Running brings rewards, but you have to work

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The fantasy: I glide effortlessly across the landscape with steady, confident strides. The wind blows back hair as the kilometers flow by. Around me songbirds sing in trees along the route and red-winged blackbirds scold as they swoop down towards my head. Other runners gaze with astonishment and jealousy as I leave them far behind me. My lean, muscular body isn’t even breaking into a sweat as I cross the finish line.

The reality: I stumble across the landscape. There may be birds singing and scolding, but I can’t hear them over the sound of my wheezing and groaning. My balding scalp is sunburnt and my body, far from being lean and muscular, is still pudgy around the waist. The other runners have already changed into their street clothes and are looking at their watches when I cross that finish line, glad merely to have survived.

When I started running several years ago I suspected it wouldn’t be easy. My preferred mode of existence is sedentary — reading books, writing, watching movies. I have an extremely low threshold for pain, plus I’m very clumsy. Running looked attractive because it didn’t require a lot of expensive equipment (like skiing or golf) and it was something to do with my children. That first summer, we all signed up for the cross-country running camp at the high school, learning how to run without hurting ourselves — how to warm-up before and cool down after, what to eat and drink, when to run (and when not to run).

Email newsletter signup

Learning those basics and creating some good habits helped; there were two things, however, the difficulty of which I didn’t anticipate. The first is that I still haven’t reached the point at which running becomes enjoyable. I’m beginning to doubt that such a point exists, for anybody, and those smiling runners who populate the trails and streets are all hiding something.

Yes, I enjoy running next to (OK, reality again: some distance behind) my son and daughter. Yes, I enjoy being outside, doing something together to keep fit.

But boy does it hurt. My legs ached at first, as my muscles were pushed to their limits. But then they continued to ache as I continued to run. I’ve given up trying to achieve the “effortless” glide of my fantasies.

The second thing that’s been a difficult lesson is that my main competitor is me; I can talk myself out of running so easily. Here’s me in my office: Let’s see, should I go for a run or should I grade this stack of tests? Hmm. Tests it is. And it isn’t usually because of the sore muscles: Running is so repetitive and so boring, especially in the winter when running moves to the hamster wheel … I mean treadmill. It helps to have the right music, I’ve discovered, with a good steady rhythm, but it’s still a battle every time, as I force myself to keep moving forward when stopping and walking (or just staying in my office) seems so much more sensible.

Still, against the odds and my own expectations, when it warmed up this spring, I started running again, despite the sore muscles, the labored breathing, and the sheer boredom.

I signed up for the recent Tiger Trot (a 5k I completed in 28.10, a pace that’s neither great nor terrible). The reason for that commitment is the experience of these past few years. While running itself may be boring and may always cause my body to ache in the short term, in the long term I feel great, with more energy, better sleep and a better attitude towards life in general. The benefits to my whole body that come from regular running, as well as other forms of fitness, are worth whatever the costs.

At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself this spring, every time that inner whine starts: Oh, but that’s enough for today. You can walk the rest. And what about those tests sitting on your desk? And so far, reminding myself of those long-term benefits has done the trick.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.