Photo by Josh Gordon on Unsplash

Runner’s high is one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never done drugs so I don’t know how to compare it to the “high” of drugs, but I imagine that’s the kind of escape people seek when they decide to smoke or consume them.

It took time, but I grew accustomed to love running. And I mean like really love it. Sure, it was tough, but it felt so good– it was a good kind of a pain. And granted, some runs were tougher than others, and other runs were more enjoyable than others.

While running has given me several positive benefits, there’s a dark side to it that’s been catching up with me, especially lately.

The summer before I started eleventh grade and shortly before I turned seventeen, I had gone to an academic summer camp at Harvard University. I had picked up on running regularly a few months before starting the camp, and I had lost a considerable amount of weight before it. And throughout the eight weeks of that camp, I lost significantly even more weight. I had been the most skinny I had ever been since I was seven years old (I was currently 16, about to turn 17). I discovered that my hair actually took the natural shape of beautiful curls and that I looked good with red lipstick. I learned that people found me attractive.

Running made me feel confident and sexy. It transformed me– both physically and mentally. It became embedded into me as a significant and even primary part of my identity.

I would go running the first thing after I would wake up– I ran a 10k everyday, six days a week. And my pace was on average between 9 to 10 minutes, or even 8 to under 10 minutes on an especially good run.

I was used to waking up in the afternoon, so when junior year of high school started, it was hard for me to get back on schedule. I would try to run in the evenings after school, but it wasn’t the same. It felt weird and wrong for me to not start my day with running. Not only did I hate the feeling of “procrastinating” my run for the evening rather than getting it over with earlier and having the checkmark of it to enjoy for the rest of the day, but I also struggled with managing my time, and I felt like a different person being back in my high school: physically attractive, but not as confident, and not as popular as I was at the summer program. Not as social, free, not as sexy– not as desirable. Perhaps my obsession with running was a way for me to hold on to the girl that I used to be in the summer, where I felt much more free.

I eventually decided to force myself to get up early enough before school to be able to run for an hour and shower, but I failed at maintaining the 6-morning-a-week schedule. That year consisted of a lot of binging on food, several all-nighters, low self-esteem in addition to my lack of planning and time management skills as well as my lack of organizational skills. Some weeks I would run on 2 days, and other weeks I would run on 5 days. And on the days I didn’t run, I felt disgusting.

I had even gotten injured multiple times throughout my junior year (no broken bones, but sprains and such) that made it hard or impossible for me to run, let alone walk. Those weeks at a time were especially hell for my self-esteem and self-acceptance.

I didn’t understand why I felt this way, but at the same time I did. Running was associated with having a good day and looking good. I associated my identity as a runner with being physically fit, and physically attractive. And skinny– the opposite of me being a runner was me being fat. In other words, me not running meant that I was “fat” and thus unattractive and unworthy.

I knew that even it I personally felt disgusting about myself and felt unattractive in my own perception, it didn’t mean that others perceived me that way. But that wasn’t good enough. I knew that I was a fraud. I knew that I didn’t run that day, and so I was gross and disgusting. My body was fat that was supposed to be burned and sweat away to purify itself as the body of a runner and attractive person; I didn’t purify myself the days that I didn’t run. Even if others accepted me, I couldn’t accept myself.

I hadn’t earned it.

If I didn’t run on a given day, then I couldn’t wear jeans that day. I couldn’t dress nicely in general– it was fake of me. It was inconsistent with what I did–or more accurately, didn’t– do that day. It felt wrong. I likened the feeling to not having showered for several days (don’t worry, I in fact did shower daily regardless of whether or not I ran). It was like putting on a gorgeous prom dress while in a state of being super sweaty and dirty.

I was only allowed to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt, clothes that were supposed to take the attention off from me being pretty and complement my body. It wasn’t that I felt ugly in sweatpants– to this day, I love wearing sweats and feel confident in them. But I felt that they were my only clothing option to make me not indulge in feeling good, to keep me from wearing clothes that made me feel more dressed-up. In other words, sweats distracted me from feeling shame about looking different from how I felt. I could run and wear sweats and feel confident about my appearance, or I could wear jeans and feel good about my appearance after running. But I couldn’t wear jeans and match the gloom of me feeling gross, but I could adjust the way I composed myself in my sweats to match it. I wasn’t allowed to feel and be sexy– because I didn’t run that day.

Senior year of high school, things were going to change. I would run everyday before school– I would run six days a week.

Because I wanted to feel good. But more importantly, I didn’t want to feel horrible.

Every single day in twelveth grade, I ran a minimum of 6 miles before school. Even if I was exhausted and only got two hours of sleep. Even if I felt anxious.

The fear of not running and feeling disgusting about myself for the rest of the day outweighed the pull for comfort that tried to lull me back to sleep when my alarm went off in the morning, at a time way earlier than I needed to get up for school.

Because I needed to get up early enough to run and shower and get ready for school.

Rain or shine, hot or cold– I ran before school.

Alhamdulillah I didn’t get any injuries like I did in junior year that prevented me from running, but I did have a few weeks of significant pain from calluses on my foot.

And it was a whole lot of pain. And what did I do?

I continued to run.

It was on my right foot– what had started off as a single, simple callus had developed into a mass of three calluses on the underside of my foot, right beneath the area near my big toe. With every step and stride, my nerves screamed at me. It was as if my right foot was running on Legos. My pace was down by a minute and a half. On the mornings when it poured, my runs were even more irritating with that painful, callused foot.

But still, it was like I said– the fear of the pain of feeling disgusting outweighed the fear of the physical pain of feeling like I was running continuously on three pebbles at the balls of my foot.

The Ramadan that came following the end of my senior year of high school was another memorable time in my life where my running performance and dedication was at its peak. I had run while fasting for Ramadan in previous years, but I would only do it a few times a week and my pace would be a minute or two slower compared to when I ran without fasting. Those runs would be on the indoor track sometimes, and other times it would be outside and more close to the afternoon than in the morning.

But this Ramadan, I was really getting it. Like I was doing truly amazing.

I woke up for sehri and went back to sleep for about 45 minutes. Then with it not being too hot yet, I would be running at 6 in the morning. Still doing a 10k, or even more (and yes, I napped a lot throughout the day to catch up on that missed sleep).

I even fasted and ran on the day of my high school graduation. I sat in the seats, stood in the lines, dealt with the crowds, and wore high heels– and I didn’t pass out. Honestly speaking, I felt really energetic. I lost weight that I had gained throughout junior and senior year that Ramadan; in previous Ramadans, like many other fasting Muslims, I had tended to gain weight despite fasting due to eating too much during and after iftaar.

And I continued my 10k-a-day running schedule throughout my freshman year of college. But admittedly, it felt different. As time went on, I experience my doses of runner’s high less and less often. By sophomore year of college, I had not been running as much and as fast. From then on, there would be months where I would be maintaining my rigorous running schedule of 10k minimums six mornings a week, and other months where I would still run that minimum distance multiple times a week but not as consistently.

When vacationing with my family and family friends, I would suffer from extreme anxiety over how to schedule running into our travel plans, or whether or not I would even be able to schedule it at all. I’ve even run in places and during times when it would have been wiser for me not to regarding my health and safety.

Despite the ups and downs and changes in consistency of running’s place in my life, its prioritization in my identity still remained. And I never could take long breaks from it. I still felt not enough on the days I skipped my runs; I still felt disgusted of and at myself. I still felt “fat” and “not as attractive as I could and should be.”

But I really became distanced with it this past summer after I went through my first heartbreak. I’ve never experienced such a strain on my relationship with running as I did then. Depression had hit me hard mutliple times before, and while the resulting depression from this hearbreak wans’t necessarily better or worse than previous ones, it was still new and different from the ones I have experienced prior to it. I had never experienced heartbreak before.

I couldn’t even run a 10k without feeling utterly exhausted. Not only did I stop running as often as I used to the past few years since it had become a large part of my identity, but I couldn’t even run the same distance I used to. And my pace slowed down by a few minutes. Two to three whole minutes. Running used to be something that energized me and made me feel more alive; now it was something that was depleting me and making me anxious. It used to help with my anxiety, and now it was spiking it.

I hated it. Not runnning, but I hated what was happening to my relationship with running. I hated the way my identity as a long-distance runner who ran vigorously and consistently was being destroyed.

I used to be able to run for more than an hour almost every day, and now I could barely run 30 minutes, 45 at most on rare good days. And most days, I didn’t run at all.

But slowly I got back into it (it took about 6 months just for me to be able to begin getting back into it), but I”m still not quite there yet. And a few weeks before this Corona quarantine started and I was back in my college town with my normal college schedule and environment– and I had at least gotten back into the schedule. I was still struggline to fight the anxiety of getting up to do my runs first thing in the morning, and my pace still hasn’t gone back to being under 10 minutes per mile, but I was still thriving and had made a lot of progress since the hearbreak. But then that same consistency faltered again right before spring break and faltered even further to today, to now.

I was talking with my therapist earlier this week (yes, over video call and not in person with social distancing) and I was trying to figure out why I have been the way I have with running lately, in addition to why I have become more distanced with it over time.

I had already discussed my complicated relationship with running to her in previous therapy sessions. She knew about how dependent I was on running and how much it affected my perception of my identity and body image, and she knew about how my OCD also played into my obsession with running.

This week, we had delved more into my perception of my identity in terms of the significance of running. When I had first started to become a runner, I had lost several pounds and parts of my body toned up. That same period of time is also memorable to me because of how i felt about other aspects of myself, particularly my overall physical appearance. Not only did I perceive myself to have an attractively shaped body, but I also remembered myself to have had desirable hair and attractive facial features, and popularity among peers as well as approval from guys.

I associated running with feeling and being pretty. Attractive. Beautiful.

My therapist also told me that I’m a different person right now at twenty-two than I used to be at seventeen; many of my values and priorities have shifted and evolved, and I have learned so much for the better.

And the thing is, I feel those things now– pretty, attractive, beautiful– but less often. And I feel less pretty, attractive and beautiful. But I feel more empowered in other aspects of my life– not caring about what others think of me as much, valuing quality of friendships over quantity of friendships. Not relying on approval of others, whether platonic or romantic.

I still want to feel attractive. I still want to be a runner, and feel those endorphin rushes and natural highs from my early morning runs. But throughout my running journey, I have evolved as a person. I’ve become an avid writer and a book lover, an artist. I’ve gotten to know myself better and create myself differently and I’m friends with different kinds of people than I used to be friends with.

My therapist said that perhaps running helps me get to a point of where I am now, and so perhaps I don’t need it as much as I used to because I’ve leveled off to where I had initially wanted to be.

Perhaps now I don’t need validation through running to the same extent I used to need it, or in the same way I used to need and use it.

My therapist also mentioned that perhaps running made me feel like I could do a lot of things– and she’s right. I used to think a lot about how if I could bring myself to do something as challenging as running the way I did, then I could do anything.

So perhaps running gave me the push I needed to develop the confidence I have in myself now to do things I was once scared of. It helped to be sure in myself when I used to be more doubtful. It guided me toward being the outspoken woman I am today. It taught me to believe in myself. But most importantly, running let me taste a flavor of life unique to my experiences and relationship with it. And that flavor led my hunger to develop for more passions in other areas of life.

But I don’t want to get running go. I want to incorporate it into my life, into my person, as I am now today. But how do I go about doing that?

Is it impossible for running to take as much of a part in my life as it used to because of who I am today and if I continue to be her? Is it simply inevitable that running just can’t compete more with the other facets of my life and myself?

Or is it possible for me to be the same person I am now and maintain the other facets of my lifestyle and my identity, and still run like I used to, or very similarly to it? Can I still be the same person? Would it change me into someone different?

Or I don’t know how I feel about the whole “being a different person” concept. I’m still the same person, and I will be; but the facets of my identity, like a pieces of a pie, will shift and change, grow and shrink as I go through life. The question is, how does running fit into it?


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