I was terrified of running when I was a kid. I’m talkin’ somebody-grab-this-girl-a-paper-bag-to-breathe-into scared.
My mom is asthmatic. I’m not, but when I ran and felt my breathing quicken, I associated that with my mom’s health condition. Anxiety would take over, my throat would constrict, and just as if I had asthma, I’d lose the ability to breathe.
During graduate business studies at the University of Miami in my early twenties, I took an internship in the sports information department and became the media contact for track and field. I was completely immersed in the world of running and fell in love with the sport—as a spectator.
While logging long-jump distances during a home track-and-field meet one sunny morning, I thought about this running issue of mine. I could play three sets of tennis with ease and salsa-dance until early in the morning without breathing problems, and I wanted to be able to run, too. I decided it was time to overcome my fear.
I selected a three-mile path around campus. Every day that spring I jogged as far as I could and then walked the rest. By the beginning of summer, I was able to jog the whole path without stopping or even gasping for air.
Physically I felt good. Mentally I felt unstoppable. If I could overcome that paralyzing fear, I could accomplish anything. I got a little cocky. If I can run three miles that easily, certainly I can run a marathon, I thought.
That’s when my troubles began.
I participated in a run/walk training program, which I was told was a safe regimen for novices. We alternated running for five minutes with walking for one.
Two months into my training—the day after I covered 18 miles—I stepped out of bed and pain exploded on the outside of my left knee. My doctor couldn’t find anything structurally wrong and told me I just shouldn’t run anymore. Hoping he was wrong, I turned to a university track coach for guidance. She suggested I wear a weight vest in the pool and jog in the water to keep myself in shape while the inflammation around my knee subsided. But even once my knee stopped hurting as I walked, the pain would return when I tried to jog outside the pool.
Four weeks later I flew to Ireland with a girlfriend. We had planned to run the Dublin Marathon together. I cheered for her at the start of the race, then went to a pub and cried into a Guinness. I was crushed by my failure.
It’s 20 years later, and I still regret my decision to train for that marathon. I had found joy in jogging, but my eagerness to prove to myself that I had no limits ended up limiting me.
I now know that simply running every day is not enough (for most people) to train for a marathon. Had I included strength training, better stretching, and deep tissue massage, perhaps I could have crossed the finish line in Dublin.
I have not given up my quest to be a runner, and pretty much every year I announce to friends, “This is the year I run again!” Then they all laugh.
I live by the motto, “There’s a solution to every problem,” so even though I wasn’t able to run for two decades, I couldn’t accept defeat. In my quest for a solution, I’ve become somewhat of a running scholar: I’ve attended Chi running workshops, read books about ultra marathoners to learn about their techniques, tried running shoes ranging from “barefoot” to über springy ones. In addition, I’ve been strength-training at least two times a week for the past decade, and my home looks like a rehab clinic, with multiple foam rollers, trigger-point kits, and stretching devices scattered about.
Despite all my efforts, every time I tried to run, the pain outside my left knee prevented me.
I’ve incorporated pretty much all that I’ve learned collectively—found the right shoes, balanced my muscles, learned to stretch the right muscles and foam-roll the weak spots. And through it all, I’ve held on to my belief that there is a solution to every problem.
A few gray hairs and a lot more muscles later, I am now, finally, able to run without pain.
I could have given up my quest and accepted that my role would be sideline spectator, but that’s just not me. I refuse to live with limitations. I’m up to two miles now and plan on completing a 5K this spring.
I don’t expect to feel the superhuman rush I got the last time I met my three-mile goal. This time, I think I’ll just breathe easy.