Author: Fabienne Capostagno
People ask why I run. I say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never understand.”
You have probably seen or heard this, or some variation of it, a thousand times. I know I have. “Running keeps me sane!”… “I need a run!”… “If I couldn’t run, I’d go nuts!”.
It is indeed so; running is my therapy! It’s the perfect way to clear and calm my mind.
But what lies behind the power that keeps runners going when pain and physical exertion kick in?
Non-runners, more often than not, fail to understand why we run. I, myself, have been for years. It certainly did not happen in a day. It began as a process that, over the years, has become something more, my lifestyle. This passion, that is now my “healthy” addiction as I like to call it (although no addiction is a good addiction!) began as a desire to stay in shape.
Trying to explain the drive behind the motivation to step beyond one’s ‘comfort zone’ testing one’s limits is still a mystery to some. My experience tells me that the desire to run comes from deep within – from the unconscious, the instinctive, the intuitive. I put it down to the journey the run takes you through: initially as a wish to stay healthy and fit with short treadmill runs, then the discovery that run=fun, finally daring to step outside, the beginning of years of serious training, the physical and mental buildup to races, the confrontation with anxiety, stress, and sometimes fear, to that sense of accomplishment when crossing the finish line after months of hard work, that feeling of pleasure, content, and liberation that it gives me, my mind, and my state of being. It’s the reward and personal satisfaction I get from the race; the feeling that, once again, I have made it. And that is what pushes me to get out there again, the following day.
Running in some way mirrors the process of life. It has a beginning and an end. That is a fact. It is a journey with obstacles and challenges, sometimes physical and concrete, other times purely psychological, it is a path with twists and turns, with mountains to climb, all of which can be overcome if one is really determined in accomplishing its goal.
In competitions, runners are grouped as a large number at the start, at times they pass the finish line in a close range, but along the way, one is fundamentally alone. You can ask for help or lean on the fair play of others, but the victory or the defeat, the happiness or the disappointment depend only on oneself, on how much one has been able to give. Training counts in running just as much as study, dedication, and commitment do in life, although, there will always be a time when destiny will unexpectedly play a part in aiding or destroying one’s plans. Overcoming such obstacles is all about hard work, determination, passion, and strong will. This is what has always pushed me to go further and further, and succeeding in achieving my Personal Best (PB).
The great thing behind this phenomenon, is that it is not per se about the destination; it has more to do with the process you go through while running a race, what you learn about yourself during the challenge, the honesty the training demands and the tell of camaraderie you experience as you pass another runner whether early morning or late at night whom also has a goal or PB in mind – these are things that no one can take away from you whether you finish first, or last.
The moment that adrenaline rush kicks in, reaching the finish line realising you have just beaten your own record and pushed yourself just that one small step further, sometimes to your uttermost limit, is a feeling that only runners can know. All that pain and tiredness, and the sensation that your body will collapse somehow suddenly become insignificant in contrast to the feeling of having made it, me, all on my own! And yes, believe me, I have experienced that too!
In 2013, I ran The Hague Marathon, my second ever 42,195 km race. Incredibly to my disbelief, I crossed the finish line as fourth Woman (of the total women running), with a time and PB of 3:37! I must admit the physical state I was in felt dreadful; empty, pale, and with the fatigued appearance that if I was not going to collapse there and then, I never would! I remember the volunteers running up to me with food and drinks. I believe I never ate a sandwich so fast in my life as I did then (and I do not normally eat bread!)
I hit the infamous “runner’s wall” at 40 km. The last couple of kilometers were a struggle, a pain, a feeling I told myself I was never going to experience again. I was dragging my body step by step further and further. At that moment I was ready to stop, to give up everything I had worked for. Negative modus had by then kicked in and taken over everything I have always believed in, ‘never stop during a race’. The anger inside me had hit and was coming out. I was angry at myself for the pain I was experiencing that only I had to chosen to pursue. The only thoughts were, ‘Why am I doing this, how long can I last in this time-to exhaustion phase, why am I putting myself through this awful pain?! I will never run a marathon again!’
“Where is the finish?” I began yelling to the volunteer traffic controllers along the route.
“Is there anyone behind me, catching up?”, I heard myself screaming to my friends biking the last strides next to me, encouraging me to keep going.
“No, you are alone,” they kept telling me, “keep going, no one is behind you…”
And so I did; I pushed through till the end earning my very-deserved fourth place! All of a sudden, that agonising pain was shadowed by the cheers and applauses from the crowd, which gave me a sense of personal pride and satisfaction.
What had kept me going during those never-ending last kilometers? My mind had played the game; the fear of failing and not accomplishing my goal had surpassed the physical torture I had put myself through. There was no way I was going to let my body take over my mind. Those months of hard work, the leaving of social events always before the others to be out on the road early the next morning, had indeed paid off!
Moral of the story, I do not run just to run. I run for the feeling. Running is more than a sport, a discipline, a passion; it is a philosophy. It is about straining the limits of my possibilities, and deepening the knowledge of my own body and mind; because being able to feel your extremities is overrated. Runners always wonder just how far they can go. But, if you never try, you will never know.
I enjoy it because the sensation I experience is wonderful, cleansing, clarifying, rejuvenating, revelatory, and yes, even therapeutic!
Just as research has shown, during physical activity the brain releases positive endorphins, which are the body’s naturally-produced ‘happy hormones’. Endorphins play a part in fighting stress and anxiety, and help improving one’s state of mind.
For me it’s all about being out there with my thoughts, letting my mind go allowing it to take its course. It’s the feeling it gives me afterwards, but also during. It’s that moment when I, alone with my music alienate myself from my surroundings, my mind empties out becoming an open field, and I reach the so-called ‘state of trance’ that makes way to freedom and liberation.
But a race is a race. Every competition is a challenge proving to myself I can do it. Yes, there are times when I have wanted to give up, where the negativity has kicked in. But then my strong will and motivation always take over. It is all in the power of the mind; mental strength must be superior to the physical one, because let’s be honest, a run is always an experience that has to do with the mind as well as with the body. During physical effort, a dose of tenacity, courage, and resistance to fatigue is necessary to keep you going, which, over time, allow you to reach even higher levels. One must, therefore, be mentally prepared before encountering into such an adventure.
Everyone has a choice. I am out there because I have a goal, a goal only I have chosen to pursue. The success lies in staying positive, letting my body know it is strong enough to continue its journey. Giving up because of boredom and not being able to push beyond one’s limits, means not having embraced the view of running as a mental discipline even before that of physical activity. My power of belief and fear of loss of expectation – in this case missing my goal – are what allow me to keep going.
My mind has embraced the motto, ‘never stop or drop out of a race (unless under life threatening conditions) when pain, fear, or disappointment that you will no longer hit your desired PB kick in.’ If you do, even once, it can become a habit. The strength is not about finishing the race itself, but more about finishing the process you have started and fighting that inner voice that at that moment wants you to quit.
And never outrun your joy of running. When you reach that stage, then you are not on a journey…