I felt out of shape and short of breath as I climbed the hills to Patterson Park. But when I got there, my anxiety fell away. I saw happy dogs playing with their owners and cheerful flowers popping out alongside the paths. I opted to take a loop around the tranquil, bamboo-flanked pond, and was so glad I did.
In one of those surreal golden-hour moments, I came upon a beautiful red tailed hawk on a secluded part of the path. At first it was very still and elegant. Then it started walking. Maybe it was just this one hawk, but it was waddling and toddling around in a way I never would have expected! It reminded me of how I imagine I look doing squat walks up and down my mat in Keith Golden's class. This just tickled me - even this majestic and fearsome animal has its clumsy, inelegant moments. I marveled at its ability to move through space without self-consciousness. I thought about how wild animals run, walk, fly, and swim: without regard to how they need to "improve" themselves.
For the first time, I realized I was running as an expression of joy and a way to experience nature, rather than as a prison sentence I was serving for not being perfect. Taking away the illusions of time, distance, splits, and calories, I experienced running in a way I never had before. The mindfulness I've been laboring to cultivate through yoga and meditation showed up. I was so pleasantly surprised that running, an activity that I had come to associate with self-abuse, could be a loving and nurturing activity.
Life is a series of phases. What was bad for us in one phase may be neutral or good for us in the next. As I came inside to stretch after my first-ever mindful run, I smiled to myself, thinking how good it feels to be reunited with an old friend. Except in this case, I get the feeling I've just made a new one.
P.S. I'll be walking the Monument Avenue 10k in Richmond, VA this weekend with friends - if anyone can recommend a yoga studio in RVA, I'd be much obliged!