Running and Resilience
The empowerment factor in training for long-distance races
Running for most people seems to be a love or hate relationship. Either you don’t know the difference between ASICS and Brooks, or you obsessively track your mileage, heart rate, VO2 max, and fight with females on Strava who run faster than you to intimidate them out of taking away your slot as the top runner on your favorite running path. You are all in to a terrifying degree, or you are fully, all the way out. There is very little in between. However, given the empowering properties of distance running, it’s worth exploring for anyone who has even the slightest curiosity or willingness to try.
Runners have always been in my family, and I dabbled in running cross country in middle school, ran on my own in high school because cross country meets are painfully long and I also had an intense hockey schedule, and then eventually ran for my D3 undergraduate college (the first of two) where I am still confused about having become the MVP as a freshman. This pseudo-achievement was not astonishing because I was a freshman- it was more comical because I was not particularly gifted or talented at 5k races and could never break 21 minutes, while our competing teams had several runners finish in the 17–19 minute range. We were not a fast or competitive team, but we all loved to run, and we were lucky to have a fantastic coach that just asked us to enjoy it and do our best.
My first undergraduate college was in Boston, so naturally, the Boston Marathon was always a point of conversation. Our coach encouraged the team to train for the marathon and maybe even try to run bandit (kind of illegally/without a race bib or number) just for the experience- this was in the pre-bombing years. I woke up woefully early for the first of two training runs on freezing December days. One of those times, I tripped and face planted almost immediately on the cold, hard pavement at our starting point. After that, I gave up. Marathoning clearly wasn’t for me, and 26.2 miles seemed like a stupidly impossible number of miles to run, anyway.
I didn’t revisit the idea of marathon training until I moved across the country to Arizona for graduate school to a town where the weather was agreeable for running for most of the year. I thought that I would train for it once, cross a marathon off my bucket list, and move on.
Four marathons, three stress fractures, and one Strava fight later, I have no problem admitting that I am a running addict and have absolutely no desire to change that. Running has become a staple in my life, not just for mind-clearing mental health purposes, health and fitness reasons, or even just because I look forward to and love it- mainly, I run because I find it empowering and appreciate the way that it builds resilience. I started to coach runners for their first 5ks and half marathons for the same exact reason- it’s amazing watching yourself and others accomplish something that seemed legitimately crazy and impossible.
Every extra mile is exciting
Once you have a solid running base, adding mileage to get to 26 miles is incredibly painful and difficult, but also incredibly thrilling. The first time you jump from 8 miles to 10 miles on a weekly long run is so exciting. Double digits feel like a lot- and they are. Adding two miles every week after that feels like it’s going to be impossible, but the sense of empowerment that comes from making it through those runs is phenomenal. The amazing thing is that the body will remember, too. The first time you run 15 miles, it’s probably going to hurt. But the next week, when you bump it up to 17, the first 15 won’t feel so bad. Every time you run a little longer, the body rewards you by adapting, remembering, and allowing you to go a little farther next time than you thought you could before.
Not only is this empowering as a runner, but it’s empowering in other areas of life. The first time we do something outside of our comfort zone always feels a little bit (or maybe very, extremely) scary or difficult. Once we actually do it, it doesn’t feel as scary or difficult, and we can continue to grow from that point on.
It’s you against yourself
Running, for most of us, is not a team sport. You are responsible for getting out of bed and lacing up your shoes, for pushing yourself to do your best, for not giving up. You are responsible for sticking to a schedule, for eating well, for sleeping enough, for prioritizing your runs and your recovery. Even if you train with a group, they’re not your teammates. Your performance in no way affects them. It’s empowering to know that you found a plan, you stuck to it, you reached your goals, and even with some cheers of encouragement, you are the reason that you made it to the finish line.
Even once runners start racing, it feels like a competitive event, but most runners feel that the clock is ticking against their own previous records. Runners are unlikely to remember the finishing time of the person who came in first place in their last race, but they are most definitely going to remember their own time, and will constantly be trying to beat it. And every time they do is incredibly exciting and empowering.
Knowing that we have the capacity to put our minds to something, stick to it, and achieve it, no matter how difficult, is undeniably empowering. If we can do this as runners, we can certainly apply the same concepts to long-term goals like going back to school, working towards a dream job, saving for a trip abroad- whatever we want to do. Challenging ourselves against ourselves — whatever the task — is a helpful way to work towards self-improvement, continually allowing ourselves to learn, adapt, and grow.
The feeling of empowerment translates to other areas of life
When I first started long distance running, I dreamed of a day where I could break 90 minutes for a half marathon. I never thought that was actually a realistic goal. But one day, I did it. It made me feel like other things in my life that I thought were impossible might be worth taking another chance at.
Similarly, I dreamed of running the Boston Marathon- with a bib, legally. But first, there were some complications. I suffered two femoral neck stress fractures before even making it to the starting line. But eventually, I did make it to the starting line, and the finish line, and every obstacle that I had to overcome to get there felt worthwhile.
It’s always empowering to reach goals. It’s especially empowering to reach goals that feel crazy or impossible. When setbacks happen in my life, regardless of what they are or what they are pausing me from achieving, I think of what it took to qualify for Boston after fracturing my hip bones, twice. It took months of hopping around on crutches, aqua jogging, physical therapy, and mental determination to start from zero and try again. It was so demoralizing to make it so far into training just to lose most of my fitness in the eight months that I couldn’t run while I healed. But time passed, I put the work in, I made up my mind to keep trying, and now it’s all a memory- even the destination of the journey.
Life is full of painful setbacks, unanticipated events that steer us off course, and difficulties that feel quite challenging to overcome. Running has taught me that setbacks will eventually be in the past, that new directions can end up being blessings, and that the strongest bones we have are the ones that we have broken. I apply these lessons outside of running daily, which helps me to feel more empowered in my life.
Runners are resilient for a reason
Marathons are not easy. The first person who did it died. Spectators love to make signs reminding runners of this fact. No matter how hard I train, I have never once finished a marathon and thought, “Wow, how easy!”. That’s really not the point, and I’m not quite sure how resiliency translates to runners who don’t push themselves to their limit. For me, marathons are where I go to challenge myself physically and mentally in an extreme capacity.
It takes resilience to feel like you’re crawling through mile 18 with a big hill coming, knowing you still have 8 miles before it’s over, but to still push as hard as you can to beat the clock. Even in peak physical shape, it’s primarily about mental discipline. I have had races where I literally wanted to waddle over to the side of the road, curl up in a ball, and sleep until someone kicked me out, but I could still physically finish the race in a time I was happy with. Conversely, I have cracked bones, lost toenails, and sacrificed a lot of nights out to dedicate myself to running my best, and have still sometimes come up short.
Most runners will have some kind of similar story to tell- dealing with injuries just before a big race, having unforeseeable setbacks to overcome, dealing with wind and rain and general misery during a marathon. But ultimately, the feeling of empowerment that comes from getting to the finish line overrides all of those obstacles and uncomfortable moments. This resilience, just like empowerment, also translates into everyday life. We may be many things, but we are not quitters. Running teaches endurance, persistence, and an obnoxious belief that if we try really hard, we can achieve whatever we want. And whether that’s true or not- it’s at least worth trying, right?