Why I Stopped Running After Fifteen Years
And why I’m not sad about it.
Most kids have that phase where they try out every sport or after-school activity possible, hopping from one practice to another each day of the week, searching for that one thing that gives their heart flurries of passion and makes them want to do it for the rest of their lives. I was one of those kids.
I made my rounds through the various sports. After watching Olympic gymnasts on TV, I decided that was what I wanted to do. And it was, until I realized I would eventually have to flip over backwards, and I was scared out of my mind. I switched over to swimming at my parents’ request, and failed miserably. P
utting my ears under the water seemed too insurmountable a task to my four-year-old self. Hopeful, I attempted to pirouette my way through the ballet and tap studios, but fell one too many times for any future prima ballerina.
Sure, I could have settled into any one of those if I had stuck with it long enough. I would have conquered my fear of flipping over backwards, summoned enough courage to stick my ears underwater (I did eventually achieve this one), and spin fast enough to overcome my natural instability.
But when you’re a kindergartener stuck at home in your backyard with no gymnasium, swimming pool, or ballet bar to get rid of all your excess energy— you run. You sprint around in circles, sometimes chasing your little siblings, sometimes chasing nothing at all. You run until you’re so out of breath you collapse onto the grass and stare up at the sky.
When my parents noticed how often I ran, they signed me up for the school’s track and field team. The only two kindergarteners on the team were a classmate of mine named Travis, and me. I was half the size of everyone else. If that. But I could run. Even though my form was disgraceful and my arms swung out wildly to either side, I could run.
And I loved it.
I raced my first mile when I was five years old. I don’t remember how long it took me, but I finished. I even got a shiny participation ribbon — photographed by my mother alongside my mile-wide smile, shown off to anyone who would listen, and proudly taped to the side of my dresser where I could see it every morning.
Unlike gymnastics, swimming, or ballet, I began to compete pretty early on, so I soon found out I wouldn’t always race and win against my smaller, younger siblings. Quite the opposite, in fact. I raced against girls who were double my height, with legs as tall as my entire body. I rarely won.
I had to deal with disappointment, failure, and accepting that, contrary to any team sport, the loss was not anyone’s fault but my own.
And yet, I kept running.
I didn’t quit, even though it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. After elementary school, the practices only got harder and the races only got faster. I lost more frequently. Even worse, they stopped giving out participation ribbons.
I ran all through elementary school and middle school. My dad coached my team until I graduated in eighth grade, and even started the fall cross country team so I wasn’t confined to only running in the spring.
Cross country meant bounding across grassy fields, leaping over muddy puddles, and trekking up the steepest of hills. Even underneath the ever-present storm clouds in rainy Washington, running in the open air made me feel free.
So I kept running.
And I got better.
Over the years, I won hundreds of ribbons, medals, and bib numbers to coat my bedroom walls. I raced for and captained my high school team, earned a spot at Junior Olympic Nationals twice, and topped the charts in my age bracket at a number of community 5k’s.
Of course, for every race I won, there were twenty more that were significantly less successful.
My legs were constantly sore and achy, my lungs screamed at me for using them too rapidly, and no matter when I wanted to stop, coaches yelled at me to keep running. Countless races were curtailed by pulled muscles, turned ankles, falls, asthma attacks, and tears. My dad, teammates, and coaches pulled my collapsed body off the finish line more times than I can count.
I was nowhere close to the fastest, but I had talent.
What’s more important, I had found my passion.
Running brought me a happiness I’d never felt before. It took my breath away in the best and worst way possible. Running was soon so ingrained in my being that it became the foundation of my existence.
As I approached my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to keep running.
My junior year season was hindered by a hip flexor injury, so I knew the peak of my performance was far from over. I knew I couldn’t give it up just yet. I ached to compete and improve.
I was determined to run in college.
It was a major influence on my college decision. I emailed coaches, set up meetings, worked to bring down my times my senior year to qualify for more competitive teams. I wanted it more than anything.
And I got it. I chose to attend George Fox University, where I could pursue my intended major, Elementary Education, and compete on their Division III cross country and track and field teams. I was ecstatic.
For a while, I loved it. I was living my dream. I trained hard for 3-4 hours a day, 6 days a week, and put in more mileage than I ever had before. Afternoons, evenings, and weekends were consumed by practices and competitions. Hours were spent on the team bus that constantly bustled with noise and laughter. My teammates became my best friends.
I was hungry for competition and thrived off the motivation to reach qualifying times. I wasn’t the fastest on the team by a long shot, but my coaches saw my fire and passion for the sport I had been enveloped in my entire life.
But slowly, it overwhelmed me and encompassed me so much that I lost control.
Those 4-hour practices that I loved so much eventually shifted into 4 hours a day that I couldn’t work on homework or study for upcoming tests or rest. As much as I ached for improvement, I gradually lost the energy and momentum to give it my all in both sports and school. I forced myself to attend practice. I dreaded hard workouts and how exhausted I knew I would be after.
I hoped that the adrenaline rushes that came with competing again would excite me enough to keep me going. But when the time came for me to toe the starting line, I felt nothing but anxiety and dread. No matter how hard I tried to summon up some shred of a positive emotion, I couldn’t.
Running was my life for 15 years, but eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had been immersed in my passion for so long that I had given literally everything I had. So I talked to my coach, explained through tears that I didn’t love something I had loved my whole life anymore.
He asked me why I came every day. I told him, “It’s a good stress reliever.”
“There are lots of ways to relieve stress,” he replied.
This scared me. If I found another way to relieve stress, what would that say about me? I didn’t want to be a quitter. Who would I become then?
He gave me a week off to figure out exactly how I felt. Several weeks, numerous conversations, and lots more tears later, I decided the break needed to be permanent. I needed to step away.
It terrified me at first. What am I supposed to do with myself? Running and racing on a team was all I had ever known. It got me through the awkward transitions of high school and college. There was never a time in my life where I wasn’t running.
I always assumed the biggest heartbreak of my life would be from a broken relationship. To some degree, I was right. But instead of giving up a person I loved, I gave up a passion.
Giving up competitive running challenged me in ways I never thought I would be.
It humbled me because I no longer relied on the team to be my only source of socialization. I began reaching out more to my classmates and other friends. At first I felt left out, isolated whenever I thought about everything I was missing out on. I eventually accepted the team would move on without me, and that would be okay. I could move on without them, too.
And I have. It’s been two years since I’ve stopped running, and I’ve been okay. Turns out, there are in fact countless ways to relieve stress. I’ve picked up new hobbies, focused on my writing and coursework, and made new friends. More importantly, I learned it’s perfectly fine to let go of something that no longer serves your purpose.
A few months after I quit, I decided to go on a run again. It can be slow, I told myself. Don’t pay attention to the time.
It was the freest I had felt in years. Suddenly, the little kindergartener inside me was back running circles in the backyard, chasing my little brother. I wasn’t fighting my body when it wanted to slow down, or yelling at myself to pass the person in front of me. I was feeling the air on my face and soaking in the sun and I was happy. I was happy because I wasn’t doing it for anyone else but myself.
I haven’t run much in the past two years. I’ve lost the great shape I was once in and the stamina I had built up. But that’s okay. I’ve found other things to do for myself. There’s still a chance I’ll be the sixty year old running community 10k’s like I always dreamed I would be. Or maybe not. And that will be a perfectly fine future, as long as whatever I’m doing, I’m doing for myself.
Student at George Fox University. More of her writing can be found at medium.com/@helenaducusin