Note: In this message I share how I began to rely too heavily on running to manage my negative emotions. But truly, you could substitute many other things in place of running. For you it might be work, a relationship, food, alcohol, religion – even scrolling. Anything, even good things, can become a crutch when we use them to escape vs. processing what we are truly feeling.
Finding what seems like the perfect solution to problems in any area of our lives can be such a relief. And in our modern world where living is rife with stress, anxiety, pressure and overwhelm, many are looking for such a solution. I know I was. For most of my early adult life I suffered greatly from a crush of negative emotions. So, when I found a tool to manage them and feel better, I was over the moon. I felt like I finally discovered the secret to living a happy, rewarding life. And it worked beautifully. Until it didn’t. Here’s how it unfolded:
“I used to be a runner.”
It feels really weird to type that sentence. It’s taken me a while to even be able to say it out loud. And even longer to say it without having to add an entire conversation’s worth of explanations.
Notice I didn’t say, “I used to run”. That statement would just tell you that I did something in the past that I don’t do now. But I didn’t say it that way because running meant way more to me than that. Running wasn’t just something I did. Running defined who I was.
Running came back into my life at a time when I desperately needed something to cling to. I was in a fairly new marriage, raising two teenagers and struggling with the blended family part. We sold two houses and bought another that we all moved into. My husband and I both lost our jobs following the 2008 housing bubble and had to push restart on our careers. And that’s just the high-level overview.
I say that running came “back” into my life because I used to run all the time when I was younger. I was an active child and teenager, then ran consistently for the 6+ years I was in the Air Force. But at some point, life happened, and running wasn’t a part of it for me anymore.
There’s an App for That
I don’t remember exactly how I got the idea to try and run again, but I’m going to guess it coincided with the purchase of my first smart phone. I fell in love with apps that tracked food, calories, steps and so on. I began walking a LOT and got to the point where I couldn’t walk any faster, so I thought I’d try to run a bit too. I discovered there was an app for a run/walk method pioneered by Jeff Galloway. I downloaded it and Jeff and I became fast friends, running and walking together several days per week.
Getting active again and pushing myself harder physically felt great. I started feeling that same sense of tired accomplishment I remembered from my teens and twenties. I felt stronger than I had in decades, and I was focused on finding my physical limits so I could blow them out of the water. It was truly exhilarating to find something that I enjoyed so much after spending a good deal of my adult life feeling physically weak and incapable.
Even more than the physical benefits, I noticed that running provided me with mental and emotional benefits. If I was stressed or angry or sad, I always felt better after a run. I used to say, “running is my therapy” and laugh as though it was a joke, but truly it wasn’t. Running was keeping me sane during some of the most difficult times of my life. And the harder life got, the more I ran.
(Betsy) Jane’s Addiction
It might sound silly for me to compare running to an addiction, but that’s what it became. Most addictions start out pretty innocently. No one has a beer with the goal of becoming an alcoholic. Or pulls the handle on a slot machine hoping to spiral into financial ruin. We just want something to take away the pain and make us feel better even if it’s just for a moment. And that’s what running was for me. A time to exhaust myself, get some endorphins and check out from life for a bit.
And like any addict, I just couldn’t get enough. Run/walking turned into running. Running turned into 5k races, then 10k, then half-marathon, then marathon, then ultra-marathon. I joined the board of the local runner’s club. I became a running coach. My weekly schedule centered around workouts, pub runs, meetings, planning and leading training groups. It was nearly all I thought and talked about.
That probably all sounds really good, right? I found my thing, my passion, maybe even my life’s true calling. I mean, who can argue with exercise, personal development and community service?
And it WAS good, really good, until I started noticing some cracks developing at the edges of my life:
· Anxiety levels through the roof over a missed workout or even the possibility of a missed workout.
· Going to any lengths to run without regard to dangerous weather conditions, illness, injury or energy levels. (to avoid previous point)
· Running soothed my big emotions and reduced stress and anxiety by tiring me out physically, but not addressing the root problems.
· I lost interest in nearly all my relationships outside of running.
· Other priorities suffered. If I had to choose between cleaning my house or running, my house lost every time.
· I rearranged virtually my entire life to accommodate running.
Emotions Running High
I wasn’t just a runner. Running was running my life.
What started out as a life buoy, keeping me alive and afloat in a raging sea of negative emotions, had become an anchor. And not the good kind of anchor that keeps you steady and safe. Running became the kind of anchor that weighed me down, kept me stuck, held me back and prevented me from venturing out to see what else was available to me.
I was relying solely on running for blunting my negative emotions. And in retrospect, I see I was also relying on running to provide all my positive emotions. It was just too much to ask and too shaky to last.
I put all my emotional eggs in one basket and the reason that proverb exists is because that is almost never a good idea. I knew at the time that giving running that much responsibility and authority in my life was a risk, but it was a risk I was willing to take because I saw no other options.
The other (Running) Shoe Drops
And then the unthinkable happened. As I trained for what is likely the last half marathon of my life in the fall of 2020, I developed debilitating hip pain. The kind of pain that kept me up at night and made turning over an excruciating experience. Did I stop running? Of course not. I had a half marathon to run with my coaching clients and that was more important than my pain.
I made it through the 13.1 miles and a 3-mile recovery run the next day. Then could barely walk for the next 4 days. Walking from my car to my office brought me to tears. You would think this experience would have prompted a visit to the doctor or even a break for recovery, but you’d be wrong. The thought of not running was more painful than the actual physical pain I experienced from running.
The Emotional Toll
I spent a decade finally able to manage my emotions and experience greater personal growth and achievement. I was able to accomplish things I never dreamed possible. And, at the time, I thought it was all due to running. I gave running all the credit for what I had become. The thought of losing that identity, that tool that had taken me so far, was devastating.
My life became manageable when I started running. How could I possibly manage life without it? Who would I be? Would I have to start all over again?
These questions and many more loomed over me as I struggled to face the reality of my changing world. There was nowhere to run, but I wasn’t ready to accept that. Not yet.
Betsy is a certified life coach and blogger who helps midlife women find satisfaction where they are now and inspiration to go after their big goals.
To learn more about working with Betsy, click here.