Learning to be a Runner


heather caliri -learning to be a runner-3

Last night, I told my husband I was going for a walk. I put on my athleisure shoes and set out into the darkness of our street. When I got to the corner, I paused for a moment and then—feeling a little ridiculous—I started to jog.

I’m not a runner. I ran in high school for PE, and then felt relieved when teachers stopped demanding I circle a track.

But at the same time, I admire runners—the solitary dedication, the strength, the perseverance. I’m a sucker for a challenge. And also: runner’s high.

So one summer not long after I got married, I decided to try. I ran every day for six weeks, gradually increasing the amount I could go without stopping. I tried to be gentle. I tried to be faithful.

Though I felt pleased by my perseverance, I was taken aback by how hard it still felt to barely go a mile. Also, I could tell the practice was hard on my body—my joints, especially an old knee injury, felt irritated.

At the end of those six weeks, my husband decided to go with me. He played soccer growing up, but had not run regularly since high school. After half a block, he asked if it was okay if he went ahead, and then he proceeded to power through the entire course I’d been struggling to work up to. He ran about twice as fast as I did, with half as much puffing.

I had to ask myself: if running is this hard, and it doesn’t feel so great, is this the best form of exercise for me?

I stopped, a little relieved.

But you know, I didn’t stop admiring runners. My writing buddy friend Rachel runs regularly. My friend Derek told me how much he enjoyed training for a 5k. And last summer, I realized I missed the feeling I had in high school, when I was training to be a dancer. A feeling that I could ask almost anything of my body and do it.

Of course, “anything” means something radically different now that I’m forty instead of 16. Still, though, I wanted to push myself in a way I haven’t really wanted to for a long time.

I used to tell myself I was not-a-runner, and lately I have begin to question why I am not, if the idea attracts me?

Since I was small, I have set up rules to protect myself. Rules to stay safe. Rules about what I liked and didn’t. Rules about how to avoid harm.

Rules about who I am.

I am not a runner, I tell myself.

I don’t take risks.

I don’t wear loud jewelry.

I’m not the artist in the family.

I had a bad experience with that once—I don’t need to try again.

I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. My kids need my attention.

Rules have saved my life. I have set boundaries on my emotional and physical output and realized that being busy all the time or endlessly trying new challenges wrings me out. I have said no to overblown expectations and exceeding my bandwidth. I defaulted to no.

And then those same rules began to feel like walls. Rules keep me sane and also keep me small.

A few years ago, I walked through an incredibly hard experience. I spoke up about past abuse and set hard boundaries. And during that time, I had so little bandwidth for anything else. I stopped wearing makeup and jewelry and going out and saying yes. It was as if I took to living in one room of my house, all the doors and windows closed. I didn’t have energy to leave that room. I accepted the limitations gladly for my own sanity.

And then I came through that crisis and for a while, still kept to that one room.

With each day that passes, I open up another door I assumed needed to stay shut and realize: no—I want to inhabit this part of my life again.

I have started going outside of that house that served to shelter me and keep me safe, and you know what? The sun is shining. I don’t have to stay locked inside anymore.

All that door-closing served a purpose, until it did not.

And I have started thinking about the lean, impossibly strong legs of a runner and when I go out for walks it feels like I want to go faster. I want my heart to pound more. I want to get out of breath and feel sore the next day.

I am not a runner. And right now, I want to be one.

And what’s awesome is—I can claim that, today, just by going outside and starting to jog.

I have realized that after years of calling myself not-an-artist, the fact that I make art gives me that title automatically. I have realized that after years of calling myself not-an-author because I have not traditionally published, I can claim a title because it’s what I do each day.

And after years of knowing, so fiercely, that I was not-a-runner I can go out in my neighborhood in jeans and inadequate shoes and run just for the hell of it. I can do it because it feels like the next right thing. I can do it to celebrate all the crazy possibilities before me. I can claim running for however long it feels right, and stop if my knee acts up again. I can run just for the hell of it.

I spent years protecting myself, sheltering myself, and now that I feel safe, I realized I am ready to sprint.

I am ready to pick up any name and practice that enlarges my heart. I am ready to be surprised by where yearning takes me.

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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  1. Fritha Washington says:

    YAAAAAS! FREEDOM! (I run, and it hurts my tricky ankle, but as my daughter says…I get high on ‘dolphins’ and it’s amazing…)

  2. This is so what I needed to read. Your description of the safe walls while you needed them and then a new season when it became ok to try a new thing. As a matter of fact, I’ve wished I could try running again, but have told myself I-don’t-run-anymore so many times I’ve believed it! I’d been in my “safe house” with narrow bandwidth for such a while after my husband died that it’s been a lot of work to “open those windows” and “step out the door” again. I long to physically run again (I too was never a “real” runner by self-definition) but have had such a hard time getting started. I want to start again because of the right reason, which you so eloquently describe, not from self guilt or shame for NOT doing it. Your article was so inspiring, Heather, thank you! I feel like it was written just for me, it resonated so personally all the way through.

  3. Crazy possibilities are always worth celebrating. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  4. I love this, Heather. I needed to read your words this morning. Thank you for sharing your brave heart. That’s what I see in your words: Bravery.

  5. I’ve run 3-4 miles, 3-5x/week for the last decade or so, and I still hesitate to call myself a runner because I don’t really run in races, I’ve never run more than 6 miles at a time, and though my mile time is pretty good, I don’t go as far as my other runner friends so I feel like it doesn’t count. And I’m not sure what would make me comfortable claiming the title of runner–running 10k’s? No, marathons? But only then if I placed well, probably. It’s funny how we do that, feel uncomfortable to give ourselves ‘positive’ labels, when I’m so quick to take on negative ones. Thank you for this invitation and freedom to more. Run on, sister!

    • YES–this is exactly what I do to myself. Running that many miles a week sounds kind of incredibly cool to me. Sooo, yeah, this newbie thinks you’re practically an Olympian 🙂

  6. Stacey Pardoe says:

    Love this, Heather! It came at a fitting time. I’ve been a runner my whole life – since I was four, I think . . . But for years I’ve told myself I can’t stand sitting in a circle and playing card games. How ridiculous is that? Probably stems back to some old boyfriend who made me play cards. Well, now that I’m the mom of two little ones and the walls are closing in just a bit, it dawned on me that I need to strip off the label that I don’t play cards and dig out the Uno for the sake of family fun. I had this thought last night. Your post feels like the sweetest kind of confirmation this morning!

    • Ha! Well I like card games but a lot of board games make me really jittery, especially the ones that involve strategy. SO I get the idea that not everyone thinks Uno is fun. Still, though–it’s great to give things another try and see, right, especially with our kids. I am a sucker for an ask from mine 🙂

  7. I’m not at all athletic, but I know the feeling of longing to push myself and admiring the focus and determination that takes a runner over a 26.2 mile course. I loved reading about all the ways you protected yourself with boundaries and are now finding that some of them are no longer needed. This is growth, and may we all find inspiration to view our yeses and nos as fluid and in our control.

    • Yes–the fluidity is what surprises me. That what serves us at one time might not serve later. And that’s okay, and mature, and natural! That is a big shocker for me.

  8. I just want to jump up and shout, C’MON!!!!!!!!!


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