I used to be confused as to why anyone would choose to run.
For those who have come to know me since then, this probably sounds unbelievable. I’m likely near the top of their list of people they associate with the word “runner”. But running wasn’t always like that for me. In fact, I found running by luck, after my two insistent running coaches in secondary school didn’t let me off the hook and made me join the cross-country team.
Today, a bit over a decade in my journey, I crossed the mark of running fifty thousand kilometres. On roads, trails, and treadmills, through rain, snow, and sunshine, over mud, against the wind, and up and down many, many hills. In just over ten years, I went from a kid who thought running was boring to eagerly getting out the door every day to run. Since then, the sport has given me so much, including how I approach the rest of my life. Running is my daily anchor. I also believe there is much more left for me to do in the sport.
But it would be a mistake to think running was something I was always destined for. Despite how much I love running now, my relationship to the sport hasn’t always been easy. I want to share how I got into running, because I think it can serve as a reminder to others that there are many paths you can take into the sport, and it’s not always love at first sight.
The story starts with failure.
My elementary school used to hold a track and field day each year. Place in the top three of an event, and you were invited to a meet against other schools. By the time I was in fourth grade and could participate, I desperately wanted to place high enough to get an invitation.
But I wasn’t good enough. Despite pushing myself as hard as I could, I never broke into the top three of any event. As the day wore on, I saw my chances slipping away until reality sunk in: I wasn’t going. I was devastated, especially because it felt like all my friends had qualified. It also turned out to be the final year our school participated in this meet.
Though I never got to compete against other schools, my school still held a track and field day. And something curious happened in the intervening year: I became stronger than my classmates in longer races. While they slowed down later in a race, I could hold on for longer. For my last two years of elementary school, I didn’t just place in the top three, but outright won these races.
Looking back, I think this was my start as an endurance athlete.
While I continued to flourish at distance running in secondary school, I didn’t actually like running. It felt good to be one of the best in my grade, but I only ran during the fitness test we did a few times a year. I much preferred playing sports such as hockey, basketball, badminton, soccer, tennis, and softball.
In grade eight, my school held its first 5km race, longer than I had ever run in my life. I was excited to see how fast I could run, but I didn’t have any expectations. Though I was good at running, there’s a lot of development between 14 and 17 years old. There weren’t any super fast runners at my school, but I imagined many would be faster than me. And that’s what happened for most of the race. I was behind a bunch of people and slowly worked myself forward. I think many of the teachers along the course were a little surprised to see me near the front. I was surprised myself.
I remember seeing the final person in front of me late into the race, with perhaps half a kilometre to go. When I passed him, he was kind and encouraged me forward. The last few hundred metres were a blur. I was thrilled with my win, and my competitive nature meant I got a lot of satisfaction from beating those who were older.
Soon after, the two cross-country running coaches at my school asked me to join the team. You might think that, coming off this win, I’d be excited to race students from other schools. I had also proven to myself that I could do this, so it wasn’t hypothetical. I could hold my own at running. And yet, I said no. I’d seen the team running around the school before, and I couldn’t believe anyone would choose to do something so boring. Didn’t they have more imagination when it came to sports? I would stick with my team sports, thank you very much.
I have to give my two coaches credit: They were persistent. I turned them down them for a year, but eventually I agreed to join the team.
I trained a little and went to my first race not knowing what to expect. I finished third after being unable to stay with the leaders in the final stretch. Rather than demotivate me though, this loss spurred me on to improve. In fact, I ended up winning every other race I competed in during secondary school except for my final one and a few I ran while injured.
By then, I knew what it was to compete. I had even signed up for a few 10Ks and half marathons and did well in them. But though I had all the ingredients there for competitive success, there were still challenges.
I struggled with running consistently during those first few years. I often got bored of running, and wouldn’t go out for weeks. This is what happened during my final cross-country season in secondary school. I almost only ran on race day, which is a terrible strategy!
I suspect part of the reason I struggled is I never had a coach who directed my training, so I wrote my own training. Often, that meant a lot of volume too early in my development as a runner. I inevitably got sick of this, which is why my training was so inconsistent.
After secondary school, I also avoided racing. A combination of uncertainty about the future, sunk costs linked to paying for a race that I might do terribly in, and just general anxiety about racing kept me from any races in the next few years. And despite doing well in the tryouts for my college’s cross-country team, I didn’t join the team during my first year because of these thoughts. Thankfully, I reframed my situation and joined the team in my final year, which was a wonderful experience and something I’m very glad I chose to do.
Because I didn’t race, I focused on simply training. For someone who wasn’t racing, I was running a lot. I was probably averaging 110-130km a week, over the entire year. I very rarely took breaks. This was maybe good for building up my endurance, but less so for developing a sustainable love for running. I didn’t have a real plan, so I just ran a lot, throwing in variety for good measure.
This led to my next problem: Intertwining my identity with running.
At this point, I was running every day. In fact, my run streak at that time was over a thousand days. Running was the thing I did each day, and though it wasn’t always easy, I did love it.
But I took things too far. My life was highly regimented and organized around my daily run. If I went on a trip, I had to figure out how to incorporate a run (and the right amount!) into the trip. I didn’t want to go to bed too late so I could be well-rested for the next day. If the weather was so bad that I had to postpone my run to some other time in the day, I was off-kilter.
Frankly, I was addicted to the control running gave me.
And inevitably, there are things in life that happen which you cannot anticipate and require you to adapt. In my case, some injuries forced me to stop my usual training for over a year. At first, I thought I could get away with just doing a tiny bit of running each day so I maintained my streak and my routine. But even that had to go so I could fully recover.
I’ll be honest: It was hard. That first day in years without a run was difficult. I was itching all day to run. It felt wrong to let the day go by without a run. Looking back on it now, it’s clear to me that I had attached too much of my identity to running. If I was panicking from missing a day of running, that was a problem!
Though I barely ran that year, I gained a lot of perspective on running. I saw that I had taken things too far. I was running a lot for no purpose other than some idea in my head to keep doing it. I did love to run, but I disliked how I couldn’t detach myself from running for a day without feeling bad about it. As all runners know, missing a day, a week, or even a month of training isn’t the end of the world. It’s often fine. And yet in the moment, it felt like this was the thing that would lead to me never running again. I was insecure.
I’m still working on separating my identity from running. This is a sport I do, but it’s not everything about me. I am a student, a friend, a son, a sibling, a physicist, a teacher, an athlete, a volunteer, a coach, and so much more. I’m not just my running, and my wish is to lightly hold my identity as a runner, not tattoo it to myself forever.
What’s next with my running? I have a few ideas.
First, apart from my one fall season of cross-country, I haven’t raced in almost a decade. But now, I’m curious about what I can do. I know I’m faster and stronger than I used to be, and that competitive spirit is slowly returning to me. As such, I’m excited to see what kinds of races I can compete in. I still have the anxiety surrounding races that I used to, but I’m also curious about my potential.
Second, I’ve spent most of my life running alone. I love this about the sport: Running is mine, and I can be alone with my thoughts on each outing. However, I think I’ve missed a significant portion of being a runner: socializing with friends. I could naturally get this by racing, but since I never raced, I missed it! Even if I continue doing the bulk of my training solo, I’d like to find more opportunities to connect with runners in my community. The older I get, the more I’m invested in nurturing relationships and communities, so this is another frontier I want to improve on.
Running has been a constant in the last decade of my life, and I’m grateful that I have a practice that I can return to every day. Though that’s running for me, I suspect any activity will do the trick.
Wherever the future takes me, I want to focus on creating sustainable practices.