Running…it’s Kind of like Therapy

but not really.

Back in October of last year my friends and I agreed to do a fitness challenge. The intent was for something new and challenging for all of us. We thought it would be a good way to connect, stay in shape and see what each of us was capable of. After some discussion, we decided on a running challenge: who could run the most miles in October. Two of us, myself included, would not consider ourselves skilled runners. From the beginning, I was nervous and started to worry about my capabilities as soon as we began talking about the possibility that the challenge would be running based. I had very little experience as a runner and I knew that if I was going to be successful I would have to commit to changing a few things and accept that it was going to be difficult and take commitment. It is safe to say that I had a reasonable amount of fear. Fast forward to about a week into October, my friend “the runner” had not changed much since beginning the challenge. He decided to rely on his past skills as a runner and within 7-10 days into the month he was injured and not able to finish the challenge. This was surprising for all of us involved. We had all thought “of course the one of us who was a runner would win the challenge with no problem“. Never was it a thought that we could actually win the challenge. At around 10 days that the challenge became incredibly difficult for me. I began asking myself almost every time I went for a run, “why am I doing this?” All I could come up with were reasons why I didn’t want to finish:

  • It was hard
  • It pushed me to do things I normally would not have done
  • My friend just got injured; I should quit too before I get hurt
  • I had other more important things to do
  • I was sore all the time

It occurred to me during a run that the feelings and questions of doubt were familiar. The question shrouded in doubt “Why am I doing this?” was a question I heard all too often from clients in my therapy practice. 

If you have ever been in therapy then you know it can be really challenging (especially at first). If therapy is hard then why do it? I asked myself the same question about the running challenge, “if this is going to be so hard, why do it?” There are several reasons that therapy can be hard. It’s not like we think to ourselves “Hmm, I don’t want to change anything about myself, I think I will go to therapy.” This is one of the reasons therapy is so challenging. We are not everything that we could be, we have a laundry list of things we don’t like about ourselves or relationships we wish to be different. These are often difficult truths for many of us to face. For example, I was faced with my dream of being a competitive runner not coming to fruition because I am not very good at running. The self-awareness developed in therapy is only the beginning. Developing a sense of self-awareness can show you how big of a mess you have to clean up. Self-awareness is similar to a map. It is not going to solve your problems for you but it can point you in the direction of success. You would expect that after 10 days of running it would get easier for me, right? At least that was my expectation. All that came from the first 10 days of October was a self-awareness that I did not know how to run properly and if I did not change something about how I was doing things, the rest of the month would be demanding. Knowing who you are and where you are in life is a really good place to start…especially if you want things about yourself to be different. But you can’t grow if you don’t know where you are starting from. Self-awareness seems to be a good place to start. I am not sure which is harder, self-awareness or running? Just as learning how to run can be uncomfortable, so is learning about yourself. So why do it? 

I do not have your average runners build and I have never enjoyed running. Running has always been the last thing on my mind when I consider exercising. My excuses ranged from “running isn’t for me” to “you need the right type of body to enjoy running.” While there might be some truth in those ideas, with some truth about where I was starting out as a runner I learned I was not everything that I could be. This is the type of recognition that I witness with my clients in therapy. Your self-awareness can highlight all of the things you wish to improve. It lays out a path forward, a map. This sounds good in theory. If it was as easy as developing self-awareness why wouldn’t more people achieve their goals? Who knew that shining a light on your faults would be such a painful process. It’s not always easy to confront the things about yourself that you wish were better. So why do it? Because You deserve it. Therapy can be the space where you feel understood, safe and accepted while you learn difficult truths about yourself. 

The point came in October when I knew that I needed to pay attention to my lack of running skills or I would get injured. In other words develop a plan. (Yes, I thought of a running plan a quarter of the way through the challenge). If I continued ignoring my faults I was going to get hurt. I was lucky enough to have an example of “what not to do.” The friend who got injured had chosen to ignore self-awareness and not look at the difficult things he would need to change to avoid injury. I got together with the other guy crazy enough to agree to this challenge. We decided to come up with a plan for success. That meeting looked very similar to a therapy session (remember this is 10-12 days into running every day). Lots of tears. Lots of ruminating on how hard life was at the moment. Lots of feeling hopeless. And we felt and of course a little guilt from not paying attention and planning earlier. The talk ended with compassionate understanding (crying) from both of us that October was going to be very difficult but we had a plan mapped out and each other’s support. We are not everything that we could be and if we think about it hard enough we know it. Knowing your truth is tough but not unbearable. We are worth the courage that it takes to face our faults and therapy can provide a relationship for wrestling with those parts of you that you know could be better and deserve to be better. 

I want to get back to the friend that got injured 10 days into the challenge. He had always been a runner, yes this was true. However, it had been a year or two since he had run on any regular schedule. He also had not been exercising in any way up to October. Before we started the challenge I brought up an observation that he was potentially ignoring something that he should maybe pay attention to. No need for any of that, he was confident and sure that he would win the challenge no problem. He had every reason to believe that. He had been a runner his entire life without ever having a problem. But we all know how the challenge ended for him. The things we avoid do not just go away because we don’t want them to be around.

Part of growth is cleaning up the messes we have made. Often times it’s extremely difficult to sit down with yourself and outline a list of ways you could improve. As difficult as it is, paying attention to things we are avoiding is the only way to move past those things. Therapy can be a lot like that. A healthy therapeutic relationship should feel safe and secure enough for you to turn the mirror towards yourself and confront the parts of you that you are hiding from. Often times I will invite my clients to allow me to be courageous and powerful for them until they learn that they are capable of the same for themselves. When we approach a task like this it is helpful to come from a place of acceptance. We are all deserving of love and compassion. The secrets we hold can make learning to love ourselves very challenging. Let’s get back to my runner friend. After a little firm love from the group, “the injured friend” recognized that he had rested on his previous achievements and was actively ignoring the fact that he needed to change a few things. He admitted this was because it was too scary and felt too big of a task to conquer on his own so he justified his not preparing for the challenge.  

 It was easy at first to just agree to a “who could run the most miles in October” challenge. The courageous part came when I wanted to quit in the middle of the month. When I told myself all of the reasons why the challenge didn’t matter and all the reasons why it wasn’t a big deal to quit. At first, my intention was to suffer in silence. My friends hadn’t “complained” yet so there was going to be no way I was the first. It wasn’t until I was truly ready to throw in the towel that I texted our group thread disclosing how much I was struggling and was not sure if I could finish. It was received with similar cries of struggles and hardship. The entire group was grappling and ready to quit. Everyone needed support…which is no surprise; we were attempting to do something that was a huge achievement for all of us. I immediately felt better after talking through the difficulties we were all experiencing. They understood what I was going through, they understood me, and I got a renewed sense of courage from feeling understood by the group. Confiding in and trusting the group helped us all endure the month. We need relationships and connections. Especially through difficult times. A therapist can be a place where we learn to be courageous. We don’t have to do it alone. Whatever tragedy there is at the moment in our lives, we can endure. How else do we expect to make it through the trials of life? Connection and relationship with a therapist (or a running group full of friends) can be a safe place to learn that we are capable, worthy and valuable. 

Who knew that I would have been able to find so many connections between running and therapy? To bring an end to our not so glamorous running challenge…I am sorry to say that I did not win. I was able to run 150 miles in October and the winner ran 160 miles. Out of the three of us that committed to the challenge, two completed it and the third learned a valuable lesson; avoiding things does not make them go away. Life is difficult and there will be new obstacles to face regularly…some that you are prepared for and others that you are not. When you don’t feel prepared, lean into relationships. Pay attention to the things that you are ignoring. Learn to trust and care for yourself because you deserve it. From that trust, you can develop courage. Before October I was not a runner. I faced my fear of running and struggled to the point where I was ready to quit. When I was ready to quit I leaned on my friends and found a little bit of courage. I endured the month and learned what I was capable of. What was my biggest lesson learned? Even after 150 miles in October, I am still not a runner. 

By: Josh Killam, LPC