April 4, 2016

Health : Reasons to Race

Chinatown & TransAmerica San Francisco. Spring 2014

Yesterday I ran my third half-marathon in San Francisco, the TransAmerica Rock N Roll race. Up until last year I didn't see the appeal in running races. Why would I pay for something I could do for free? Why structure something whose appeal for me is its flexibility and freeing qualities?  I'm not a fast runner, and not especially competitive, so it's not like I'd be training to qualify for something like the Boston Marathon. But because I know so many people who like to run races, I decided to try it and learn more about its value.

And after running my first race last September (the Golden Gate Half), I found that there were more than enough reasons to repeat the experience. It's been healthy for me not just in my personal life but also in cultivating principles that help me in my work.

Solidarity: I really underestimated the experience of running with other people. I've always run by myself, using it as a time for personal space which can be scarce in a field where you are constantly interacting with people and adjusting your persona to meet needs of different groups of people. I'm sure this is true of many jobs. While it's rewarding to work with people, if you're an introvert like me it can be hard to settle back into yourself at the end of the day. But introverts are known to appreciate parallel play. Enjoying a solitary activity in the company of other people satisfies, at the same time, needs that can often conflict in our lives: time to ourselves versus connection to other people. I can't imagine a more concrete enactment of this than running with 5,000 other people. You are all doing your own thing, together. When I'm frustrated at work and feeling like I'm going at it alone, I try to bring myself back to that place of communal goals among individual endeavors. This is much easier to do after you've tangibly experienced the visual and sound of herds of people on the same path in a race.

Acceptance: In our society of high powered careers, I hear often about people feeling like everyone is out for themselves and no one is rooting for each other. During races, it feels like the exact opposite. Random strangers are lined up along the course cheering for you, with signs and costumes, and you wonder why anyone cares this much about you running. There's no judgment--no one will scoff if you walk or if you stop at a hill. Everyone is so excited that you just showed up. In environments with highly driven people where feelings of inadequacy are common because you feel like you're not doing as much as this or that person, it feels really good to be celebrated just for trying. This mindset helps at work, especially when you have long-term goals that can feel impossible to achieve. Knowing that sustained effort is accepted and valued regardless of what the immediate results are, I'm less likely to be burnt out when I haven't been able to help someone lower their blood pressure or quit cocaine.

Alamo Square, San Francisco. Spring 2014
Motivation: Running in a race is like being on a natural treadmill. You have a wave of people streaming with you so that that your own movement becomes more subconscious and it's not as tempting to stop. Plus, you see people of all ages, sizes and fitness levels in running shorts and sneakers and shirts that say "does this shirt make my butt look FAST?," and you remember that you don't have to be a 21 year old yoga teacher to develop the strength and stamina for a race.

Guilty pleasures: Not going to lie, one of the things I look forward to most right before a race is getting to listen to a playlist of embarrassing pop songs. I usually look up a Billboard list of songs from years dating back to high school and fill up my phone with Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, and not just Beyonce but also Destiny's Child. When doing something that requires putting yourself out there, it's good to remind yourself of a time when you could dance like crazy for hours on end in full knowledge of how ridiculous and wonderful it all was.

Pride for your city: Nothing makes me more appreciative for living in San Francisco than running through its streets, soaking in so much of the neighborhoods and nature in a compressed span of time. If you live in a city you love, it's worthwhile to experience it from this perspective.  If you don't love where you live, it's worthwhile to experience it in a different way and see what you find.

Pride for yourself: Another honest benefit of running races is to be able to share what you did, and feel the support of your friends and family (ignore lovingly unaware comments like those from my dad, who when I told him about my plans to run these races, asked "Why?" and "Are you really going to be able to do that??"). I don't think you should feel guilty for enjoying the medals and shirts that show off your accomplishment. Even though we don't do our daily work for the purpose or expectation of praise, it can be hard to persevere through the ongoing challenges of work when few people perceive what you do. I've found that having things in other parts of your life that you value and can visibly share can help fill the understandably human need to be seen.

Alamo Square, San Francisco. Spring 2014
I don't think these benefits are limited to running. Signing up for any structured physical activity in a group setting can achieve all of these (except maybe the guilty pleasure of nineties pop, but this can always be enjoyed in the privacy of your car or publicly at your college reunion dances). This month on Mondays I plan to share how to integrate running in particular into your life, and hope that a lot of it can apply to whatever activity you enjoy or want to explore.  And I would love to hear other people's thoughts on why they race.


  1. (1) it is almost eery how overlapping our interests are! right down to destiny's child during races - i listened to survivor over and over again during my last half marathon (also s/p breakup :) )
    (2) "You have a wave of people streaming with you so that that your own movement becomes more subconscious and it's not as tempting to stop" and so many other quotable lines.. this post captures everything i feel about racing that I've never been able to articulate
    so excited to read the next few running posts.

  2. (1) I'm so glad we've discovered this! So looking forward to hanging out and learning more from you.
    (2) Maybe you will be able to keep me motivated to race because I am tired :)

  3. I feel like I'm overposting but I've so enjoyed these. Long ago before my numerous injuries, I ran a half in Minneapolis. And two things shocked me: the city was beautiful in places I had never seen before and it was one of the most supportive environments (in terms of mass) I had ever been in. I definitely agree with you! Last summer, I walked out to the giants stadium to watch the marathoners. Not knowing a single one, in a brand new city, I found myself cheering loudly and embarrassingly for them. They were all so focused, many exhausted and despite having just rolled out of bed, I think even when you're just on the sidelines,you get swept up in that collective action and want to help propel it forward. That being said, I will certainly be cheering for you as you race by for your SF marathon!

    1. Thanks Christine! You are so supportive so I can imagine you cheering on anyone and everyone :) Injuries suck, and it's something I hope to write about and get feedback on in the future--I used to have a lot of hip issues while running too. While recovering I found other things to enjoy, which I hope you have too--in addition to being able to run again. p90 soon!


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