Since 2011, I've run 6,901 miles. It feels strange saying that, considering that running wasn't even part of my vocabulary for most of my life.
My good friend from college, Mike, can attest to my previous lack of runnability. He once asked me to join him on a jog through campus and quickly found out that I had the endurance of legless donkey. We probably jogged for no more than a quarter mile before it felt like my lungs had collapsed and my legs were melting off. It was terrible and I hated it and I swore that running was a sport for idiot sadomasochists because, well, who in their right mind would do that to themselves?
Several years later, after moving to Palo Alto for a new job, I had my second taste of endurance running. My coworkers and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful California weather one day and headed to a local track. As I attempted to run laps, I began having flashbacks of my college days. I would run halfway around, immediately get winded and spend the next 15 minutes catching my breath. My coworker, Calvin, noticed my struggles and pulled me aside to share a simple but profound piece of advice. He said, "Monji: no matter what, never stop running. You can go as slow as you want but do not stop moving!" I took his advice to heart and ran four slow laps around the track, nonstop.
No matter what, never stop running. You can go as slow as you want but do not stop moving!
While Palo Alto instilled a new sense of confidence in my endurance, it wasn't truly put to the test until the following year. I had started a new job and heard that several of my coworkers had signed up for a "corporate 5K." I wasn't really sure what a 5k was but I liked the idea of hanging out with my coworkers outside of work, so I signed up. On race day, I remember my coworkers discussing their training regimens and having a visceral 'oh crap' moment as I began wondering if this was something I could actually do. I shrugged it off and figured that if I ran slowly enough, I should, hypothetically, be able to finish the race.
I remember crossing the finish line vividly: the music blasting from all directions, photographers clicking away, and the loud cheers from both my coworkers and random spectators alike. It was an incredible feeling and, for a few blissful minutes, I forget about how badly my body was hurting as I gasped for air.
The Long Road To Endurance Running
The corporate 5k was the tipping point that got me into running regularly. The day after the race, I promised myself that I would run another one and feel less like dying afterwards next time. I started running 1-3 miles three times each week in an effort to build up endurance.
One morning, after running semi-regularly for a couple of months, I had the not-so-brilliant idea of seeing how far I could run in one go without stopping. I'm still not certain what series of mental miscalculations led to this decision but I think it had something to do with testing the idea that if I were to run slowly enough, I could, hypothetically, continue running forever.
I managed to run 18 miles that day before my body decided I'd had enough. I remember feeling a sense of awe and bewilderment when I stopped, as I came to the realization that my body — me, not some person I read about — could do something like this. I took a cab back home with a newfound sense of respect for the physical form.
To be clear, this was a dumb idea and not one I would recommend emulating. I was in a world of hurt for several days after this wreckless self-experimentation and, given my lack of proper running technique, was lucky to have avoided serious injury.
I signed up for and successfuly ran the San Francisco Half Marathon soon after, and eventually started to train for the San Francisco Marathon. While an injury kept me from running that particular race, I've since been able to complete a total of 5 half marathons, one 20-miler, 3 full marathons (Chicago, Big Sur, and Marine Corps in DC), and several 10K races. Suffice to say, I am an avid runner.
How Running Has Affected Me Physically
While I've always been active in one way or another, junior and senior year of college took a toll on my health. The emotional stress paired with unhealthy eating habits led to significant weight gain (185lbs at my max). Needless to say, with a family history of type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol, this was cause for concern.
Running has been the most significant factor in helping me regain control of my physical health. My weight now fluctuates from 150-160lbs, depending on how healthy I'm eating and whether or not I'm training for a race. And while I've made some adjustments to my diet, I still love to eat and splurge as often as possible (hide your donuts from me, especially if I'm training for a race). Paired with weightlifting and a mix of calisthenics/boxing/yoga, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in.
While it's mostly positive, there are some downsides to running, including occasional injuries and increased uncertainty over how long my knees or tendons will last. But the pros far outweigh the cons.
How Running Has Affected Me Psychologically
More than any physical change, running has had a profound and lasting impact on my mental state. I look forward to my morning runs not because I enjoy running, but rather for the mental clarity they provide me for the rest of the day. We're constantly bombarded by stimuli all day (and night) and running, especially outdoors, affords me the opportunity to be more aware of my physical being and mentally shift my attention to my goals for the day or week.
Endurance training has also taught me many lessons on how to better handle high stress situations. Running a marathon (or any race, really) is stressful, both physically and mentally. Training your mind to tolerate physical discomforts and push yourself to keep going is a skill that translates to several walks of life, whether it's studying for a test or starting a business. Even the act of signing up for a difficult race and facing an unknown challenge has helped build confidence and increased my overall risk tolerance.
And it wasn't until I ran my first marathon that I understood what (or whom) I looked to for hope in dire situations. I've always heard people say things like, 'my mom helped carry me through this' or 'I did that for my spouse,' and I have a much better understanding of that now. Running a race may seem like a solo task but for me, and I assume many others, our families are there with us in mind and spirit, especially during those last, painful miles.
The Question I'm Asked Most Often: Do You Enjoy Running?
There is little doubt in me that running has transformed my life for the better. But I still struggle with answering this question on whether or not I actually enjoy running. I love the effect running has had on my life — the physical and mental benefits have exponentially increased my quality of life. And there are certainly moments where I feel excitement before going for a run or pleasure during/after it.
But the actual physical act of running? I certainly don't hate it but enjoy feels like a stretch. It's mostly just painful 90% of the time, especially when I'm exerting myself. And even if it is a little dumb and sadomasochistic, one thing is for certain: I am going to keep running for as long as my body will allow.