The unusual challenges of being an amateur runner

I’ve never liked running. Never. And that is simply because I find it quite punishing.

I must have read a fair few articles on why running is bad to make myself feel better, and google obliged as always, helping us see what we want to see.

Exercise has been a largely ignored aspect throughout my life. Even in primary school, I never got an ‘A’ in Physical Education, despite acing the rest. I remember a basketball coach in school who was disappointed how little I could use my height in the game.

There is no example better suited than exercise for cognitive dissonance. All of us know we should do it, for innumerable reasons. And yet many of us ignore it, with our excuses outweighing our reasons.

Around three months ago, in my quest to build discipline, I started to take a walk every evening. There is a walkway of 2 km close to my home, under a tapestry of trees, with a hint of sewage by the side for a 100 meter stretch. The following are some excerpts from my journey so far.

The first run

I never planned on graduating from walking to running when I started. So after about a week of walking, I gave it a shot, and was breathless in less than 200 meters. My theories about my low stamina started coming back as I walked the rest of the way.

I knew this couldn’t carry on forever. There needed to be some challenge to sustain this habit. So I tried walking faster and measuring my time.

Soon I found I was maxed out on walking speed as well. The only way to improve now was to run. Showing up everyday, even if for a walk, had already built some motivation.

I managed maybe 300 meters without pausing. But this time there was no sinking feeling. It was still an improvement, and this was a challenge that would take a long time to max out.

Running in absurdly high pollution levels

I had a sinus surgery a year ago. Though the root allergy was not pinpointed, it does not take a genius to know that pollution is extremely bad for my nose, even after surgery. An AQI level of 50 is considered healthy. The normal AQI in Noida is around 150-200. This June it was in excess of 500.

This was a perfectly acceptable excuse to give up, and I’m not fond of treadmills.

If I was going to be in Noida, pollution was something I had to accept. So I started wearing pollution masks. These are good quality masks by Honeywell that are effective against PM2.5 levels. The pollution that time was predominantly PM10.

It’s hard to run with masks. Of course, they became my latest excuse for not being able to run properly. But I kept showing up, and it just became another challenge to conquer.

Speed of other runners

There is so much data available to us today that losing your self-esteem is a piece of cake. When I installed Strava, I was naturally curious to check out how fast my friends were. I’ll be honest, it was really deflating at first. Everyone was way faster, and ran much longer distances than I could dream of. Even while running, when I saw the odd runner overtake me, it pinched.

It took me a while to become more comfortable with my own pace and stamina. After all my goal was never to run faster than others.  It was to improve and enhance my capability. Confucius said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Running without earphones

It’s little wonder I ran with earphones.

Growing up, I’ve been one of those people who would never let go of any opportunity to put on earphones. Flights, Mumbai locals, Cabs, a solitary meal, while shopping – you name it. Whenever I misplaced a pair, I used to freak out and pay Amazon extra for same day shipping.

Yet again, Google provided me with researched papers on how music makes one run faster.

Truthfully though, I was irritated with the dangling wires of the earphones and wanting to change the song over and over. Good quality wireless earphones cost a bomb, and they would become yet another thing we have to charge.

I recently read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It spoke of being immersed in an activity as one of the requisites to truly enjoy it. And there is a general emphasis on being in control of your mind. The book has left a strong and positive mark on me.

I’m sure music helps, because ultimately it is a distraction for our otherwise unchecked trains of thought. If you think about it, there is hardly any situation in our lives where our minds are allowed think, unchecked. I read somewhere that flights will have WiFi soon, which was the last habitable place left on earth without internet.

And that’s precisely why I decided to leave my earphones behind. I wanted to let my mind wander freely at least for one aspect of my life other than showering.

The difference is immense. You feel every breath, so you’re able to control it better. You feel the heat in your feet. Sometimes I come up with ideas to help with my job search.

And yes, occasionally your mind tells you to stop. Give up. Today you can’t make it.

It is incredibly satisfying to conquer those thoughts everyday.

Running hungover in another city

Last year I was at a close friend’s wedding in Jodhpur. On one of the days we were already a bit late, and were rushing each other to get ready. And then this friend of mine says he has to go for a run first, and will join later. I was stunned by how obsessed this guy was. Isn’t this supposed to be a break? Is this supposed to be cool?

Last month I was again at a close friend’s wedding, and it was just deja vu. I woke up hungover, and just went for a run even though the shoes were not ideal for it. I think I understood what it means to ingrain something. This was never about being cool. There are things you do in life no matter what else is going on. Like a prayer to a religious person. Like watching Manchester United to me.

I wanted exercise to be one of those things.

Full circle

The way I measured my progress was simple. I’d run from the starting point, and see what proportion of the 2 km round I could cover without pausing. In a couple of weeks I reached the halfway point. The cool thing about slow and steady progress is that you can see it happening at a comfortable pace, which inspires you to keep on going.

The day I reached the halfway point,  I estimated I would need another month to be able to actually do one complete round. I did it the same week.

Going halfway was easy, because I knew I’d already done it. It was the fifth time I think, and I remember my thoughts quite clearly. On any given day I could never predict how much I could run beyond the previous best. That day, I was just looking at the next checkpoint (a bench or a tree). Let’s make it to the next bench first, then let’s see. My feet were on fire. Just when I wanted to stop and catch a breath, I saw the end of the round was near. What if I could actually do it?
The moment that thought entered my mind, there was no stopping.

It’s an amazing feeling, to just expand the definition of what you can do. Not in comparison with anyone else. Only your past self.

Yesterday you were x, today you are x + 1.

Why I run

The simplest way I can put it is that running is a challenge everyday. There isn’t a single day, a single minute when I found it easy, even after three months of it. Concurrently, every time I do it, I feel accomplished. And a sense of accomplishment is probably the most important feeling I know.

Other than that, I fully understand it guarantees nothing. Neither weight loss, nor a healthier heart. For now, that winning feeling is all I care about.

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