• Hayley Hengst

Mostly Everything You Need to Learn About Life, You Can Learn from Running

I’m sure there are a million other articles and blog posts on this topic. 

I’m sure I’m not the first one to get all philosophical about running, finding all sorts of connections and analogies between it, and “life”. 

Nevertheless, I’m writing about it anyway. If, for no other reason, just as a reminder to my own self, of what I’ve learned. Though I could simply read other people’s thoughts on the topic, similar to the tattoo I got a while back reminding myself to “be anxious for nothing”, in my OWN HANDWRITING, it’s more impactful for me if I write it myself, versus reading someone else’s words. 

I’m not a runner. I swear, my bones are heavier than other people’s, or something. I’m not necessarily a big girl, and yet, when I run, I feel like I’m hauling the weight of an elephant with me. Heavy bones, I tell ya.  I also think I have diminished lung capacity. My friend Kelly can run and, like, have actual conversation. What?! This is weird to me. I can barely manage to eke out one word. The sad and funny thing is, I actually really MIGHT have diminished lung capacity. No one has ever told me I do. But I have a severely twisted and crooked and warped spine (scoliosis) and recently, I’ve convinced myself that it’s rotated in such a way that it’s pushing on my lungs (I tend to jump to weird conclusions and misdiagnoses, so really, who freaking knows. There’s a reason I have “be anxious for nothing” tattooed on my arm). 

ALL that to say...running doesn’t come easy for me. And yet...once per decade or so...I transform myself into a full-fledged RUNNER. 

10 years ago, right after giving birth to my first son, some runner friends of mine convinced me to train for a half marathon with them. These people are like REAL Running People. Light, bird-like bones. Love running so much that just the sound of their feet on the pavement fills them with joy. (Me? I need Travis Scott, or Mace and Puff Daddy blasting in my ears). I agreed to do it, and I kid you not, Day 1 of training, I could run for about 10-second increments. The weeks and months went on though, and I kept at it, and on race day, I ran the entire 13 miles. No stopping.  No walking. Hills I wasn’t even prepared for. Not a TERRIBLE speed.  Done. In the months following, I did a few more 10ks and 5ks. 

I decided “well, that was cool and all. But those heavy bones . I’m done”. 

And I swear I never ran another step. 

Then in January, well....it’s a long story. There was a divorce involved, leaving me feeling kind of sad and blah and down on myself. There was a Cute Running Dude I met in Jackson Hole. There was a need for adventure. A need for a (mental) distraction. A desire to have a goal I was working towards. Also kind of a chapter of life where I had a massive  case of the “screw it’s”. “Hey wanna do such-and-such?” “Screw it. Why not?”  (I’m not sure that mindset has 100% dissipated, so if anyone else has any good/bad suggestions, I’m open to your ideas). All of that landed me training for another half-marathon. Actually a “heavy-half”. 15 miles, this time. Time to get those Elephant Bones back to work. 

I started out a little better this time. Instead of only having the endurance to run in 10-second increments, I think I was managing about 1 minutes worth of running, before needing a walk break. 

I kept at it though, ran the 15 miles, and (finally) here is what I learned:

Every single worthwhile goal, requires hard work.

Not like “this is kind of hard...I’m working up a bit of a glistening, glowing , sweat” hard. Like, “excruciatingly, whole body-soaked in sweat, ragged breathing and legs threatening to give out from underneath you” hard. This is not only true of running goals. It’s the same for All Goals. You’ve got to push through, anyway. 

You have to just start.

I’ve found that every single daunting task in life...running. A household chore. A difficult conversation. Something complicated that needs to be figured out/sorted through. It’s all so much more daunting BEFORE YOU START. Contemplating it. Analyzing it. Staring it down. It’s so much more overwhelming, before you start. Once you take the first step though..just start...it becomes less and less daunting, with each small step. If you stare it down forever, filled with dread and anxiety and stress..you may just never start at all. And that would be a shame. 

The battle is more mental, than anything else. 

You can handle more than you think you can. You just have to convince your brain of it. Sometimes even tell your brain to shut up. If you’re feeling especially aggressive, you may tell it to “shut the *%#+ up”.  I actually (accidentally) said this out loud one time...The F-word and all...and got a really strange look from a passer-by. 

You can’t look too far in front of you.

You can ask my friend Kelly, as we ran quite a bit together...when I run, I have to focus my eyes about one foot ahead of me, and NEVER LOOK ANYWHERE else. If I start looking around...at her...especially if I start looking AHEAD (“oh hell. There’s a hill coming up”. “Oh hell, this road stretches on forever”. “Oh SHIT there’s a long patch of sunny spots with no shade coming up”).... I’m done for. I couldn’t even really bear it whenever a fellow runner tried to make eye contact with me/say hello/wave. I’m focusing my eyes RIGHT HERE where I’m at, and I can’t look anywhere else besides that, or I might lose it. Same is often true for life. 

The way you talk to yourself, is everything. 

“They’re just legs”. “It’s ok to sweat. A lot”. “You CAN do this”. 

The only way through it is through it.

Sometimes, especially on long runs, I’d be mid-way through, and start to panic. “I’ve already gone 6 long and hot and breathless miles. And there’s six more to go????”  But there is nothing else to do BUT to keep going. It won’t end UNLESS you keep going. I mean, what else are you going to do? So, the only way THROUGH it is....through it. Keep going. Don’t stop. 

You can do hard things.

All sorts of hard things. Doesn’t mean you want to. Doesn’t mean you ll like it. Doesn’t mean it will feel nice. None of that matters though, because all that really matters is that you CAN.

You figure out what works for you, as you go. 

We learn by doing. To make it through my runs, I needed good music. I needed the perfect water bottle that would strap on my hand. I needed a breathing rhythm. I needed to play certain mind games and do certain routes and have certain pre-planned rewards for myself. But i didn’t know those were the things I needed, until I started. I had to figure it out as I went. Trial and error. 

You (fortunately and unfortunately) can make it through harder things than you ever realized you could.

Most things actually DON’T kill you, even if for a moment, you kind of wish they just would. You make it through, you end up being  glad it didn’t kill you, and ultimately, you’re better for it. 

It's Better Outside

You can run on a treadmill, sure. I started out my training primarily on the treadmill inside the cardio theater at my gym. Then came Corona. Quarantine. Shutting-down-of-gyms. So I was forced to start running outside, and I found that, though the temperatures and conditions weren't as steady and predictable as a treadmill...being outside was just better for my very soul. I've taken that realization and applied it to other things besides just running lately...I've found that just being OUTSIDE does wonders for my brain. My heart. My mind. My emotions. Yes, my soul. Being outside is healing.

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