I Tried Running for Two Years and it Transformed My Life8 min read
“I want to die.” That was the thought I had as I looked up a staggering hill on my third ever run. I had just run for 15 minutes around my local block when I met this behemoth of a hill. The hill looked like Kilimanjaro or Everest; I would need a whole team to carry me up it. However, slowly, I put one foot in front of the other. Every part of my body was telling me to stop. My heart was beating too fast, my lungs were on fire, and my legs were reminding me how I always skip leg day.
Three days earlier, I had begun my 30-day running challenge.
During the beginning of lockdown in 2020, all the gyms were closed; I wasn’t playing soccer anymore, and I wasn’t even walking to and from class anymore. The suburbs and medical school via Zoom were my life.
All my exercising outlets were gone and excuses, as usual, were easy to come by, “It’s COVID; I’m busy anyway with medical school; I’ve earned time off.”
Slowly as I spent more time being a sloth at home, my body and mind were fading. I was eating more junk food, watching more TV, and studying less even though I had more time. What was going on? Was my physical fitness and mental fitness somehow connected?
A critical moment was when I noticed my parents, who were 30 years older than me, in their 60s, were more in shape than me when we would go for a walk; I would get out of breath by the end of it and they wouldn’t. That is not ok. I needed to break the pattern. For 30 days, I would try running no matter what, even if it sucked (it did), even if I felt dumb (I did), and even if my feet fell off (they didn’t).
Day 1 sucked.
I found an old pair of shoes some shorts, and downloaded the first running app I saw, and found a guided run; it was called “your first run.” Some really nice guy was talking in my ears, “Ok, you’ve stepped outside, you’ve started, you’ve already run. Thanks for running with me; thanks for showing up.” Well, that’s nice; I guess I can keep running; I was 30 seconds into my first ever run. That nice guy was Coach Bennet from Nike; what he didn’t tell me, however, was how much it would suck after the first minute.
I was in terrible shape. Probably the worst condition cardiovascularly of my entire life; there was something wrong with my legs, my lungs couldn’t get enough oxygen, and I wanted to stop at minute 3. I stopped at minute 5. I didn’t even complete half a mile.
Disheartened but committed, I put my shoes away until the next day, day 2 when I tried again. This time I ran 15 minutes but still didn’t complete the run.
On day 3, I encountered a terrifying hill. Why was I doing this? Oh yeah, I want to be more healthy, but, more importantly, I want to complete something hard. I wanted to hear Coach Bennet congratulate me at the end of that 20-minute run. I ran up the hill and finally finished the 20-minute run on my third try.
The days continued like this for a while; it sucked; it was hard; I wasn’t having fun, but slowly, I was getting better. My cardiovascular fitness improved; I could walk up the stairs without breathing heavily, and go for long walks up and down big hills. I would go on longer hikes with my parents and now they were breathing heavily and I was fine.
At around day 20, something happened, I was in Philly running around the edge of the Delaware river when my now dear friend Coach Bennet told me I would be running my mile pace, but I was gassed; this was 30 minutes into an already tough run, I didn’t want to run anymore.
But I breathed and embraced the suck. Giving it everything I had in me, I ran at my mile pace. Twenty seconds later, this weird warm feeling started to expand from my belly button towards my chest. For a second, I thought I would soon be upchucking and providing some nice decoration to the streets of Philadelphia, but then, the feeling changed. I felt smily, and my arms and legs were buzzing. It was the runner’s high! So this is what that was!
For the first time, I was having fun running. I sprinted like a crazy man down the street at a pace I didn’t think was possible, smiling the whole time. I ended that run knowing I couldn’t stop running after 30 days; this was too cool.
I bought new shoes, running tank tops, and running shorts. I tried out Fartleks, speed runs, long runs and group runs. The runner’s highs kept coming, but, more importantly, I was seeing the enjoyment of running. I wasn’t trudging through the miles, so I could say, “I ran five miles” or “I ran at a 7-minute pace,” I was enjoying the run, focusing on my surroundings, focusing on how strong my body was.
Day 30 hit me before I knew it, but I was in no way done.
I was a runner.
I found myself waking up and lacing up the shoes, putting on my hat, walking out the door, clicking “start” on the Nike App, and jogging along my favorite path along the Delaware River or across the George Washington Bridge. Oh yeah, and these were 5-mile paths; remember when I couldn’t even run half a mile?
Winter arrived, and not even snow or ice could stop me. I wanted to run. I put on my Under Armor heat clothes and some gloves, and coach Bennet talked me through the snow.
Over the next year, I was running 2-3 times a week. I discovered beautiful parts of Pennsylvania, parks, and trails. Running was making me all around happier. I made new friends. I would even run on vacation.
I brought my running clothes to hotels and would run before the day started. How amazing that felt!
Usually, this is the part of the story where something would go wrong. I would have some challenges, some hurdles that would make everything suck. But… there was no hurdle, there was no suck, really really really the suck was just in the beginning. Sure, I’d have hard runs, the occasional shin splint, twisted ankle, or runs I would have to end early, but it never sucked anymore. I was a runner; after all, this is just what I do; the suck isn’t suck; it’s part of the fun of being a runner. Because if you run, and I mean if you run at all, you are a runner.
Two years after I laced on the shoes for the first time, I am still a runner. I run 2-3 times a week now, and usually, one is an easy run on a Tuesday morning, one is a speed run on a Thursday morning, and then one is a nice long run on a Sunday afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll venture out to a park, run with a friend, or explore a new trail. Here are some of the major benefits of running I’ve noticed. The first benefit came after the 30 days, however, all the others came in the past two years:
- Cardiovascular fitness (I am so much better at lifting weights, soccer, and hiking; really anything that involves having to breathe harder)
- Improved Awareness of My Thoughts
- My Mental Toughness has skyrocketed, and I have the ability to push through most physical pain (within reason)
- More discipline with waking up, studying, and “work” (YouTube)
- I get to hang out with other runners
- I know what Fartlek means
I want to focus on the mental toughness point for a second. At one point, on a particularly hard run, there was a magical switch that changed the way I think. Coach Bennet told me, “the suck is where change happens!” And I thought, OK, then I will make this run suck a lot! And I pushed it even more. Then a couple of days later I heard Jocko Willink, a bad-ass ex-Navy Seal, on a podcast talk about the tough spots, the suck. He tells himself whenever things get tough, “oh, it hurts? Ok. So? Who cares? Keep going.” Why does something being hard mean you have to stop?
Finally, the ultimate one-two punch for me was when I listened to a podcast from Andrew Huberman about dopamine and training. He said you could convince your brain to release more dopamine during a hard workout if you tell yourself it’s enjoyable; I didn’t believe it until I tried it. One day, on a scorching and long stretch of concrete in Philadelphia, I was 2/3rds into my run and completely gassed; I decided, why not try it? I pushed myself at my 100% sprint pace for the next 60 seconds, all the while telling myself, “this is good! This is fun! This is where the change happens; I am enjoying this right now! The pain is good in my legs; the struggle, this is what I love!!” Then, without warning, I felt the oh-so-glorious feeling of the runner’s high coming on. Had I just tricked my brain into doing this? I’ve been repeating this trick since. Now, I love the pain; I love the struggle, and I am enjoying the feeling of my legs being lit on fire!
This “embrace the suck” mindset was leaking into everything I did. It transformed my life. Waking up earlier, no problem, pushing it harder on the soccer field, I like that! Working longer on YouTube projects or at the hospital? That’s where I get my rush from!
Running has made everything better for me, the health effects are good, sure, but the amazingly powerful thing, after sticking with it for two years now, is the changes running catalyzed in the rest of my life. Running transformed me. Struggles will appear in life everywhere, but it’s ok because I am a runner; What hill can I climb next?