On quitting as a form of starting

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped running. I had made it through three of the four short running segments that were meant to make up that day’s run-walk; but, when I started the fourth one, I dropped almost immediately from a run into a walk. Since that day, the running has been going well—quite well—and I realized that my decision to stop actually represented the overleaping of a major hurdle. To explain why, I have to go back two years to the first time I decided to take up running.

In the first year of my PhD program, after years of a sedentary lifestyle and still in the shadow of pained memories of PE, I decided that I was going to run. I think I decided on running because I knew that any fitness activity that required me to go anywhere to do it was never going to happen—it was hard enough to get myself out the door. Thanks to all those sedentary years I was woefully out-of-shape and that, of course, was what the running was going to fix: I was going to be in shape. I was going to be thin. I was going to be desirable. I was, in short, no longer going to be the ugly, fat, and uncoordinated person that I thoroughly believed myself to be.

A lot of beginning programs for runners caution you that you shouldn’t be going too hard at first—one program (the one I’m currently using), goes so far as to say that you should experience no (or very minimal) soreness the next day for the first couple of months. I, of course, was going to have none of this during my first running experiment. I was going to push myself until it hurt. Because, deep down, I thought that the current me—the huffing, puffing, bright-red, thigh-jiggling me who was gasping for breath and afraid I was going to throw up—needed to hurt. I didn’t want to help the body I was in. I wanted to punish it, to destroy it, and to get a new body—a new self—in its place. And that “new self” needed to come as soon as possible; I looked longingly for the day when I could say that I went for a run and didn’t have to mumble shamefully that I’d gone for a “run-walk,” which sounded almost as embarrassing as speed walking.

The outcome of this running adventure was predictable: I pushed myself until I injured myself, which provided the excuse I was looking for to stop running at all. I’d hurt myself enough that I was “allowed” to fail. I couldn’t really be blamed for it.

Because of this previous experience, I picked up running again a couple of months ago with some trepidation. I was nearly 30 pounds heavier than the last time I’d tried running and so I knew that running was going to be more physically demanding than it had been before. What convinced me that this time was not going to be like last time—a conviction that, so far, has been borne out—was the incident that made me decide to return to running in the first place.

I don’t really have a great mirror for full-body viewing in my apartment, so I often don’t get to really see the “big picture” until I visit my parents. During a visit this summer, I had the chance to do so. I’d gained a fair amount of weight over the last semester, in large part due to stress eating while preparing for my comprehensive exams. Yet, when I saw myself in the mirror this time, my reaction was not “Look at how fat I am; no one will ever love me,” which has been my go-to reaction to weight gain for the better part of my adult life. This time, my first thought was: “I haven’t really been taking care of myself.” It was a realization that was tied as much to the fact that I was getting winded just walking up a few flights of stairs as it was to the shape of my body or the numbers on the scale. It was also the first time that my reaction to my body had been one that had anything to do with care.

When I started running this time, I didn’t have any exalted goals. While I was using a standard two month walking-to-jogging program that terminated with 30 minutes of continual running, I didn’t even concentrate on the 30 minutes of running as a goal. I certainly didn’t posit a weight loss goal or go on a diet (though I have started cooking for myself more, which has changed my diet for the better without any explicit diet “plan”). I had two simple goals: Get moving more and increase my body’s aerobic ability. I stuck to the plan and I built up my running segments slowly. Everything seemed to be going well, but I was still afraid that running would once again turn into a veiled exercise in self-harm. But then the day came when I stopped running, when I failed to complete the “set” workout, when I didn’t listen to the GPS-esque voice of the RunKeeper lady. Before I’d even finished my walk back to the house, I knew that my choice to quit running was the biggest accomplishment I’d made in my running program. I refused to punish my body for its current fitness level. I accepted it for what it was and I took care of it.

It’s been nearly a month since that day and I’ve kept running. The segments have grown longer and, assuming all goes as planned, I’ll be stepping up next week to the end of the program: thirty minutes of continuous running. I’ve even started to experience something that I never found in any physical activity outside of sex: pleasure. Not for the whole run of course. There are plenty of times in which it’s simply hard: times where, if I think my body is up to it, I have to push myself; times where, if I realize I’m pressing to hard up against a limit, I have to quit for the day.  Nonetheless, there are great stretches in which I can take delight in a body that I’m working with and not against. And that truly is a new start.

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