My 4th Runniversary

Update: I posted an edited version of this story, with voice-over, on Cowbird. Read/listen to it here.

Yesterday marked my fourth year of running. There are so many reasons to celebrate this 4th runniversary: I’m feeling fit and healthy and finally, after two decades of primarily exercising my brain, I’m exercising my body, joyfully using the ridiculous amount of energy that I seem to have. I’ve found a passion that I can share with my husband STA and model for my kids. And, I’m doing something that I know my mom, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2009, would be so proud of and delighted by. She always admired and enjoyed how physical and strong I was as a kid.

While these are all great reasons to celebrate, they aren’t the main reason I celebrated my four years of running yesterday. I celebrated because my ability to run regularly these four years for 30 minutes or more without injury, has enabled me to train for and race in triathlons.

I’ve wanted to do triathlons for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching the Kona Ironman on NBC Sports. I recently found many of these broadcasts on Youtube. Sweet. I didn’t think I’d ever do one myself; the distances were too great and I was mostly a swimmer. But I recall being deeply inspired by the athletes. And somewhere, buried deep within me, I harbored fantasies of doing a triathlon. Probably not an Ironman, but a triathlon of some distance.

After graduating from college and moving out to California in 1996, I bought a book on training for a triathlon. As I read through it, focusing my attention on the running section, I convinced myself that I wouldn’t ever be able to do one. People with crunchy/creaky knees like mine can’t run a 5K, the distance that is required in a sprint triathlon.

Bad knees run in my family. After being on cross country for a few years in high school, my older sister had to have knee surgery and I assumed that, with my knees, I would suffer a similar fate if I tried to run seriously. Whenever I walked up or down stairs, my knees would crunch, almost as if to signal a warning, “Crunch! Don’t even try running! Crunch! You’ll get an injury. Crunch! It will be too painful.”

Throughout my late teens, twenties and early thirties, I thought, and probably said, “I’d like to do triathlons. I’m a good swimmer and I can bike. But I can’t run.” I never questioned the validity of this statement, even though I had run occasionally over the years, for swim team or on my own at the local health club, without any problems.

On June 2nd, 2011, when I tried running again for the first time in decades, I was still haunted by the belief that I could never be a runner. But, I was 37 and I needed to run. I was just beginning to come out of agonizing grief over my mom’s death and was struggling to deal with the end of my academic career. I had to do something deeply physical, not just because my body was falling apart (I had gained weight, was experiencing mysterious back pains and often felt an odd numbness in my feet), but because I wanted to use my energy in joyful and productive ways. And since my husband STA, the self-proclaimed non-athlete, wanted us to try a Couch to 5K app, I decided to give running another chance. I think he knew that I needed to run and that I wouldn’t or couldn’t unless he did it too.

My first run wasn’t pretty, but it felt good to be active again. And, I loved talking with STA about it afterwards. I slowly (very slowly) built up endurance. I struggled with minor pains and an increased sense of vulnerability as the running worked my body—my bones, joints, muscles—in new ways. That first year I was so protective of my knees. “Watch the knees!” I’d yell frantically as my kids, 8 and 5 at the time, ran around me in the living room. I could only imagine ice skating, something I had just started to enjoy again as an adult, with horror. “I can’t ice skate,” I declared. “What if I fall down and hurt my knee?”

But, aside from one tortuous week about two months into my running, when my knee hurt so much that couldn’t run, my body, especially my knees, were okay. I could actually run! And I did, with increased joy and passion.

In my first two years of running, I wasn’t thinking about triathlons at all. Even though there were two big triathlons at my local lake and an indoor tri series at my local gym, I was too focused on running to consider training for anything else.


Every so often I’d think about triathlons. I’d remember how much I’d always wanted to do one. I’d think about signing up for an indoor triathlon at the local YWCA. But, I wouldn’t. I’d think about signing up for an outdoor triathlon at Lake Nokomis. But, I wouldn’t.

Then, one day in early July of 2013, I decided to swim across Lake Nokomis. Once a week, on Tuesdays that year, you could swim across the lake, 600 yards, as many times as you wanted for two hours. I almost didn’t go. But, after some convincing from my ten year old son, I went. I loved it. Shortly after that, I signed up for my first triathlon in August, 2013: the Women’s YWCA Triathlon at Lake Nokomis. It was amazing. That winter I competed in all 4 indoor triathlons at the YWCA. Then, in 2014, I swam all summer and trained for and raced in the YWCA tri again.

This summer, I’m ready to train for and compete in at least three triathlons. I have a new bike and I bought my first wet suit. Slowly, I’m getting serious. I even have a long term goal: to race in the half-Iron in St. George, Utah for my 50th birthday (June, 2024).

Me on June 2, 2015. At Lake Nokomis, trying out my first ever wetsuit in the freezing (60 degrees?) water.

I love swimming. I love running. I’m learning to love biking. I feel so much joy (some pain too!) and pride as I train for and compete in the triathlons that I always wanted to do, but never thought I could. This joy would never have been possible if I hadn’t taken those first running steps 4 years ago on June 2, 2011.

So, to honor this accomplishment I did what I love doing yesterday. I swam, biked and ran. What a great day!

note: I want to put this story about triathlons beside my past stories about running:

And…even more running stories

I’m struggling to find running stories that counter the dominant narrative of the “My Running Story.” I’ve been talking about this “master narrative” for the past few posts.

Here’s a brief description of the “my running story” narrative:

It has a beginning (I was never a runner), middle (I found a love for running and got fast) and end (I struggled with injury or motivation but have triumphed).

It often includes a list of races/personal best times.

It is usually centered on signing up for and running/competing in races–often marathons.

It is frequently found on blogs with running/training tips + corporate sponsorships + product reviews. 

In many ways, this narrative resonates for me. I think a lot about my times. I like running in races. I frequently understand my own story as about “someone who never thought that they could run” and then learned to love it. But, this narrative is not the only way that I experience/understand myself as a runner. I’m interested in reading other stories about running, stories that offer different perspectives on why and how we run.

I’m having some trouble finding these counter narratives. I’m sure that they exist, they just don’t come up as easily in my google searches. I’ll keep looking. For now, here are two counter stories:

Running with the Pack

by Mark Rowlands, a philosopher. I just recalled this from the library. In an interview with Runner’s World, Rowlands encourages us to think about the  intrinsic (running for running’s sake) value of running instead of just the  instrumental (running for achieving goals, races, losing weight) value.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

by Haruki Murakami, a fiction writer. Shortly after starting to run in 2011, I bought this audiobook. I frequently listened to it as I struggled to work up to a 5k distance. Now, after combining iTunes accounts with my husband, I can’t seem to find it. I’d like to listen to it again and see how my perspective has changed. I wonder, should I buy the book again?

The Runners, a short documentary

A few minutes ago, I randomly remembered this great documentary that I watched over a year ago: The Runners. Here’s a brief description:

Pounding the tarmac through the seasons, a band of runners are brazenly challenged with intimate questions as they pace their routes. Liberated from responsibilities, their guards drop dramatically, releasing funny and brutally frank confessions, and weaving a powerful narrative behind the anonymous masses.

Sheffield Documentary Festival

I’d like to write more about it, but I need to pick my daughter up from school in 15 minutes. For now, I’ll just post it.

Related Link:

The Runners: why we interviewed people jogging

not just a single story

In my preliminary research on “my running story” (which was hurriedly done and involved googling “my running story” and clicking through only about 2 or 3 pages), I archived a short list of narratives by runners about their experiences racing, training and finding a passion for running. As I began reading through these stories yesterday, I was struck by the similarities between many of them:

  • They usually start, “I was never an athlete” or “I always hated running”.
  • They often focus on running times and include PRs (or PBs).
  • They frequently describe a setback or two, usually involving an injury, but end with a triumphant return to running or a readjustment of expectations.
  • And, they are all white women (except one white man).

This morning, I decided to do a little more research. Instead of focusing just on “my running story,” I searched for running and blogging. Quite quickly, I found Black Girls Run!

Here’s their mission and vision:

Mission: The mission of Black Girls RUN! is to encourage African-American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority.

Vision: We aspire to take a comprehensive and creative approach to improve the health statistics of women of color.

Black Girls Run!

Then I found an article about the Kwe Pack, a group of women runners who live on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation: They Run: Kwe Pac, Fond du Lac Reservation, Minnesota. This brief article offers excerpts from Kwe Pack members and their experiences running, including:

I have been running for years. My foster parents put me in track when I was in the 7th grade and I ran until throughout high school. I returned to running in my twenties because I was losing a battle with severe depression and an eating disorder.

Even though I have been running for years before running with the Kwe Pack, I wouldn’t be the person or runner that I am without their support and friendship. I love this group and love that it is growing. I enjoy and own my position in this group as one of the most experienced runners and I provide the group with tips and information on fuel, hydration, gear, training, racing and weather.

Before running with this group I did 5k’s, half marathons (both road and trail). From the friendship and support of this group I completed my first marathon in 2012 and completed my first Ultra marathon 50k in October 2014. I have my most aggressive race schedule in 2015, which consists of Superior 25k, Ragnar-Chicago, Grandma’s Marathon, Gene Curnow Trail Marathon, Superior 50, Twin Cities Marathon and Wild Duluth 50K.

Janelle Zuech

Now, both of these stories center on groups of runners and not just individuals, so maybe I shouldn’t attempt to compare them to the “my running story” stories. But I want to put all these stories next to each other to see a wider range of ways in which runners express their passion for running. And I want to keep looking for more narratives about women running.

More Running Stories

Yesterday I discovered a new narrative form (or genre/sub-genre?): my running story. I’m fascinated by how many different people have posted these stories on blogs, tracing their journey as runners, and how many similarities these stories share. There’s a formula to this type of narrative that frequently begins, “I was never an athlete/runner growing up” and ends, either triumphantly (a PR at a big race) or with hopeful determination (the will/desire to run again after injury). Usually I don’t like formulas, but I’m finding “my running stories” to be enjoyable and stimulating to read.

These stories make me curious. And they make me want to research and analyze how people tell their running stories online. What forms do these stories take? Why do people tell them? What sort of “truth” is being expressed, “authentic self” being performed? I’m thinking that part of my “marking the occasion” of my anniversary should involve this research; it seems fitting to remember/practice my academic-intellectual self.

My Running Stories: a preliminary list

sidenote: In my post yesterday, I mentioned that I found out about the genre though an offhand reference in Running to the Kitchen’s “My Running Story.” I was wrong; it was in a story by Loving on the Run. She writes:

This past weekend I was doing my normal blog reading, and came across Michael’s post about his running story. As I was sitting there reading I realized that I don’t think I have ever really shared my running story.

Loving on the Run

In addition to reading/analyzing “My Running Stories,” I also want to look at other ways in which runners tell their running stories and express their running selves online like, the Running Manifesto.

Running Manifestos

Other Sources on Running and Writing

Academic Articles