I began running for the simple reason that I felt the need to stay in shape. I continued to run because inhabiting the small, quiet space that I discovered inside my own mind during runs became an invaluable part of my daily routine. It brought me away—literally, in the physical sense, though also mentally and emotionally. Pushing my muscles faster, harder, and for longer stretches of time and distance was like pressing a restart button, winding up some internal clock that I hadn’t even known existed.
The thrill of self-motivated achievements was exhilarating and validating on more levels than I really understood until a knee injury forced me to take a step back. The injury was not specific or severe; all it required of me was time and care and rest, yet these simple remedies suddenly felt like luxuries I didn’t deserve. I thought running was a necessity for my body, though in reality it had only become a necessity for my mind. My day felt incomplete without a run, and when my body could no longer run, I began to feel incomplete as a person.
I remember with clarity the particular run that compelled me to confront the imbalance that had slowly come to exist in my life. I had been forcing myself to take time off and rest my knee, but rather than healing, the only thing I felt was a growing desperation. Every day I was met with an overwhelmingly frustrating sense of mental and physical inadequacy that could not be shaken despite the ferocity with which I pedaled the stationary bike, my one sanctioned cardio activity.
Without the outlet I had come to depend on, I became largely unable to deal with the everyday ups and downs of my own life; it wasn’t long before I felt utterly and impossibly trapped, left with no other choice but to wrap my knee with all the ACE bandages I could find and start jogging. It was not a long run, nor was it a fast one, but at the time it didn’t matter at all because the only thing that was able to satisfy me was the feeling of identifying the obstacle and overcoming it by any means necessary. My injury had become this obstacle, and forcing myself through a painful run felt like thrilling and validating proof that I was indeed stronger than my body’s limitations.
In hindsight, I recognize that my decision to run that day was in no way fueled by self-discipline and willpower, but rather by anger and fear at the weakness I felt within myself. My knee has long been healed, but finding physical and mental balance in my life is a practice I continue to strive for every day, and I know that I am not alone in this.
There seems to be a line, albeit an extremely blurry line, between healthy passion and damaging addiction within any community of goal-oriented, success-driven individuals, and the outdoor community is no exception. In large part, the blurriness of this line is due to the fact that the external symptoms of a potentially unhealthy obsession almost perfectly mirror the values and ideals that, as a community, we perpetuate. We tend to remain continually focused on achievements, whether they are measured in seconds, miles, or class difficulty. There is something invigorating about the constant cycle of challenges, goals, successes, and new challenges that fuels the drive to move, to engage our bodies and push our minds in the continual pursuit of personal victories. The pursuit of adrenaline goes hand in hand with the desire to break new ground and to test limits—be they societal, personal, physical, or mental.
Of course, in and of themselves these qualities are not dangerous. The problem seems to arise when an external focus on physical achievements infects an internal psyche, when an individual becomes incapable of releasing their grasp on the thrill of success. Counselor Dr. Susan Belangee recognizes that these behaviors are really only symptoms of larger issues such as self-doubt and feelings of inferiority or unworthiness. Thus, the solution to a damaging relationship with running or personal competition is not necessarily to stop running or being competitive. Dr. Belangee points to the women of the 1999 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and their ability to balance full personal lives while pursuing the World Cup.
She notes, “They had people, including each other, around them to remind them of what was truly important. That is not to imply that winning wasn’t important to them; in fact, every interview leading into the 1999 Women’s World Cup had one of these women stating, ‘We are here to win.’ But they were also espousing teamwork, camaraderie, what life would be like after the big game was over.”
We love to talk about goal setting, competition, and ways to improve ourselves, and these are exciting conversations to have — but we’re missing an important piece of the discussion, and it extends beyond simply taking better care of our bodies. We have to take better care of our minds as well, and it’s a responsibility that we should be sharing as a community. We need a discourse that includes conversations about the thrill of physical success, the importance of rest days, and the intersection of a healthy physical and mental space that embraces competition without being dependent on it.
Even as we celebrate personal victories and push our bodies to new limits, we must not forget to also nurture kind and gentle self-perceptions of ourselves as well as those around us. The beauty of our ability to move and play within the outdoors becomes tainted when we do not.