What do you do when your trustworthy way of combatting anxiety becomes the thing that induces it?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself for almost two years about running. And that’s only when I’m not avoiding thinking about it. Since the moment that I was able to walk, I was also able to run. I ran everywhere. I heard “don’t run in the house” more than once growing up. I was that weirdo who looked forward to running in gym class. And when I was finally able to start really competing in high school, I dove in headfirst, and made the varsity team before I was midway through my first season.
The 400 meter became my race. I lived, breathed, and meditated on that race. It may be referred to as a mid-distance race but if you’re doing it right it is a flat out sprint that takes every vestige of power in your body. But even better than running the individual 400 meter was being part of the 4×400 relay team. Four teammates, all of us taking it very seriously, especially in the times when the outcome of a meet was resting on our shoulders. It bonded us. Made us friends. And for the entirety of my high school track days, my teammates and I were formidable.
With an overload of credits in college to balance with a part time job, I reluctantly chose not to pursue joining the team at my school. As an alternative, I decided to work on training myself to run longer distances. I had always believed that I didn’t have enough stamina for that type of running, and was delighted to discover the stress relief it provided. Have two midterms and three papers to finish and need to clear your head? An hour running across campus and back always settled me down and burnt off so much of my anxiety. Logging miles became my go-to method of freeing my mind and feeling better about anything even after college. Bad break-up? Rough time at work? My feet pounding the pavement and the music jamming in my headphones made it all kind of melt away, when just moments before life had felt insurmountable. After all, as Elle Woods taught us in Legally Blonde, exercise gives you endorphins and endorphins make you happy!
But I missed competing. I was craving the high of crossing a finish line and the swagger it gave me. Being surrounded by other runners putting their training to work and had always given me motivation to push myself harder. So I started registering for races. I started with 5ks and then sprinkled in some 10ks. When I felt really prepared, I signed up for a couple 10 mile runs.
After years of doing my best to stick to one competitive run a month, I had a bad race. It might have been the humidity. Maybe I hadn’t done enough over distance leading up to the day, or maybe I had failed to properly hydrate. It’s possible my low blood pressure had decided to show its ugly face. Maybe it was a combination of factors. But as I was closing in on the finish line, I felt my vision starting to go black, while bile surged in my throat. When I crossed the line, I dry heaved and fell down. Everything around me seemed to be vibrating, and I realized I was shaking . A medic came over and forced me to sip water while I gasped and tried to voice the lie, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
Ten minutes later I was fine. Vision fully restored. Shakiness gone. My dry heaving had stopped and was replaced by an intense craving for pancakes. So I chalked it up to a fluke.
That is, until the next race, when I was coming up on the finish line and started worrying about it happening again. And the next one. And the one after that. It didn’t recur with the same ferocity, just a distinct panicky feeling that started to build slowly in the last half mile, until it pressed on my chest in the last straightaway. It always came with an overwhelming sense of nausea that almost had me doubled over. My doctor found nothing physically wrong with me, so I decided the only solution was to stop racing. I despised feeling that surge of fear and sickness, but I couldn’t stop the worry that began from the starting gunshot and steadily increased mile by mile.
Not running has been like ignoring a huge part of myself. I can tick off all sorts of excuses about long work hours or weather not being ideal for why I’m not doing it, but I know why and I hate that I haven’t been able to get past it.
Until this week.
A good friend and former relay teammate sent me a link to the Irish Universities track and field championships. I played it and watched anchor leg Phil Healy of UCC completely demolish her competition by coming from an incredibly huge deficit to close in and win. She was in fifth place coming down the last straightaway and just flew by every other runner in a way that made me spontaneously burst into tears at my computer.
I watched the video over and over. Most of the one million YouTube hits are probably mine. It wasn’t just her perseverance, her determination to win. It was all the women running. The ones who I recognized hitting a wall, the ones who were struggling to fight through it, but just all of them going out there and competing. Fearlessly. I couldn’t stop crying watching them. It hit me how much I’ve missed that part of my life. I’ve missed feeling that energy. I decided I had to stop pretending that I was okay without it.
I went online and signed up for a 5k for the first time in a year. One that I intend on running, not walking like last year. Then I put on my Brooks sneakers, went outside, and did my first training run for it. It hurt. I’m out of shape. I probably won’t run a great time next month for this 5k, but all those 4×400 teams inspired me, reminding me how much I love and miss competing. I want to run again — I know it’s going to be scary and I might face the same panic at the end of the race, but I want to try. Phil Healy’s tenacious athletic performance awakened in me the most basic rule I learned as a runner — which is that even when you think you have nothing left, never give up, because you might surprise yourself.