May 12, 2014

I think, therefore I run

It still sounds funny as it rolls off my tongue, but I’m a runner. This is new for me, so my identification with the noun itself hasn’t quite sunk in. What’s the difference between being somebody who runs and being a runner? Well, we learned about a term called lexicalization last week in a psychology course I’m taking called Development of Social Cognition. Lexicalization in the form of a noun means to make a noun label into a descriptive factor. The study we read set up a contrast between telling children that others are “carrot-eaters” versus just saying “that person eats a lot of carrots.” The children in the study judged the lexicalized nouns to refer to longer-lasting traits, while the verb descriptions, such as “eats a lot of carrots,” weren’t seen to be as stable over time

That was a lot of psychology jargon for the Sports section, and I’m not sure you could get a lede like that in any paper other than one here at the University of Chicago. Where else does social cognition class overlap with one’s athletic tendencies? But I bring it up to show the distinction of calling myself a runner, when I used to be a person who runs. By choosing to now subscribe to the lexicalized noun, I’m conveying that I see this to be a part of me. And trust me, running has not always been a key component in my life.

I was never much of an athlete—I used to fake injuries and stomachaches to get out of P.E. (yes, Dalton P.E. department, those were pretty much all lies). I tried some of the team sports, playing three years of middle school softball and one uneventful year on the high school team’s “development squad.” I swam, too. That was my sport from a pretty young age, once I finally learned to put my head underwater, which I did about five years later than most kids. I loved to swim, and only stopped as a junior in high school when extracurricular activities impeded the time commitment.

The thing with swimming was, I liked it, but I really wasn’t that great. I was definitely “good” at points, but I had reached my ceiling. I wasn’t going to improve. I didn’t quit because I couldn’t do better (I’ve heard Jimmy Valvano’s “don’t ever give up” speech far too many times to do that), but my just-decentness was certainly a thought that put my mind at ease when I stopped swimming. My P.R. times for my best event had leveled off about a year before I quit, and I knew I couldn’t swim any faster unless I dedicated a huge amount of time that I just didn’t have.

Despite my relatively un-athletic history, though, I am inordinately competitive. I can’t even begin to explain how most things in my mind end up playing out as competitions, but they do.

Two years ago, in early February, an e-mail popped into my inbox. I was on some San Francisco Giants e-mail list, and this installment was reminding me that sign-up was now open for The Giant Race. I had no idea what that was, but I saw the words “set foot on the field at AT&T Park,” so I figured I should read the email. Turned out, this was a 5K race that ended on the field. My mother and grandmother are huge lifetime Giants fans, and I decided that we had to get that chance to step on the field. Plus, they advertised an exciting bobblehead as part of the race goodies, and we’re bobblehead fanatics. So I forwarded the e-mail to my mother, with the note, “Want to do the race? We could walk it.” She wrote back 20 minutes later with, “Yes.”

And with that, our fates were sealed. I signed us up, and we planned a trip to California for the summer to participate in the race. From then until about July, I was determined to walk this 5K with my mother and set foot on the field.

But something changed. I can’t remember what it was exactly, but I realized that I should try to run this thing. I’d never run in my life, with a few (notable) exceptions: running down Lake Shore Drive with my friend Amanda early first year, completely unaware she’d been a cross-country runner. I spent the next five hours gasping for breath. I also did a few New York Road Runners races before the age of 10, when my father was still a runner—the Mother’s Day race, the Father’s Day race, etc. When we did the President’s Challenge in fourth grade, I had the second-slowest mile time in my entire grade, and, to put it nicely, the person who was slower than me was about four times my size. But I had never run more than a mile at once outdoors or indoors.

I started running on a treadmill at the gym, and quickly realized my utter hatred for the machines. I consider myself to run at a pretty steady pace now, but early in my running career, when I was still figuring out my body’s limits, the constancy of the treadmill’s movement made five seconds feel like five minutes and 10 minutes feel like an eternity. And even now, it makes the entire process lose all of its fun for me.

With treadmill animosity deeply ingrained into my head, I tried running outside. I think I ran a half-mile once or twice, and a mile maybe once. And with that, it was time to head to California for the race.

I ran outside a few times there, too, prior to the day of the race. The day before, I set foot outside my grandmother’s house and decided I needed to run a 5K, just to know I could. So I ran for about 35 minutes, and finished those 3.12 miles. In between breaths, I was the proudest I’d been of myself in a long time.

The next morning was the race. Somewhere along the way, my mother had also decided she would run this race after all, taking her time and going at her own pace.

The experience of being in a race, surrounded by other people who were alternately talking, listening to music, or tripping, was something I hadn’t prepared myself for. So I put in my headphones, opened up my WFAN app (New York sports radio, for you non-New Yorkers out there), and listened to New York Giants Pregame Live. I’d learned somewhere along the way that music doesn’t motivate me to run faster the way it does for most people. Instead, it makes me anxious, because I finish the lines of the songs in my head and then am impatient for the songs themselves to end. The race was on the first Sunday of the football season, so there was certainly enough football chatter to occupy my racing time.

Thirty-three minutes and 31 seconds later, I was standing on the field at AT&T Park. I’d never been on the field at a Major League ballpark, and still haven’t been on any other one, and the experience was surreal.

About 10 minutes later, I got the joy of seeing my mother finish the race, too. I think she was more tired than I was, but I was more proud of her than I was of myself. To take up running at the age of 19 having never done it before is one thing. To do the same at the age of 57 is a whole other animal.

Since then, I’ve run in 11 other races, and have at least three more on my agenda for the rest of 2014. My times have improved, though not steadily. But I feel when I run, I can run faster and can train my lungs to make me feel less sick. Unlike when I bottomed out in swimming, I still feel room to grow here. Maybe after I’ve been running as long as I’d been swimming, I won’t feel that way. But hopefully, I’ll be at a point in terms of times that I’ll be glad to stay at.

Why should you care? Why did I just spend 1,000-plus words talking about my personal running story?

Here’s my pitch: I run because it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. Even if all I have time for in my day is a mile, getting that mile done is the most productive eight minutes of the day. And at a school like this, it’s hard to think in terms of anything other than productivity. This is part of another psychology point, from Social Psych: running facilitates high self-complexity. Self-complexity is the phenomenon of having different self-concepts for different roles, and having multiple roles in general. High self-complexity mitigates stress, because even if you fail in one domain, you still have others to prop yourself up on. No matter how badly a day goes—assignments, grades, presentations, anything—if I can run a mile or two, I can remind myself of that accomplishment.

This brings me to my next point: Running is for thinking. I don’t run with music, and I don’t run with talk radio anymore, either. Sometimes I run with friends, like my best friend with whom I tackled my first, and her first, 10K this past Sunday. It was the farthest each of us had ever run, but we got through it together. But most of the time, it’s just me and a pair of sneakers—and twenty other layers over this past winter, at least—and the sidewalks. My mind flits in and out of conscious thoughts and more cerebral things, but I’ve never had a bad set of thoughts while running. Sometimes it’s planning out assignments, homework, and to-do lists. But sometimes it’s broader than that, thinking about the people I know and am surrounded by.

Believe it or not, I wrote the lede to this article in my head as I ran just the other day. I find that tuning one’s brain out and letting it just do what it will—a modified form of stream of consciousness, perhaps—encourages my creativity in multiple realms.

Unlike other sports, all running really truly requires is a pair of sneakers. That versatility means it’s something I can see as being a part of me for the rest of my life. I’m a runner.