Unlearn to Run

I was recently invited to talk about how to run a marathon to an eclectic audience across different age groups. Before the session started, one among the audience instructed her two kids, aged 6 and 8, to stop running and to listen to the talk about running. It stuck to me as to what do I talk about how to run to someone who is told not to run? The only way to run is not to be stopped from running. Renowned South African-Swiss explorer Mike Horn, when asked why he does what he does, said,

“Why do fish swim? Why do birds fly? Why I do what I do and why do you do what you do? Because, we can!”

Yes! We run because we can. It is a natural instinct in every human being. As a kid, after learning to balance ourselves in two feet, the natural progression is to try to run. Each one of us have run as a kid and we all know how to do it. Somewhere in the ‘growing up’ stage, we have stopped running. When asked the audience as to what prevents them from running, three major themes emerged.

Top among them are issues related to one’s health. The wear and tear in the adult stage due to complications developed from genetic, environment factors, and importantly, changing lifestyles. Not all issues are reversible and running is certainly not a panacea for any illness. While every complication has its own way of treatment, our ability to run – longer or faster – can be used as a measure of good health. As it is commonly said that we can improve only what we measure. While we may not be able to run at the same speed or distance as our younger days, we can certainly try. At times, even the thought of starting to run again can help us mentally prepare for recovery.

The second aspect is increased self-consciousness as we grow up – the way we feel that we are looked up by others. In a commercialised word influxed with products and services promising to boost one’s self esteem, it is quite natural to be excessively conscious of oneself. The biggest mental barrier around starting to run is all about how we would be perceived by others when we run. I was no exception in this regard. I was a laughing stock in every sport I tried before getting into long distance running. During my early days of running, it would appear that everyone was bothered about why a lean person like me is ever into running. I preferred to wear full pants to avoid people ogling at my slender legs. It was only because to my fellow runners in various running groups that I could get over these inhibitions.

The other area where being self-conscious affects us is the fear of being outpaced by others, especially by those whom we consider inferior to us, thus making us feel insecure and a loser even before we start to run. Being brought up in a world of cut-throat competition from school to college to work, it is quite natural for many to feel insecure. It is very much possible that someone older, person of other gender, or even someone whose appearance we ridicule could outpace you on the run. Participating in running events, be it a 5K run or a marathon, is one way to get rid of this mindset. In running events, we are just one among the multitude of people. We would be neither first nor last; and definitely second to none. As it is commonly said, every runner is ahead of someone who didn’t turn out for the event. Many times, the distance would force runners to show camaraderie and encourage each other finish. Running with like minded runners certainly help in breaking this mould and improve oneself by helping others.

The third dimension is the social perception about sports and fitness in general that gets forced on us. It is a widely accepted notion that sports and games are only ‘hobbies’ and to be pursued secondary to academics, family or profession. Even taking up a simple activity like a morning walk is usually considered as a result of medical advice or as a post-retirement activity rather than by choice.  Those not appearing obese are often made to believe that running is for those who would like to reduce their weight. In case of women, the barriers are lot more and discussions needlessly intrudes into their personal space. Many running communities have successfully dispelled these myths and have created a space for runners to come and join them.

There is not much that one needs to learn about running. If we have done it in the past, we can almost certainly start doing it again. It is more about ‘unlearning’ the complexities that we have created for ourselves over the years. As running has taught me over years, keeping it simple is the easier way to do it. The more I have tried to learn about running, the more I realise that I haven’t learned. Running, at times, does bring with itself complexities like choice of clothing, gadgets, statistics, accessories, footwear, nutrition, and many others; But, none of them have been a deterrent to get started and actively pursue it. One doesn’t need to be called a runner to run; just being a human being is enough to run.

A edited version (brilliantly done by Pankaja) appeared in The Hindu – MetroPlus (Coimbatore edition) on August 30, 2019 under the title “Yes You Can”. The online version is not yet available. 

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