Life’s Lows & Runner’s Highs – Why nothing will ever stop me from running!

I have been running pretty much all of my life. Well, to be honest, I have been starting to run pretty much all of my life. Every spring I picked up my running shoes with the intention to run regularly; however, at the end, in most years, I ran maybe 20-30 times, logging around 150-300 km altogether.

That I basically have no fast-twitch muscle fiber in my entire body is something I’ve only known since fairly recently (read here about my DNA analysis and what I learned from it). As a kid I only knew that I sucked at sports and that physical education classes in school were a constant source of humiliation.

Running became the one sport I really enjoyed and did not have to measure up with others.

First race, aged 9 (Germany, 1987)

First race, aged 9 (Germany, 1987)

I have a faint memory of my very first run. I must have been five or six years old and ran with my dad. He sprinted away and told me he would pick me up on the way back. I remember that he was fairly surprised that I made it approximately two km along the road out of town. The way back was long, but I somehow made it. I don’t know how often I ran after that, but I have pictures of a small running competition I entered at age nine. 

I ran more regular through my teenage years. While being well aware of my lack of athleticism, I was not without ambition. I logged my runs in a journal, marking personal and seasonal bests. In high school I participated twice in a local 10-km street race and remember puking once, right behind the finishing line. From this run also stems my official 10k best mark of 49:50.

Personal Lows and Runner’s Highs

My main motivation to run, however, was much less my competitive streak; I ran for the way running made me feel. Running has been my lifelong therapy against the ailments of life. I ran when I was love-sick; I ran when I felt depressed; I ran when I was full of doubts and full of fear. 

The final verdict on the medical verification of runner’s high might be still in the open, but be it endorphins (NY Times: Yes, Running Can Make You High, March 2008) or the brain’s endocannabinoid system (Scientific American: New Brain Effects behind "Runner's High", October 2015), I always could rely on running to make me feel better.

A younger me, running 1996 in Germany

A younger me, running 1996 in Germany

Running served as my natural anti-depressant, with no side effects other than muscle pain, blisters, and the occasional knee problems.

Running towards “the void”

And then there is effect of running on the mind itself. Most runners can confirm that there is something magical about running, hard to describe to a non-runner. My personal theory always was, that mid-tempo long-distance running occupies a sweet spot, being physically challenging while at the same time not demanding too much of conscious coordination by the central processing unit.  This way your blood races through your veins while your thoughts roam quite free and unrestrained.

If you run longer and to the point of exhaustion, your mind quiets down, and you reach “Zen” or as famed novelist Haruki Murakami calls it in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “the void”. What I try to achieve with mindfulness and meditation, I often reached during long runs just by pushing my physical limits. These two reasons were what kept me running or, as stated before, pushed me to start running regularly. 

But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I Just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void.
— Haruki Murakami: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p. 17

Running Uphill

I continued running as a student and as a graduate, mostly distances between five and 20 km, maybe 10-20 times per year. 

The biggest gap in my running CV followed then in the years 2006-2007. This was the time where I closed down my little start-up in Germany and moved to Hong Kong to take on the position of a general manager in an online retailing company friends of mine owned. I left Germany without a single cent, completely exhausted, and with a chronic lower back pain issue. It took me another year before I started running again in mid 2008..

Unfortunately, I had to realize that age and my rising body weight caught up with me. I could barely run 5k, and my times were, even for my standards, incredibly slow. As a competitive person by nature, my abysmal running times depressed me and took the fun out of running. This was the original reason why I started hiking: less pressure, less comparison with historical results, and hence less feeling like a loser.

Since 2008 I ran more than ever and covered between 350 and 700 km a year (pretty equally spread between running & hiking). I ran two half marathons (both around 2 hours 30 minutes) and participated in a bunch of 15- to 50-km trail runs, usually finishing somewhere in the bottom half of the field.

Me trying to look fresh during a trail run in Hong Kong 2015

Me trying to look fresh during a trail run in Hong Kong 2015

Battling tendon issues (a chronically snapping ankle and a regular plantar fasciitis) and often long recovery times, carrying much more than my ideal running weight and facing the challenges of Hong Kong climate conditions, running over the past years was not always fun. It was more an exercise forced upon myself, partly made bearable by listening to podcasts while engaging in it.

Only very recently I found my joy in running again, not because I improved my speed or got rid of my aching tendons, but because I remembered why I enjoyed running for all those years. Leaving my earbuds at home, forgetting about times and personal records, just focusing on my steps, feeling the wind breeze striking my nose, and listening to the rhythm of my breath, I felt again what I felt throughout countless runs in my youth: This fuzzy feeling of happiness, slowly crowding out the noisy thoughts in my mind. 

And this is why nothing ever will stop me from running!