A couple of months ago I went running for the first time. Not for the first time ever, but for the first time in a really long time. So long that it warrants a slightly more sensational title. I think the last time I went for a run—it was so long ago that I can't remember exactly when—was in the early summer months of 2015, pretty much exactly eight years ago. I never enjoyed running when I did it more or less regularly back then. In order to become a better athlete, I did it anyway. As I'm getting older while trying to be a healthy and happy individual, I decided to give running another chance. But my first try didn't go as planned and ended up being a completely ludicrous and painful endeavour. Although we were born to run , the act of rapidly putting one feet in front of the other can be abused until it becomes painful and destructive. To pervert something so ordinary, all you need is a morbid wish for penance through physical exercise, a tendency for absurd overestimation of your own skills and the inability to give up on unrealistic goals.
I make it sound like the first run after my prolonged absence was a marathon or some other über-human distance. Unfortunately it was not. I don't need to run 200 miles in two days straight like Courtney Dauwalter to enter my pain cave. Just eight kilometers in about an hour, never far from home are sufficient (one of the most uncomfortable ailments afterwards was my hurting ego). Before it all, I thought I was in peak physical condition. I've been doing sports pretty much my whole life, with only two notable absences. One year when I was fourteen and three years from 2017 to 2020. The former was due to inflammation in my knee (I got diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease) and the latter was caused by pure and utter laziness. Before 2017 I was playing basketball in a club and all other athletic training—including running—was accessory to my goal of becoming a good basketball player. A few things happened in my life back then, one being the development of chronic pain in my knees, shins and feet due to flat-footedness. I stopped playing basketball, a sport I've played since I remember. Doing some exercises in the months that followed, I never mustered enough motivation to stick to a training schedule without basketball. The next three years I did not exercise regularly, no weightlifting and for sure no running. I lost some weight but otherwise stayed in decent enough shape.
In 2020 then, a friend—a decent amateur strength athlete—and I were discussing the fact that we were not using the offerings of our university enough. He suggested to go to the gym together, as our uni had its own (the Pleasance Gym in Edinburgh, terrific place) with reasonable plans and fair prices for enrolled students. I politely declined. He was adamant and told me, we could go and play a game of squash. I yielded and we went to the gym together. He tricked me. Sure, we went to the Pleasance to play squash. But to my surprise we arrived thirty minutes early.
"What should we do until our court is ready?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"Well, we could go down to the vaults and warm up."
"Alright." I answered innocently and followed like the lamb to the slaughter.
We did squats. For warm-ups. Squatting after three years with no weight training was nearly as painful as going running after an eight year hiatus. The soreness was excruciating and lasted a whole week. One of the best parts of my daily routine was walking to and from uni through beautiful Edinburgh. From Leith along Leith Walk to bustling Princes Street, across North Bridge with its breathtaking view over epic Old and New Town, Scott Monument and the noble Balmoral and finally alongside Old College through Potterrow Port to the Bayes Centre and back. 2.5 kilometers one-way. I hobbled the whole distance, but it was absolutely worth it. I was hooked on weightlifting again. The stress relief and your mind feeling light and fluffy from the colourful endorphins are just too good. Combined with the reward of getting stronger, feeling healthier and a more attractive physical appearance, I was back on the grind and have been since that day I completely wracked my legs and lower back. It has been almost exclusively weightlifting for me since then, with a few bodyweight exercises and the occasional squash match interspersed.
A couple of months ago then, another friend L stayed over for a few weeks. He's a decent amateur endurance athlete and asked me if I'd like to join him on one of his runs. I politely declined. He was adamant and told me, I'd feel great afterwards. I yielded and we went running together. If there is a morale to this tale then it's probably that you shouldn't give in to your silly friends so easily. While spinelessness plays a prominent role in my every-day decision making, it was not the only reason I took him up on his offer. I've been contemplating going running again, because only with weightlifting I've been unable to address two of my most glaring weaknesses: an underdeveloped cardiovascular system and weak-ass flatfeet. Both scream for moderate running with focus on proper forefoot striking [2,4]. However, the most important condition to set me in the right mood for running was the anxiety I was experiencing at the time. Having a guest around, I wasn't paying enough attention to my personal well-being, not following my carefully laid-out self-care routines, including regular exercising. The excitement of being the host to a dear friend turned sour. Whenever I'm in such an agitated and restless state of mind, my subconscious turns to escapism manifesting itself in a wish for self-castigation through excessive bodily exercise. It feels like an itch that must be scratched till the skin is raw and tender. Or a demon that must be exorcised, if you so will. Definitely a fine condition to be in before dusting off running shoes unused for nearly a decade.
The day I broke my eight year streak of no running finally arrived. Throughout most of the day, I didn't know what was going to happen that late afternoon. Though the pressure inside my brain was high at the time, in the end the decision felt spontaneous. It was just L telling me that he'd go for a run now, asking if I'd like to join and I said yes, without a second thought. I knew I couldn't keep up with him, so we decided to start together and split up. I already had a route in mind. I wanted to run to an outdoor gym I had seen when driving through a nearby village. My intention was to run there, do some pull ups and dips and run back. After a couple of small starting problems (I took some time getting ready and had to turn around after a few meters and leave my mobile behind—it was too annoying to carry around with me), we finally hit the road. It was a fair day with the sun hanging fat and bright in a lazy blue sky. A gentle breeze made the warm air pleasant on the skin. We started out running down a hill with a smooth and easy decline, allowing us to take in the gorgeous view. The hill lead down to a calm and civilized plain stretching far and wide, full of brown fields of rapeseed and wheat. Behind the plain wild and wooded foothills rose abruptly, overshadowed by the taller mountains farther away, kings and queens with their crowns of snow. I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the beauty all around me, but not for long. Once we reached the plain I was already starting to struggle, my condition deteriorating quicker than I had anticipated. I was winded and my calves and feet felt like they were about to start cramping. But the weakest link was my stomach. Not knowing the day was about to get a lot more strenuous, I had a tremendous and improper lunch. We Germans love our bread and a meal consisting of a few slices with a bunch of savory toppings to make open sandwiches is something common for us. It is certainly the meal I consumed the most in my live and I deeply value the nourishment it provides. We had a nice and prolonged lunch with lots of thick slices of Schwarzbrot, topped with a thick layer of strong allioli, thick slices of fresh tomatoes and even thicker pieces of hearty cheese, made perfect with a drizzle of olive oil and arugula on top. Some pickled olives and cucumbers and a small salad with a honey-mustard dressing on the side, it was pure ecstasy. Although lunch was amazing, it was not the best choice of food to eat before taking my endurance to its limits and by the time we entered the plain, I was feeling sicker with every step.
We finally caught sight of the crossroads where we would part. A few trees and shrubs were giving valuable and scarce shade—in my unpreparedness, I had forgotten to put on sunscreen—and I decided this would be a fine place to have my first rest. L was already distancing himself from me, until about 200 meters separated us when he reached the crossroads. To add insult to injury, he turned around and came back to me. When we reached the crossroads together this time, I told him he can go and run his route and I'll run mine. So he sprang off, taking a right. I stayed behind in the shadow, bent over, gasping for air and absolution. He ran around the corner, accelerating even more. I retched. He came prancing back, smiling and telling me he had taken the wrong way, he must take a right at the next crossing. He took off to the left this time and disappeared around the other corner. I retched again. A mad and miserable creature standing next to the crossroads, sick to its stomach, feet and lungs burning. But at the same time alive and free, purged of the anxiety and restlessness that had plagued me the last few days. I had what I wanted. No thoughts. The most brutal way of being present.
I didn't knew it at the time but I already managed to run two kilometers, two thirds of the usual distance I'd run back in my basketball days. In my arrogance I didn't bother to check the distance to the outdoor gym and badly miscalculated it. Even with the self-destructive mindset and the overconfidence in my athletic abilities, I only aimed for five kilometers, a distance I had outrun maybe once or twice in my entire life. I estimated running to the gym and back would cover that. While waiting at the crossroads for the nausea to subside and for the devil to show up and offer me the same deal he offered the great Robert Johnson and that fool Faust, I was contemplating giving up and returning home. Entertaining that thought for a minute, I violently disregarded it. Not reaching that cursed gym was not an option. I retched a last time, stood up and trotted onwards.
By the time I continued, my feet and calves were cramping deliciously. I managed to slowly stumble a few yards with forefoot striking but had to abandon it to relieve my aching muscles, switching to heel striking. The switch of striking style allowed me to retain a rhythmic motion, but I knew it would be a temporary measure. I don't want to demonize heel striking and I'm certainly not trying to give anyone any advice (this story should make it pretty clear that I'm in no position to do that), but I know from past experience that heel striking is not the right style for me, probably due to improper form and structural reasons. What is certain is that heel striking puts greater demand on the knees compared to forefoot striking, which puts more demand on the Achilles tendon, ankle and foot muscles . Given my history with chronic knee pain, I'm careful not to put too much stress on my knees to avoid reaggravation.
Running through brown and hot fields at a crawling pace, the only motivation I had left was the wish to reach another shady spot. I didn't want to add sunburn to my list of ailments. It's not pain that will make you stronger and grants relief. It's pain that will give you skin cancer. I made my way to another crossroad with a couple of Mediterranean cypress trees, luring me with their precious shade and sweet scent. Resting beneath those ramrod straight and dusty soldiers unbowed by destiny or the memory of their ancient roots, my peace and lucidity was only disturbed by innocent civilians. Their eyes and smiles showed their obliviousness to the magnitude of my heroic quest. I had to continue my journey, rejuvenated by resignation and a desire to flee pending judgement. The last section before reaching the God-forsaken outdoor gym was more of the same, the only difference being the last few hundred meters. I completed those by walking through a cool and shady forest, only pretending to run once I was out of the woods and visible to other people again. Vanity, definitely the devil's favourite sin.
Finally I reached my destination. What I found was nothing like I imagined. The outdoor gym I thought I had seen was not an outdoor gym at all. To make the lunacy of the whole endeavour perfect, what had looked like an outdoor gym with bars and other fitness devices when I was driving by with my car, turned out to be some sort of weird adventure playground for children from years eight to fourteen. It wasn't like people older than fourteen were not allowed on that playground—I've gotten the idea that the playground was a gym from seeing old people working out there—but more that the devices are not suitable for taller folks. What I had mistaken for a rack with an adjustable bar I could use to do pull-ups and dips was just a bar fixed in place at hip height. Thoroughly enjoying the futility of what I had accomplished and the uselessness of what I had discovered, I smiled and started my laborious way back.
On the return trip I was able to retain a steady stride suitable for my condition. My knees were starting to get sore but still nothing compared to my burning feet and ankles. I kept my pace easy and slow, stopping at the shady places I stopped before. My brain was mercifully numb, shut down by the steady movement and exhaustion. While I remember the disquiet during the first quarter of the run very well, I can't recall my state of mind while running back through the plane, making me assume it was peaceful. Or at least empty. Until I reached the last section, back up the hill. With my poor endurance I was immediately winded by the not-so-steep incline. I was already running as slow as possible so I couldn't decrease my speed any further or else I would've reverted to walking. Luckily there was a shady spot at the end of the section with the steepest incline. I used it to pause and recharge before the last stupidity I would commit that day.
Only a small hump and a hundred meters of flat homestretch was standing between me and the sweet relief of the end of this mess. Cowering in the shade, staring down the last few meters of incline I had to overcome, I went crazy. It wasn't the first or the most intense bout of short-term craziness I've experienced due to fatigue and pain. Once—in a similarly agitated state—I decided it'd be a proper blast to break-in new hiking boots with a fifty kilometer hike. It turned my feet into a bloody pulp, but that's a story for another day. I witnessed an utterly irrational thought take roots in my mind, conquer it and annihilate all reason I had left. Completely filled with the conviction that the only way I'd manage the final stretch would be in a full-out sprint, that's what I did. Conceptually still able to grasp that this was a terrible idea and that this panting wreck of a body should not be pushed to run as fast as it still could, it didn't matter. Reason is worth nothing if you can be alive instead. To make my first run after eight years perfect in its foolishness, I sprinted. Wobbling and staggering, moaning and groaning, wheezing and coughing, spitting and screaming I crossed the finish line.
How I felt afterwards nearly made up for the wreckage. My first runner's high. Everything was soft and lovely. When I finally sat down, an intense sense of calm washed over me, a feeling I had desperately needed. At last, I was at peace. Even the pain in my legs and lungs felt good. A warm and tingly sensation started to arise underneath the cramps as my muscles started to relax. I was happy and even when L returned shortly after—as flamboyant as ever and not exhausted at all from running twice the distance that nearly broke me—I couldn't stop smiling. My hurting ego, very much displeased with my performance, was unable to subdue my state of exuberance. Alas, the feeling didn't last. After a prolonged shower the high was gone. The calmness stayed a little longer, but without the high my body made me aware of what I had done. While I expected discomfort in certain spots—most notably my feet, which did not disappoint with their exquisite soreness causing me a limp—there were unexpected parts of my organism feeling strange as well. My immune system went into complete overdrive and my nose was stuffy all night. I could also feel that my body temperature was higher than usual when I was lying in bed, like I had a slight fever. Expecting to sleep like an angel after so much exhaustion, I slept badly, tossing and turning all night. When I woke up the next day, another unforeseen part of my body had turned sore: my core. While I thought I had gotten good core activation during my regular training routine, my abdomen was hurting with every breath. My good mood was gone the next morning as well. While running helped to get rid of the surmounting everyday stress causing my troubled mind before, it was replaced with the stress from overdoing it. It took me about three days to fully recover. On the eighth day I laced my running shoes again.
I've been going running regularly since then. Not such hellish runs like the first one. It took me a little to calibrate, but I've found a distance and terrain suitable for my skill level. Right now I run a stunning four kilometer route with eighty meters of altitude in about thirty-five minutes. The track takes me through gorgeous and fragrant woods and along quaint villages with picturesque churches and chapels surrounded by fields full of hay. I've made a lot of progress. The strength and endurance in my calves, ankles and feet has grown significantly, same as my cardiovascular fitness. However, my physical gains are nothing compared to the progress of my approach. All my life I thought running was inherently exhausting, which is not true. My approach has made it so. Always running as fast as possible and constantly out of breath, I was a very inefficient runner who never conserved energy during lighter stretches. Turns out you can run at a speed where it feels like you actually gain more energy rather than depleting your reserves. When hitting the sweet spot I feel like I can run forever, a state many runners have told me about but I thought was made up. As to using physical exercise as punishment to rid myself from an anxious and restless mind like I did during the first run, it has not happened since then. Partly due to adding regular running to my self-care routine has kept my mind in a calm and healthy state. But also because I'm starting to doubt the effectiveness of this behaviour more and more with each time I exhibit it. Consuming all the energy for something futile and self-destructive just to feel like hitting the reset button is wasteful and time-consuming. There must be a more efficient way or else more people would be long-distance runners or indulge in self-flagellation. Right now I feel like Alexis Zorba did after he gorged himself on sherries till he got sick, to rid himself from his addiction to them. Maybe I did the same with my need for penance for what I perceive to be a weakness.
 Irene S. Davis, Tony Lin-Wei Chen, and Scott C. Wearing. 2022. Reversing the mismatch with forefoot striking to reduce running injuries. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living 4, (May 2022). DOI:https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2022.794005
 Joseph Hamill and Allison H. Gruber. 2017. Is changing footstrike pattern beneficial to runners? Journal of Sport and Health Science 6, 2 (June 2017), 146–153. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2017.02.004
 Xiaochen Lin, Xi Zhang, Jianjun Guo, Christian K. Roberts, Steve McKenzie, Wen‐Chih Wu, Simin Liu, and Yiqing Song. 2015. Effects of exercise training on cardiorespiratory fitness and biomarkers of cardiometabolic health: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of the American Heart Association 4, 7 (July 2015). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.115.002014