Finding Joy In Running
by Farah Visslailli
These are not normal times (you don’t say!?). In fact, can we all agree to just ban the word “normal” from our vocabulary for the foreseeable future, just to get around having to hear the phrase “the new normal” one more time?
Alas, I’ll allow myself one more use of the world only to say, under “normal” circumstances, many of us in the running community would right now be recovering from one of the many fall races, after a summer spent training – suffering – through the heat and humidity. Last month we would have been perhaps coming to terms with how our months of training went, or emailing our physical therapist, trying to get in for that last-minute tune-up, taper-crazies having caused us to freak out about every little niggle. All scenarios and feelings that are both familiar, and yet so distant.
Instead, we’ve been faced with, well, how to handle “this” instead. We’ve all been impacted by this pandemic in different ways. Some of us, stricken by fear and anxiety stopped running, moving, or leaving the house or apartment for a while altogether, the thought of having to pass by another human enough to cause a panic attack (hi, this one is me). Some of us lost loved ones or got sick ourselves, and are still dealing with lingering symptoms, making exercise extra challenging. Some of us leaned in to newfound free time and started running more than we ever have before. Some of us started running to protest. Our running community even gained new members – I saw many of them run by, while sitting on my stoop in Brooklyn, the coach in me resisting the urge to shout at them to go get some new shoes – real running shoes. (But seriously, new runners: please, go to a running store and get fitted. Those gym shoes you dusted off from three years ago are only going to make things worse!)
While I’m not typically one to easily find silver linings – I don’t often practice what I preach – there is one I’ve personally tried to focus on after eventually emerging from my COVID fear cave: finding joy in running.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was no joy in running for me. I should preface this by saying, for those who don’t know me, 10 years into this hobby 2019 was my Year of Running. This is not intended as a humble brag (well, maybe a little) but to explain the contrast to 2020: In 2019, I logged more miles – happily – than ever before (about 2200), I set PRs in every distance I raced, trained my butt off for my first BQ, got ultra-curious and ran a 60K, and really felt I was in my element as a runner. Then, COVID happened.
In the Spring, on the rare occasion I convinced myself to get out and run, I found nothing to delight in by running the same boring, hilly loop around the cemetery on a humid day, trying to breath through a piece of fabric, alone. I’ve always appreciated a good solo run, but for me much of running has always been about the community, and I was missing mine. Try as I might, I just couldn’t recreate that experience virtually. I completed the first Yeti Ultra Challenge, running 5 miles every 4 hours for a full 24 hours, covering 30 miles in total – with three friends. We started at the same time, in our respective parts of the city, and every 5 hours we would open a Zoom link and participate in an audio-only call, staying on until the last person finished the leg.
While the Yeti was physically challenging, I am glad I did it. That was when I began to see a glimmer of hope. I realized it was possible to find my joy running again by getting creative. So I started experimenting. Sometimes that resulted in a stroll through Greenwood Cemetery, or a bike ride doing loops in Prospect Park. It often meant hiding my watch or leaving it off entirely, removing all expectations about pace and distance. I tried going off the beaten path, running exclusively through the woods of Prospect Park, avoiding the road just to see where I would end up. I was able to borrow a car and got out of town for a weekend, discovering that running on a trail along a beach is a thing, and is my favorite thing! I discovered some tried and true ways to find joy in running that have nothing to do with training for a race, and I’m finding that to be a very useful life skill.
Ultimately I did train for, and run, a completely unofficial and low-key virtual half marathon with my best friend (who would be wise to remind me that somewhere around mile 6, I said aloud “You know, we could just stop. We don’t have to do this. It doesn’t matter!”) But perhaps for the first time in my now twelve years as a runner, I felt the goal wasn’t so much about completing the race, but about the whole journey leading up to it.
While I’m grateful for all that I achieved last year as a runner, I am now enjoying the low-stakes version of running I’ve participated in these past few months where the only real goal is to find joy. As an added bonus, it just so happens that it’s the antidote to my ever-present anxiety.
Now it’s almost winter and it’s probably going to get cold soon here in NYC – well, maybe. We do live in a sub-tropical climate now, so maybe not. While cold weather hasn’t stopped me from running in the past, it’s looking a lot like things – this pandemic, to be specific – will continue to get worse, before they get better and we may once again find ourselves in a similar place as last Winter/Spring. All this is to say, it is not a bad time to try and find your joy. My unsolicited advice, to start, is to think about some of the little things that make you happy – a place, a person, a song, a food – whatever – and incorporate it into your run. Catch up with a friend on the phone, eat a doughnut, hide your watch in a place you might not find it for a while – it doesn’t have to be conventional, there are no rules – except, please, wear your mask and keep socially distant.