If you are a runner, you understand it is an addiction. You know the science of this, the natural ‘high’ that comes with the release of endorphins during exertion—running, or any kind of exertion. For most of us, it is a healthy addiction (I’ll take exception to the extreme runners whose hearts explode after running 60 miles at a stretch; it is also science to suggest this is a bad idea, to say nothing of plain old common sense.) But the addiction, or maybe compulsion, is also tied, I think, to daily being outside in the elements instead of confined between four walls, connecting with the natural environment, and just going. For me, it is a habit now 25 years in the making. Indulge me for a bit.
1. Running in the Early Morning Is Best
There is a stillness in the hour between four and five that forces one to focus. And the darkness of early morning demands vigilance, if for no other reason than to retain control of the creature at the end of the leash attached to your wrist. In our coastal North Carolina neighborhood, rabbits will dart from a hedgerow in the darkness of early morning with exactly no warning, crossing the pavement in front of us to the hedgerow opposite, where they stop, statuesque, as if Medusa herself transformed them to stone. Squirrels are not active at this hour, but when we encounter them on the occasional later-morning jaunt, will skitter up into a tree and squawk at us instead of just sitting there. No self-respecting canine can stand by quietly on either occasion.
But the silence of early morning also directs you to focus on the beating of your heart, and the deepness or shallowness of your breathing, which settles into a cadence to match the two legs and feet moving beneath you once you get going, a mantra-like rhythm that sees you through the miles until you finish.
Running in the middle of the morning or the late afternoon is different, and for me is more difficult; I do it when I must. In my heart of hearts, though, I know I am and will always be my best running self in the very early morning, before my body has a chance to object.
2. How I Made Running a Habit
Parenting a kid with severe attention deficit disorder does all kinds of things to your life, some of them good to be sure, but also ironically demands your undivided attention. At some point early in that life chapter I realized my best bet for enjoying a precious waking moment to myself occurred before sunrise. It was this epiphany that made me a runner: I could lace my sneakers, leash the dogs, and step outside to run while the rest of my household was still sleeping—my preschooler and his dad—and then return home with time still for coffee and a shower (sometimes taken together), energized and prepared for the day. After my young child’s diagnosis, it did not take long indeed for me to embrace this daily ritual.
Then a few years later, an insidious eye disease underscored the habit, a disease that insinuated itself, also ironically, perhaps because my immune system was worn down from sleep deprivation (difficult child + early morning running). In the days and weeks following my big, invasive eye surgery, I could not run or do much of anything at all, which damn near killed me. And then after my surgeon gave me the all clear, the disease made a comeback, not unexpectedly, but the followup treatments were photosensitizing and thus running in the darkness before dawn was not only desirable but compulsory. Those recurrences and treatments, lots and lots of them, continued for five years until the disease settled down, and so I settled comfortably into my predawn running life.
If there is a common denominator between those two motivators, it’s the helpless feeling that comes from not being in control, a tough reality for a control freak, and the ensuing frustration, and even anger. Running restores some control or at least gives one this illusion, and the chemical aspect of running (see endorphins above) restores some sanity and certainly a sense of well-being in those moments when one desperately needs them.
But I recommend getting enough sleep.
3. There Is No Better Running Than Running With a Dog
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. I have variously run with two Siberian Huskies and a Husky mix, a 145-pound Shiloh Shepherd (think SUV version of German Shepherd), an incredibly athletic and fleet-of-foot German Shepherd Dog, and now a Chesapeake Bay Retriever mix. The Huskies were hellish running partners who mainly wanted to pull; if you happened to stumble and fall, those ninnies just pulled harder. Still, I felt invincible with three Huskies out in front of me. The Shiloh and the GSD were delightful running partners who lived to protect and serve. Scout, my ‘Goldapeake Retriever,’ is a curmudgeon who mainly humors me. His vet back in Vermont explained to me he is a ‘heavily muscled’ dog who has a tough time getting rid of heat, which is to say, he overheats quickly if the conditions are ripe for it; I’ve learned his tolerances. He was an excellent runner when we lived in Vermont, but North Carolina is proving more difficult for this nine-year-old canine. We take it one day at a time.
I cannot imagine running without a dog, except during the high heat of summer in the afternoon. Dogs make everything in life better, including running. They always show up for you, they keep you honest, and they never judge. You can’t ask for a better running partner than a dog.
4. The Right Running Shoes Matter
Running requires so little equipment. Buy fancy stretchy pants with lots of nifty pockets, and slick tank tops that wick sweat and all if you must, but first take care of your feet. Secondly, be aware that feet change, from morning to afternoon, and through the years. It takes trial and error to find the perfect running shoes, but I’m smart enough to know that next year, or five years from now, the shoes I wear right now might not still be the perfect running shoes. Mine are New Balance Fresh Foam 1080s, in wide, and they’re way past their expiration date at the moment, new ones on the way. They seem to accommodate all the issues a lifetime of classical ballet (and a quarter century of running) have imposed upon my feet. I’d love it if they were made in the USA, as some New Balance shoes are, but alas these are made, you know, Over There.
5. Yoga Improves Running
I came late to yoga but once I discovered it became an enthusiastic practitioner and haven’t looked back. If running is salve for body, mind, and spirit, yoga is the fountain of youth. I happen to believe longevity is linked directly with spinal flexibility among other things, and leave you to ponder that. Yoga improves spinal flexibility in spades. At various times in the last couple of decades I’ve also had the luxury of adding Pilates to my menu of cross-training disciplines. It helps spinal flexibility too, but its main calling card is core strength. All these modalities and others, for example Gyrotonics, conspire to improve anybody’s running.
6. Arrrgh, There Be Running Injuries
As I compose this essay, there is a heating pad under my left ass cheek, which lately has spoken to me louder and louder, about a mile into my daily maintenance run. It’s the bothersome hamstring-glute connection: Call it crunchy. Or maybe DEFCON-level-tight is better. I have the disquieting notion that deep stretching (and I know how to stretch, believe me when I tell you this), which is what it needs, might instead make it snap.
Consider genetics. My ballerina mama ruptured each of her calves with only a few months between the two injuries, while dancing. (Specifically, her gastrocnemius, which is the lovely, curvaceous muscle just under the back of the knee, and which tends to be well developed in ballet dancers.) The first time, this occurred near the end of ballet class during grand allegro—big jumps—and everybody in class actually heard it snap. I remember when this happened, how the back of her leg turned a spectacular shade of purple, and how during her recovery she had to wear wedge-heeled shoes to keep the muscle in a comfortable place while it healed. That’ll get your attention. It just suggests to me I might actually break instead of bending, if I’m stupid.
One time when I was still living in Knoxville, I did something pretty stupid. At the starting line of a local 8K, I overheard a pair of college-aged knuckleheads bragging about how they planned to crush this race, despite their hangovers after a kegger the night before. Off they sprinted when the starting gun sounded, way, way out in front of my 40-something self. The race course, though, happened to be my own daily maintenance run, right in the ‘hood. I figured I’d catch them eventually and I did, at the highest elevation on the course, at roughly the halfway point. Caught ‘em and passed ‘em and kept right on going, running harder and harder and feeling positively righteous and giddy. Later on, sitting in one Dr. Mathien’s office, the same doctor who attended to the entire University of Tennessee football team’s knees, I watched carefully as he used the tip of his ballpoint pen to point to this place and that on my MRI images, opining to me that there was not a lot of meniscus left in the right knee and to be careful with what remained. Which is to say, not to ever again try to prove something whilst running a 5K.
I had a similar conversation last April, over a decade later, with good Dr. Nofziger in Bennington, Vermont. The manifesto he nailed to the door went something like, Don’t make me have to replace these knees. Enough said.
The injury that most interfered with my running habit was a stress fracture in my left calcaneus (heel), possibly connected to a condition I have called Haglund deformity. That sidelined me for a solid six or so months, during which time I took up cycling. I have nothing against cycling and in fact rode many miles earlier today for variety. It is not the same as running, gentle reader.
There will always be aches and pains, and as another doctor I know once quipped, they’re better than the consequences of a lifetime spent sitting on the sofa. But respect the injuries.
I read somewhere that the best runners are keenly aware of every stride, take an inventory of every little thing going on with each strike of the foot on pavement or beach or trail. Maybe this is true of the dedicated athlete, and maybe I should aspire harder to achieve that. The reality is, sometimes I have work on my mind while I’m running and so I’ll spend that half hour or 45 minutes sussing out a problem, and later on will arrive at work ready to dig in. Other times I’m focused on Scout, if I sense his cadence is off or he’s stressed in some way, and so I’ll need to drop back and be sensitive to him. Sometimes I’m deep into my head, thinking about an ailing family member or any of a number of looming troubles in the world, and there seems to be an infinite supply of them.
Occasionally, though, the stars align just right, and absolutely nothing could be better about this particular run with my companion by my side. That I find myself in a banner birthday year that ends in zero, and still, in spite of everything, can enjoy runs like that from time to time, is a truth worth celebrating.