How Running Saved my Life

I distinctly remember a gym session about ten years ago, almost down to the exact outfit I was wearing.

I walked into the gym, a little unsure because a gym was out of my comfort zone, and approached an elliptical machine. “I can handle this one,” I encouraged myself, as I remembered the food I’d eaten that day that needed to be burned off.

Ten minutes later, I moseyed over to a stationary bike, hopped on and pedalled for another ten minutes. “200 calories burned. Okay, I can go home now,” I said to myself, then left the gym feeling a mix of exhaustion and smugness. While my goal had been to burn off what I’d eaten, the reality was I didn’t have the strength to keep it going.

You see, for a long time, my life had been measured by numbers — how much I weighed, how many calories I consumed, how many calories I burned. While I’m in no way, shape or form a numbers person, I nonetheless continued down this numbers path for years because I was addicted — addicted to getting skinnier and the control that’s involved with an eating disorder.

This disorder developed back in high school, more than ten years ago. I was insecure, shy and had spent many years trying very hard to fit in with the other kids in school. I wanted to be “cool.” I wanted to be the one all the boys had a crush on. I wanted to wear cute clothes and go to the mall with girls I hoped would be best friends forever.

My Priorities Were All Out of Whack

The problem was that my priorities were all out of whack. Even as a young girl, I was fully rooted in the world and in what those around me were preoccupied with — cute boys, cute clothes, being cool, etc. As the years progressed, I became consumed by the rat race to fit in, be skinny and attain perfection.

When I entered college, things started to level out a bit. I was surrounded by other kids who seemed to live life without worrying about every morsel they put into their bodies. I wanted that too, so I started emulating what they were doing. I ate when they ate and tried to match my portion sizes to theirs. I began to feel a bit of normalcy.

But while recovering from an eating disorder, I was introduced to two new friends —anxiety and depression. My battle with them lasted for some time, until I was hospitalized with a panic attack and, by the grace of God, met a therapist who practised cognitive behavioural therapy. It was through my work with her and relying heavily on my faith, that I began to gain control over my obsessive thoughts. She helped me untangle the mess in my head so that I started to see the clouds part and rays of light shine through.

Then, one day, I decided to go for a run. I had picked up running in college, but never consistently or for very long. This particular day, I couldn’t gain control of my thoughts, so I laced up my shoes and began pounding the pavement. I’ll never forget the moment of running down a long, backcountry road, the kind that lets you look a long way out because it’s so long.

I knew if I turned around, I’d be back on the same straight path, so I had to keep going. In that moment I told myself:

“Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.”

I finished my run clocking in five miles. I’d never run that far, for that long. For the first time in my life, my racing thoughts matched my racing body and things started to level out. I knew I had tapped into something I couldn’t let go of.

Running Becomes a Tool

From there, I was hooked and began running more consistently. I wasn’t fast by any means. I’m not sure I even knew what I was doing, but I kept going anyway.

Since then, I have used running as an outlet on good days and bad days, during highs and lows. It has challenged me, but also brought me peace at the same time. It has shown me that muscle is beautiful and powerful and I must eat, and eat well, in order to sustain myself.

My life these days isn’t measured anymore by the numbers it used to be measured by. In fact, I now use numbers to motivate and encourage myself to try harder, push myself and achieve my goals. The numbers that matter the most to me are measured in miles logged, distances run and mile paces. Running should be fun and, if numbers are not making it fun, it’s time to recalibrate.

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You Can Use Running as a Tool, Too

You can use running as a tool, too. The first step to success is to let go of all your preconceived notions, expectations and fears. People become afraid to start running because they think they’re not going to be good at it or they see images of runners on social media and think, “I don’t look like them. I’m not a runner.”

Know this: if you run, you are a runner.

The second step is to just keep showing up. You won’t get comfortable or improve in your running if you give up after one run. You have to practise patience with yourself, give yourself grace and keep going.

The third step is to find a support group. This is especially helpful if you’re recovering from an eating disorder or mental illness. Having outside support, along with finding fellow running friends, will help keep you accountable and empower you to continue running.

Finally, remember running isn’t the be all and end all. Yes, it helps many people, but it is a journey. There will be hills and valleys. The important thing to remember is it’s a tool to be used during the good times and the bad. If you keep showing up with an open heart, you will see the beauty running can bring to your life.

All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and you’ll be well on your way!

No one should have to go through a battle alone. If you or someone you know needs help, please see the list of resources we put together just for you.

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Maria Abbe
Maria Abbe

Maria is the effervescent mind behind RunningMyselfTogether, a blog on faith, running and mental health. She’s an RRCA-certified run coach and leads a run club in Charlotte, N.C. called ARC Running. Needless to point out (though we will anyway), running is a big part of her life. She was never a runner growing up, but has come to see the immense value running can have as part of a holistic approach to living a good, healthy life. You can contact Maria with questions, thoughts, speaking/guest blogging opportunities and run coach inquiries at maria@runningmyselftogether.com.

1 Comment
  1. What an encouraging and inspiring article! I’ve started exercising, and I have come to realize how therapeutic it really is! I just might have to add running now!

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