I’ve always hated running. It’s a reasonable hatred, I think. When I was younger, I had a bunch of health problems, including asthma, which made running a truly painful experience. Every time I ran, my lungs felt like they were being set on fire and ripped out of my chest, I was immediately struck with shin splints that lasted for days and it just generally felt like I was going to drop dead. I was mostly able to avoid it but there were a few occasions in gym class when we were required to run a mile. I always dreaded those days and the pain I knew they’d cause.
As I grew older and healthier, I started to realize the tremendous benefits of running and I no longer had the excuse of poor health to justify avoiding it. I reluctantly forced myself to run but it was always very short distances and not very regularly. When I started competing in jiu jitsu and muay Thai, running became an essential cross training tool and something I did regularly. At no point did I enjoy it.
Since I’ve been in medical school and there’s never enough time in the day, for efficiency’s sake, I try to incorporate some cross training into my travel time. I run to every destination where it won’t matter if I show up out of breath and sweaty. I pack everything I need into an obnoxiously heavy back pack and run to wherever I need to go.
I end up running nearly every day for a total of 18-25 miles a week in chunks usually no greater than 3 miles at a time. It kind of sounds like a lot of running but I’d never call myself a runner.
I have teammates and classmates who run marathons and half-marathons and I always incredulously congratulate them when I hear about it.
“Wow, you’re amazing!” I say. “I’d never be able to run that far!”
Out of obligation, they always respond with something like, “Oh, you could totally do it!” or some other encouraging statement that I refuse to believe.
One time, a classmate came up to me and said, “Hey, I saw you running the other day, you should come run with our running group some time. It would be great to have you!”
“Thanks so much for the invitation, but I’m not a runner. I’d never be able to keep up with all of you,” I responded sincerely.
I run a significant distance almost every day yet I never once considered myself a runner – that is, until one recent Sunday.
I woke up on this particular Sunday morning feeling trapped, stuck. I guess I’d been feeling stuck for a while. I hadn’t been able to write anything I was happy with, I hadn’t picked up my guitar in ages, it didn’t seem like I was moving forward at all. I felt broken and empty and lonely no matter how many incredible people I surrounded myself with. I felt like I was locked to an out-of-control treadmill; it moved faster than I could handle and took me nowhere but I couldn’t stop running for my life.
My usual Sunday morning routine consists of a light breakfast before running 1.75 miles to my Muay Thai gym, where I put in about an hour of a heavy workout, then running another 1.75 miles back home. As the time came for me to leave my apartment, I couldn’t make myself walk through the front door. The thought of completing my usual Sunday morning routine became unbearable. I was struck with a desperate feeling of needing something different.
I decided to go for a light run instead. It would be nice to give my body a much-needed break from the high-impact intensity of muay Thai and it might even give me a chance to think and reflect.
I opened a map on my computer and picked a Portland neighborhood I’d never been to that I wanted to check out. It was 4.1 miles away, which would put me at 8.2 miles for the round trip. The most I’d ever run in one stretch was somewhere around 7 miles but I was feeling pretty healthy and energetic and decided I could probably do it without much difficulty.
Just in case I was wrong, I put a book, my journal and my wallet in my backpack and figured if I got tired, I could take a break at a coffee shop or catch a bus back home. I had no expectations and nothing important to do for the rest of my Sunday.
I put on some long black track pants and zipped a black, moisture-wicking Reebok thermal over my t-shirt. I pulled on my bright, lime-green running shoes and snugly tied them up. I put my earbuds in and started my 83-minute playlist consisting of both albums by my favorite band of the moment, Eagulls. I put my backpack on, threw a piece of gum in my mouth (I love chewing gum while I run) and headed out the door.
As I made my way through my neighborhood, the late-morning, summer breeze gently pushed my hair back as it ran past me in the opposite direction. The sunlight worked hard, barely making its way through the deep clouds in the overcast sky to reach the ground and envelope everything in a soft, grayish-yellowish warmth. It felt nice to be running. It seemed effortless. My breathing was calm and rhythmic. After about 25 minutes, my rhythmic breathing became meditative and hypnotic. I started thinking more clearly than I had in months.
I finally felt as though my body were properly warmed up when I noticed I was already on the street of my final destination. “It must be way further up this street than it seemed on the map,” I thought to myself.
It wasn’t. A few minutes later, I saw my 4.1 mile landmark. I kept running until the next block, where there was a big crowd waiting outside some fancy brunch spot. I slowed to a walk and carefully navigated through the crowd while contemplating what I should do next. It seemed too easy to turn around and go home. I decided to keep running and stop at the next coffee shop that caught my eye. I ran by a handful of coffee shops but, without the slightest hesitation, I kept running.
I decided on another landmark I could run to that I guessed would add another 1 or 2 miles to my total run. It seemed far but after the 4 miles I’d already done, I was convinced I could do it without a problem.
After what felt like only a few minutes, I arrived at my second landmark but my rhythmic-breathing-induced hypnosis couldn’t be interrupted this time. I didn’t stop. I didn’t decide on another landmark destination. I didn’t think about how far I would go. I just kept running.
The heart-wrenching melodies of the Eagulls’ latest album pulled me deeper into my trance and further away from the familiar, lonely, passionless world I’d accidentally let myself become a part of. I felt the sleeves of my Reebok thermal growing heavy with the accumulation of sweat that was slowly trying to drip down my hand and jump onto the sidewalk below as I coldly left it behind.
I started wondering why I’d been feeling stuck. I concluded that medical school has this sort-of unspoken contract where the student agrees to be chained to a concrete slab, unable to make any forward progress until graduation – with the understanding that after graduation they can move faster and go farther than they ever imagined. But after more than 3 years in this med-school limbo, it became easy to stop believing it’s temporary. I stopped believing I’d ever be free of those shackles.
I am stuck and I’m not making any forward progress but it’s ok. It’s not forever. In less than a year I’ll graduate and then I can move forward, then I can start becoming the person I’ve dreamt I could become. I will be successful, I only need to wait a little longer. I found some solace in this realization.
Just as I was accepting this reality of my being temporarily shackled, the nondescript, blurry trees and buildings and people and cars and street signs that had been anonymously passing me since I left my apartment suddenly became clear and vivid and demanded my full attention. I saw each leaf on every tree. I saw the smiles and sparkling eyes and heard snippets of the conversations of the stationary people enjoying their Sunday as I ran by. I saw the browns, reds and oranges on each brick of every building lining the sidewalk.
My attention was pulled to a sign across the street that I recognized as a restaurant I’d always wanted to try but never had because it was too far and would take too long to get there by bike or bus. I noticed the gum I’d been chewing, which lost all of its flavor and was now nothing more than a bland pebble in my mouth. How long have I been running?
The Eagulls song ringing through my head sounded too familiar and I realized that, at some point, my 83-minute playlist had finished and started over again. I suddenly felt the unrelenting summer heat of the bright, Portland sun that had finally chiseled its way through the once dense clouds. My breathing remained calm and rhythmic. Controlled and efficient.
My black track pants and fully zipped black Reebok thermal felt so much heavier than I remembered. I reached down to inspect my pants and account for their heaviness. They were drenched with sweat. I brought my hands up and touched my chest. The black Reebok thermal was soaked through.
My running gradually slowed to a stop and I unexpectedly started crying. It came on quickly and without warning but I knew immediately why I was crying. It wasn’t because I was exhausted or didn’t think I could run anymore. It was the opposite. I started crying because I knew I could keep running.
I didn’t know how far or how long I’d been running but it was infinitely further than the 1 mile, pain-inducing runs I would dread when I was younger. This was indisputable evidence that I was completely wrong about my life. It was proof that I was not shackled. It was proof of an accomplishment, of moving forward, of success.
I was currently doing something that I spent my entire life thinking was impossible for me. And then, all at once, the countless barriers I’d broken through, the progress I’d made in my life, all of my successes revealed themselves.
My goals for this life are lofty, I admit. I’d only been thinking about the fact that I still have farther to go and more to achieve and had become completely blind to all the things I’ve accomplished. I’ve come so far and I couldn’t see it. I wasn’t even looking.
I used to dread running for 10 minutes – now I can run longer than I can keep track of. I used to be weak and afraid of getting beat up – now I climb into the ring with trained fighters and dare them to try and hit me. My goal of being a doctor used to feel utterly impossible – now I’m 11 months away from my graduation.
Every moment I spent studying instead of seeing friends, every time I worked out when I thought I was too tired to do anything, every dessert I skipped, every time I ate a healthy home-made dinner instead of ordering takeout, every step I’ve ever taken has actually meant something and brought me somewhere. Every step was an accomplishment, a success.
I looked down at the dirty, cracked sidewalk beneath me and became overwhelmed by a sense of pride. I finally appreciated how far these bright, lime-green running shoes had taken me. I’m worlds away from achieving all the goals I’ve set but I finally saw how many seemingly unbreakable barriers I’d already broken through.
I became so proud I was able to run all the way to this dirty, cracked sidewalk in the middle of northeast Portland that I pulled my phone out, pointed it down and took a picture. I looked at the photo and smiled.
It may look like a bad picture of bright, lime-green running shoes standing inches away from bird shit on an ugly, random sidewalk but it’s more – it’s a photo of what I’ve been able to accomplish. It took me 32 years, countless drops of sweat, injuries, lonely nights studying, endless embarrassments, broken hearts, pain, fear and every ounce of strength I’ve ever had to get to this ugly, random sidewalk. And I was so proud to be there.
I looked up, took a deep breath and started running again. I was pretty far from home so I decided to officially start making my way back towards my apartment. It became impossible to ignore the intense summer heat. The weight of my sweat-soaked clothes became unbearable. It felt like bricks had fallen out of the walls of this old Portland neighborhood and landed in my backpack. But I kept running. There was absolutely no way I was going to stop before I got home. My calm and rhythmic breathing returned and I was pulled back into my trance.
At some point, the sight of the trees, cars, buildings and people passing by me became monotonous and old. My feet started throbbing. I was breathing so loudly, my lungs trying so hard to suck in oxygen and energy and anything else which might help get me home, that the shimmering, tranquil guitar tones of the Eagulls were almost completely drowned out. My back ached. My legs felt like they were filled with sand.
It became so difficult to continue running that I questioned the profound moment of pride I had. Maybe I haven’t actually accomplished that much. Maybe there’s nothing to be proud of.
“Eh,” I said out loud. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I was just going to keep running until I got to where I was trying to go anyway.
I was able to force all of the aches and pains out of my consciousness and by the time I was back in my neighborhood, my breathing-induced hypnosis had returned. I saw my apartment and ran through the parking lot and down the sidewalk towards the front door. I finally stopped when I reached the door. I was done running.
I walked into my bedroom and took off my heavy, saturated clothes. I grabbed a towel and attempted to dry the sweat that was still relentlessly dumping out of my pores. When I cooled off enough to avoid dripping sweat all over my apartment, I wrapped the towel around my shoulders and opened the map on my computer.
The point where I started crying was around 10 miles into my run. In total, my run came to be slightly under 15 miles. That’s farther than the distance of a half-marathon, farther than I ever thought I could run. And after all of that, when I arrived home, there was no question that I could’ve continued running.
I saw that I am capable of a lot more than I ever would’ve guessed. I was only limited by the fact that I believed my brain when it attempted to determine if I had the potential. But it seems that the presence of potential doesn’t need to be determined. Potential is always there and it manifests itself with every effort, every step forward.
My goals are lofty and scattered and mostly unfulfilled but I’m constantly taking steps forward – and I’ve come a long, long way. Sometimes, it’s important to forget about everything else and just look down at the dirty, cracked Portland sidewalk beneath you and be proud of how far those bright, lime-green running shoes have taken you.