Why I Run
I tell myself a lot of stories about why I run. I run to stay healthy and fit. I run for my mental health. I run for the joy of the endorphin high. I run because I don't want to pay for a gym or yoga studio membership. I run, like Casey Neistat, because I can. All of these stories are true.
But if I'm being honest with myself, I run because my dad ran.
My dad doesn't run anymore. After twenty-five years of long-distance running, he blew out both knees and an Achilles heel. The doctor told him that he could run maybe a couple miles at a time, and to a distance runner like him, two miles was only a depressing consolation prize that would tempt him to run more. So he stopped running, and now cycles instead. He jokes about his jealousy whenever he sees a runner, but I can tell it bothers him.
I can empathize. I started running in a local league as a preteen, and graduated to track when I started high school. I don't know if my dad has ever been so proud of me. I still have a beaded bracelet he gave me when I was thirteen, after picking me up from a particularly tough track practice. I ran hurdles. I was pretty good for a kid. The impact from hurdling gave me shin splints, though, and I ran through pain a lot of the time. I kept running through pain for the whole season, and then through the summer when I joined the cross-country team. It wasn't until my sister accidentally brushed my right tibia, sending agony searing through me, that I realized there was a problem. The problem was a compound stress fracture, to be exact, and I couldn't run for eight months. I couldn't even walk without crutches for two of those months. I wore a custom-molded, very expensive leg brace that I decorated with Sharpie markers and only took off when I went to the Homecoming dance. I joined the swim team. I cried a lot, partly out of frustration, but also because I had lost the way I knew how to win my dad's approval.
After my injury healed, I didn't go back to running. I folded into myself. I started obsessing over my body, developing the orthorexia that would become anorexia in my first year of college. I focused on playing classical violin, which was both joyous, because I loved music, and torturous, because it provided endless fodder for my perfectionism and self-loathing. I entered into an emotionally abusive relationship with my first boyfriend. My dad and I drifted apart, for a lot of reasons neither of us may ever fully understand. I struggled with undiagnosed anxiety and depression. I wasn't a good big sister. I used to say that while lots of good things happened to me in high school - I had so much privilege, and supportive and attentive parents - high school itself was not a good time in my life.
I started running again when I went to college, first on my own and then with my best new friend on campus. She is a lovely person, but our friendship was toxic at the time, based on shared feelings of homesickness and dissatisfaction with our bodies. I got mononucleosis, lost a lot of weight from the illness, realized that seeing the number on the scale dip downwards made me feel in control. Deliberately losing weight gave me the agency, or the illusion of it, that I desperately needed. I ran more. I punished myself at the school gym. I couldn't remember what it felt like to enjoy running, but I knew I had to keep doing it to discipline my body. I slipped away from myself, in ways that I won't detail here, and became very ill. I know now that I'm lucky I wasn't hospitalized or worse. At the beginning of my sophomore year, a brave woman, an upperclassman who barely knew me but recognized herself in my illness, told me she was worried about me. She was one of the cool students, and I was not, but she ate a meal with me in the dining hall as though we hung out every day. She lent me a life-changing book. She even offered to let me borrow her car to go to therapy (this was Los Angeles, after all). I went to the school counselor and then a specializing therapist and dietitian. They saved my life, though they'd say I saved myself. I was so lucky that my parents gave me money and insurance for those appointments. I started recovering and eventually was allowed to exercise again, but I stayed away from running. I associated it too closely with punishment and pain. I did yoga instead, learning how to be present and gentle with the sensations in my growing body.
Fast forward five years, and I have started running again. I am one of those eating disorder survivors who will always consider myself to be in recovery, never recovered, but I have been healthy and weight-restored for a long time now. My dad and I still have a complicated relationship, with a period of estrangement and many more of tumult in those five years. The older I get, however, the more I understand how much I am like my father. For starters, we are both Pisces, though I am on the cusp of Aquarius and he on Aries. We have addictive personalities. We're introverts. I'm a highly-sensitive person and I suspect he is as well. I modeled my handwriting after his, which is so beautiful it looks like it belongs to a founding father (his middle name is Madison). We both work in public health, though obviously he got there first. We are prone to anxiety, depression, neuroses, and flashes of anger. Despite the chaos in our history, I am my father's daughter.
I have made my peace with the fact that I cannot base my self-worth on anyone else's opinions of me, including those of my parents. It is neither realistic nor fair to expect my father, or anyone else for that matter, to love me enough to make me love myself. I had to learn how to accept myself on my own terms, which is precisely how I was able to run again. It is no coincidence that I started running and reconciled with my dad at the same time. Both required the separation of my self-esteem from external factors. And yet- I will always crave his approval. I still catch myself waiting for him to laugh at my jokes, hoping I can make him smile because that means I was funny. (My mother's laughter is much more readily available, though no less precious.) I wonder if I am enough to him. On our recent family vacation in Italy, I was afraid to run because I didn't want to make my dad melancholy. On the second day, I timidly announced to that I was going running, and gave him my exact time of return (thirty-eight minutes later) as was my dad's custom. When I returned to the house where we were staying, dusty and sweaty and happy, my dad's praise - "good for you" - may as well have been an Olympic medal. I hate that I want anyone's approval that much. The vulnerability feels dangerous.
I have begun to realize that I will never fully escape that vulnerability. I don't have to let my father's approval dictate my life and determine my self-worth, but I'll never stop wanting it. So, that is why I run. I run because I like it and because it makes me fit and because it keeps me sane and because I can. And I run because my dad ran.