The Running Experiment

I am not a runner.

This summer I will have been running, on and off, for 13 years. But, I am not a runner. When I describe myself, runner is not a description I tend to use. When people refer to me as a runner, I tend to feel strange. I feel like I have pulled a trick on someone – like I am a child on Halloween and, for a moment, I believe I have actually managed to convinced my neighbor that I really am a vampire. It is a mix of doubt (you don’t really believe that, do you?), excitement (ah, maybe this is who I am) and apprehension (they’ll find out eventually). When asked about running, I usually tell people that I like to run or that I’m an okay runner. I’m much more inclined to describe myself as a psychologist who likes to run, or hipster that likes to run, or as a left handed stutterer (in almost complete remission except for when I really need to be) who also happens to run.

There is a lot of pressure in being a runner. With being a psychologist, I feel like there is a veil of mystery. There is less concrete data on if I am good or not. I have yet to be asked, “so, how many people have you cured” or “what type satisfaction scores do you get from clients” or “what is your no-show rate”. People just generally make the assumption I’m good at it and we move on (whether or not that evaluation is justified, who knows). Being a hipster is a similarly easy identity. It is universally known and understandable. As an added bonus – hipsters rarely self-identify as hipsters. It catches people off guard, comes off as a joke and we roll on. The same goes for the handiness and the fluidity of my speech. Strangely, in my brain I have ingrained those things as my identity despite the fact that being left handed effects nearly zero things in my life and most people I speak with (unless I talk with them for an extended period of time) don’t even realize I stutter. I’m bad at stuttering (in that I rarely do it anymore) yet carry the identity. For some reason, runner has never stuck with the same tenacity.

When I reflect on the time I’ve spent being someone who runs, I realize that the first 10 years or so were horribly chaotic. My 20’s, really, were horribly chaotic. When friends of mine turn 30 they seem to mourn the loss of their 20s. When I turned 30, I stayed up to midnight the night before drinking alone and holding a one-man Viking funeral for a truly tumultuous decade (but that is a different story). My running reflected the nature of that time period. Running came in spurts – I would have a 100 mile month followed by 3 months without once stepping out the door. I would sign up for races only to never train. Other times, I would train hard for months only to never actually sign up for my target race. Running, during that time, was an escape but an unreliable one. When I lived in Rochester, NY, I would take off for late night runs when I was too frustrated or angry to sleep and too poor to buy alcohol. In the winter I would often slip, fall and injure myself, losing weeks from running. When I lived in Blacksburg, VA (working on my PhD in clinical psychology) I was on a stipend that fixed that problem – I could afford the alcohol and didn’t need to resort to as much running. I rarely got injured and also gained significant weight. I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to my running – it was just something I did. I would go out, run for a while and then come back. Runs could be easy or runs could be hard. There was no identifiable pattern and I didn’t really care to find one. Sometimes I would try new things: certain workouts, barefoot running, weird nutritional strategies. Each time, I would abandon it far too quickly to allow for any effect. I think maybe I wasn’t a runner at that time because I didn’t treat myself like a runner. I treated running like an escape and, when an easier escape came, running became less appealing.

Now, I am 32, healthy and extremely happy in my life. It’s amazing what stability does for mental health. Historically, this would mean it is time to go on autopilot, most likely fall off from running and exercising and slowly slip back into old habits. This time I have different plans.

This is the Running Experiment. Each week (or couple of weeks, or more than once a week) I will chronicle some aspect of running and the overall impact it has on my running. I’ll also write stories about running or share some cool/interesting research in the fields of mental and physiological health, review races and gear, or talk about whatever else suits my fancy. I will no longer run like a crazy person – I will run like a scientist and this will be my forum to disseminate my findings.

Stay tuned!

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