Standing on the edge of a hay field on a cool September morning I fell in love again. It wasn't a hard, fast, impassioned fall like those felt by first time lovers, but rather a slow fall -- deep with appreciation and wonder of seeing the familiar in a new light.
Truth be told, I have been in this relationship since I was in middle school and like most love affairs it has had its up and downs. The last few years have been difficult ones, void of the joy that used to be so abundant. Then out of nowhere a gust of wind sweeps through the pines and the pounding of feet and rhythmic breathing brings me out of my head and back onto the cross-country course at Spring Lake. As my girls run past me with determination on their faces, I realize that I do still love to run.
I was an active kid. Honestly, I don’t know how my parents put up with me, but somehow they knew that sports were an important outlet. Before I discovered running my mom drove me to and from swimming and gymnastics lessons some thirty miles round-trip from our farm.
When I reached junior high I started running. There was no cross country, but there was track in the spring. On long run days we would start on the cinder track and run out of town, past the chicken house on Asbury Road and back down 138 to school. In high school, although Title IX had been a law for almost a decade, there was no girls cross country team. And truth be told, I don’t know if I would have had the mental toughness needed for this sport at that age.
I ran competitively in high school and for a couple of years in college. In graduate school I was mostly too stressed to do much of anything good for my body. However, when my girls were little and time to myself was virtually non-existent I rediscovered running because of the insistence of two good friends who convinced me to run a half marathon. And thus, some three decades after I first began running, I fell in love again.
Since that time I have run several half marathons and not all of them have been good races. I have injured myself and not taken time to properly heal. One of the women that I love to run with has moved from Macomb and the other has taken on a more demanding job, leaving her with less flexibility. As I get older, now much closer to 50 than 40, my times have slowed, my dedication is less fervent and like an old lover I have become less appreciative of what running has to offer.
Recent research published in the Journal of American College Cardiology tells us that “The runners’ risks of dying from any cause was 30% lower than that for non-runners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45% lower than for non-runners - even when researchers adjusted for being overweight or for smoking. “
Other studies have found that women who run produce a less potent form of estrogen than their sedentary counterparts. As a result, female runners cut by half their risks of developing breast and uterine cancer, and lower by two thirds their risk of contracting the form of diabetes that most commonly plagues women.
Running also helps to produce healthy skin. According to dermatologists, running stimulates circulation, transports nutrients and flushes out waste products. All of this leads to a reduction in subcutaneous fat, making skin clearer and facial features more distinct. Running also makes me happier. While I may not always enjoy the run while I’m in the midst of it, I almost always feel better after I am done. This is in part because of my exposure to vitamin D from the sun and what is called a ‘runners high”.
And while I know all of these things, sticking to a routine that incorporates running into my daily life is challenging.
In the midst of writing this commentary, I laced up my shoes and went for a run. During the run I came up with this conclusion: For me, running is a state of mind. The only thing that determines my success, or lack of success, is the way I think about my running. If it works for me – if it relieves stress, burns calories, gives me time to myself, enhances my self-esteem – then it doesn’t matter what any other person or any stopwatch says about my run. I am thankful that Willow and Maren showed me how much I love to run through their determination and joy of running. Because in the end it doesn't matter whether I come in first, in the middle of the pack, or dead last. I can say 'I have finished.' There is a lot of satisfaction in that.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.