It took me a while to decide what I wanted to write about this week. Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of the runners I follow on social media share their story of how they became a runner/got fit, and I realized I haven’t fully thought about mine, let alone write about it. So, I decided to dedicate this blog post to my story of how I became a runner.
I’ve been active ever since I can remember. When I was a preschooler I began taking gymnastics lessons, which soon turned into pre-team lessons, then full on training with the competitive team. Throughout the years I tried other sports like soccer and swimming, but I always stuck with gymnastics and it soon became my life. At my peak I trained 4 hours a day, 6 days a week. Then, when I was 15 and we moved to Japan for the second time, I switched over to cheerleading for the remainder of my high school years. It was fun and a lot less intense than gymnastics. I maintained a lot of my tumbling skills and was able to stay in decent shape, but I never ran or did any sort of strength training. My exercise consisted of what we did in practice– jumps, stunts, tumbling, and dance. However, fitness was not a priority for me and I never really thought about nutrition (like how much protein, fats, sugars, carbs were in my diet) and was content with my lifestyle.
I entered Penn State in the fall of 2011, excited for all the changes to come. I was determined to avoid the dreaded freshman 15 so I got a gym membership and started going to the gym pretty regularly. I had no endurance; I would run on the treadmill for 20 minutes and was exhausted by the end. I didn’t really know what I was doing since I’d never exercised on my own and was forced to figure out a workout routine for myself instead of having coaches tell me what to do. That, combined with the dining hall food and alcohol, led to some weight gain although it wasn’t the full 15 pounds.
Sophomore year I didn’t take my fitness very seriously at all. I don’t really remember how often I went to the gym, but I remember one semester I barely went at all. However, I didn’t think about it much since I was at a normal weight, worked out when I could, and was enjoying my time at college.
The summer after my sophomore year was when I started to get consistent with my running. I interned in Tokyo that summer, and the apartment I was staying at had a gym in the building. I would go in the evenings after work and run on the treadmill for 20 minutes, then increased to 25, and eventually, as my endurance progressed, I was running 30+ minutes. I remember in high school when my sister would run on the treadmill for 30 minutes and I would ask her how on earth she could run for so long when I could barely survive 10. Now I was the one running for 30 minutes, and I felt good. It started to become more of a habit, and soon I was running on the treadmill most days of the week. That summer I lost about 5 pounds and I was at a weight I hadn’t been since high school.
The next fall, I renewed my school gym membership and ran regularly throughout the semester. However, I was still too afraid to venture outside. I’m not sure what was holding me back– the comfort of the treadmill, not wanting to experience any surprise hills, not considering myself enough of a runner to warrant outdoor running– whatever it was, I stayed indoors for most of my runs. I was running 4 or 5 miles at this point, which was more than I ever thought I could do. I also started incorporating more strength training into my workouts, using dumbbells for upper body strength and planks/sit ups for core.
That spring I moved to Prague for a semester abroad. It took me a while to find a decently equipped and affordable gym, so I ran outside until I found one. I discovered it was a great way to get to know my neighborhood and other parts of the city, and a lot less boring than running on the treadmill. However, the cobblestone-covered streets were hurting my knees and I realized I wouldn’t be able to run outside daily without potential long-term injury. I ran as much as I could that semester while still embracing opportunities as they came, trying to balance fitness with spontaneity. I increased my mileage, running around 4-5 miles most days of the week with a 6 mile run once every few weeks. 6 miles was truly a feat for me– an hour of running was a concept so foreign to me just a few months prior. I also started cooking, as it was my first time living in an apartment. I had no idea what I was doing and mainly made a lot of pasta, salads, and sandwiches. I couldn’t read any of the food labels since they were in Czech, but I did start to pay more attention to what I was eating and how it was affecting my body. I still ate out a lot and drank more beer than the average middle-aged male, but I made fitness a priority and was conscientiously making healthful decisions with my food.
I think fitness truly became a lifestyle for me that summer (2014). I returned to the US and had an internship in DC, so I would commute back and forth from Rockville to the city everyday. At first I tried to go to the gym after work, but most days I would come home around 7 or 8, starving and exhausted, and all I wanted to do was eat my dinner and go to bed. After I realized that I wouldn’t be able to exercise as consistently as I wanted, I decided to make some changes. I didn’t want to lose my fitness after all the time I put into gaining and maintaining it. So, instead of riding the bus to the metro station, I would walk. This would not only save me around $3 every morning, but it would allow me to get in 3 miles before the day even started. I only had to wake up about 20 minutes earlier since the walk to the bus stop was 10 minutes, I would usually have to wait around 5 minutes for it to arrive, and the ride itself was 10 minutes. So, I began to walk in the mornings and workout when I could in the evenings (usually around 3 to 4 times a week). I tried to run outside on occasion, but it was always so humid that I found it hard to breathe; I much preferred the cool air conditioned gym.
When I returned to State College this fall for my senior year, I finally found the joy in running outdoors and began hitting the pavement consistently. In September I signed up for my first half marathon. This was a huge step for me, as I had never done a race before and I was intimidated by the distance and training it would require. I started waking up early every morning, getting my runs in before I did anything else. I loved my morning runs– it allowed me to kick-start the day, there was no traffic, and I didn’t have to worry about scheduling runs into my day amidst all my other tasks. I was also taking a fitness walking class that semester and learned of a lot of bike paths and routes that I was unaware of before, and I really enjoyed exploring parts of State College that I didn’t know existed. I had previously only been exposed to the tiny bubble of downtown, but through my runs I saw so many different neighborhoods, schools, and businesses (and hills) that I would have never known about otherwise. My fitness walking class also taught me the importance of cross training (e.g. spinning, taking an aerobics class, yoga) so I began doing that on the days that I didn’t run or strength train. I also experimented more with my cooking, learning how to bake chicken/fish, roast veggies, stir-fry, and make soup. It was becoming an increasingly enjoyable activity for me; I found myself wanting to improve my skills, looking up recipes to expand my culinary knowledge. By the end of the semester my fitness had progressed immensely and I felt more fit and strong than I had in years.
After so many years of struggling to define myself as a ‘runner,’ I realize now that being a runner isn’t about how fast or far you run. It’s about a passion, a joy, an escape. For me, when I run I am connected to my body. I am connected to my lungs allowing air to flow in and out of me. To my heart quickening. To my feet hitting the ground. To my aching quads. To my swinging arms. I feel myself getting stronger, not just physically, but mentally, as I get myself through those tough hill runs, speed-play runs, or runs that I just plain want to quit. Running has taught me patience, resilience, and discipline. I love being a student of health– always finding new ways to train, new recipes to cook, new strength circuits to try. I can’t wait to continue to improve and discover everything that I’m capable of. I am so grateful for my health, and I hope I can be of inspiration to others to try new things and open up their lives to the possibility of finding a new passion.