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Archive for May, 2017

I woke up at 4am this morning, and then again at 5am, and then again and 6. A typical Saturday start for me, which is often followed by a battle with myself to do something – anything – because it would be too easy to lie around and doze the day away. This morning, like most Saturday mornings since January, I got myself up and went for a run. Unlike all of the previous Saturday mornings, though, this morning I finally made the effort to get to Durham parkrun, something I’ve been meaning to do since I arrived in August, but had never quite managed.

Southern Boundaries Park, where Durham parkrunners meet every Saturday, is five miles from my house, and without transport this requires a taxi ride and thus commitment to the cause. And when I wake up on a Saturday, exhausted from the week behind me and overwhelmed by the expanse of empty weekend space ahead, commitment is the last thing I want. Plus, the idea of going alone makes me inexplicably anxious – the irony of having moved to the USA alone and set up a new life from scratch is very apparent here. Today was a bit different, though. I’ve been particularly stressed over the past week, and this morning I knew that if I didn’t get out there quickly I might easily fritter a weekend away feeling tired and sorry for myself. I had no motivation to go out on a local run, and since I was already feeling not-so-great, the stress of getting myself to the start line didn’t feel so huge. Fast-forward to 9am, and I’d had a great run, got myself some much-needed weekend endorphins, chatted to loads of friendly people, and taken part in a wonderfully uplifting community event. Oh, and I also ran my fastest (non-treadmill) 5km in over a year, coming in at 3rd lady and first in my category. Inevitably, I can’t wait to go back again.

But there is a bigger point to all of this. When I arrived in Durham I had recently fallen out with running and was quite committed to the idea of ‘quitting’. Clearly, this didn’t happen. But what did happen is that I reframed my relationship with running altogether, and over the past nine months it has gone from being a stone in my shoe to serving as a crutch to help me get through some of the toughest days of my time in North Carolina.

I signed up for the Asheville Marathon in January, not as a way to ‘get fit’ or achieve any fitness/life goal, but to serve as an endorphin-soaked protective shield against increasingly frequent periods of low mood. A rather extreme Ulysees contract, perhaps, but the marathon (and notably its $170 entry fee!) served as the running buddy waiting on the corner: I knew that committing to a marathon would push me to get out running every weekend (almost) without fail. Every weekend, I’d do something positive, get some fresh air, explore my new neighbourhood, nodding/smiling/waving to other people as I went. It worked. There wasn’t a single Saturday morning between January and March that I actually *felt* like running, but barring one really tough 20-miler in unexpectedly hot conditions, I enjoyed every single long run, and spent the rest of the day on a high.

I thought I’d stop running after the marathon, but if anything, it has shown me how great running can be when it isn’t tied too tightly to miles and speed. I go out and run until it stops feeling good, and then I go home. I stop to watch the early-morning bird life and admire exotic local plants. And I always feel brighter afterwards. Running has, essentially, helped me work through the hardest bits of being away, through the homesickness and loneliness and weekend time that, when I first arrived, I would just work through to avoid having to find ways to entertain myself. Importantly, running doesn’t give me a migraine, while seven-day working weeks certainly do.

My parkrun experience this morning was a zoomed-in version of all of those good things and more. I arrived into a community that I was already part of; my status as ‘runner’ (regardless of speed, age, experience, or anything else) made it easy to just start talking to people and become a new part of their local group. This is what I love the most about running. There were a few other Brits there, and we all swapped ‘why we’re in Durham’ stories (I was the only one not on holiday), cheered each other on (it’s an out-and-back three-loop course), and took photos afterwards. I got a lift home with a couple who didn’t even live in my direction – they drove 30 minutes out of their way to help me out.

I decided to ‘quit’ running last year because I was tired of the physical and mental aspects of it: the strain of pushing myself physically didn’t feel much like a hobby, the mental discipline I exerted on myself didn’t feel like a hobby, the language around running  – particularly on Twitter – didn’t make it sound like something I might want to do for fun. But being in Durham, running the half marathon and then the Asheville marathon and then even this morning’s parkrun, has given me a constant technicolour display of all the awesome things that exercise in all its forms can provide. I’ve taken my running back to its grassroots, and we’re getting on better than ever. Thanks to running I’ve found a trusty way to experience adventure and joy during some really difficult times. Now, when I feel low or too far from home, I take myself on a 20-minute run just to see if it helps. It doesn’t always, but more often than not it provides a serotonin boost (or something) enough to change my mindset and get me back on course for the day ahead.

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