"Why I Run"
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"Why I Run"

Running isn't just about speed -- it's about boosting your mood, finding inspiration, and more. See why these four runners pound the pavement and get inspired to lace up your sneaks.

Hitting My Stride

By Bethany Gumper

Born to run? Not me. Picked last in gym class? That's more like it. In fact, the only reason I took up running is that it's one of the few sports in which things don't fly at my face.

My dislike of sports is deep-rooted. In kindergarten my parents signed me up for soccer. I knew I was in trouble at the first practice: I showed up in oversize hand-me-down shin guards and huge pink glasses, and the other girls looked like mini Mia Hamms. I've blocked out the most tragic memories, but I do remember three things: (1) The only goal I ever scored was for the opposing team; (2) playing goalie, I nearly wet my pants; and (3) I felt absolute terror when the ball came at me like a black-and-white bat out of hell.

At season's end, I traded my cleats for ballet shoes. Pliés and pirouettes were more my speed than penalty kicks and passes. For years I steered clear of sports -- until the summer before sophomore year in high school, when a friend suggested I join the cross-country team. Because it seemed like a sport that would keep my specs intact, I gave it a try. At the first practice, I ran only a mile. But the coach and the other kids were encouraging, and I grew to love it. One mile became two, two became four; by the end of the season, I no longer finished last in every race. If my life were a movie, this would be the happy-ending moment, when I realize that there's a Flo Jo inside me waiting to escape and I lead the varsity team to victory while the marching band plays "Don't Stop Believin'."

Sorry, readers; I didn't become a running star. But my personal record for three miles was a respectable 23:28 (I remember it to the second!). I nearly puked after fartleks, suffered through long, slow weekend runs, and had butterflies in my stomach before meets (I pictured the little guys wearing Nike Airs to calm myself down). The crazy part? I liked it. I was finding my inner athlete.

Through the years, I've been a faithful -- not fast -- jogger, and I've kept it up for many reasons: to boost my mood as a homesick freshman at Boston University, to retain my sanity when I moved to Manhattan and was nearly eaten alive by the city's chaos, to keep married life from going straight to my hips. I still fear company softball outings and cringe at the mention of a pickup game of basketball. But at least now I have an excuse: "I can't; I'm going for a run."

Breathing Space

By Jennifer M. Volland

Today starts like any other: I'm convincing 5-year-old Agnes that a flower-girl dress isn't the best outfit for school, then doing a conference call while my 3-year-old, Imogen, insists that I inspect her bug collection. Thank God I went for a run at 5:30 this morning, something I do three or four times a week. My jog at daybreak is the calm before the parental storm.

I used to love exercise, whether I was training for a marathon or practicing the ashtanga yoga primary series. But when I became a mom, I lost my athletic identity for a time. My new role was all-consuming, a never-ending cycle of feeding, playing, bathing, and cleaning. Don't get me wrong: I loved seeing Agnes and Imogen take their first steps and choreograph dances to The Sound of Music sound track. But I fell out of touch with my own goals; my rare moments alone were spent stocking up on diapers at the supermarket or researching preschools on the Internet.

It was not until Imogen was a year old that I finally felt compelled to get back into shape. I'd planned to take up yoga again (my life could use a little zen), but then my best friend, Cara, invited me on a run while our families were vacationing together in Hawaii. A list of worries ran through my head: Who would watch the kids? Who would entertain them? Who would make breakfast? A new mom herself, Cara teased, "You have a husband, don't you?" She had a point.

As we set out on Hanalei Bay's white sand, the guilt at abandoning my girls faded, replaced with more immediate needs (gasping lungs, pumping legs). Suddenly I had new appreciation for the sport I had abandoned; it was time for me.

When we returned from the trip, I feared that my schedule would keep me from running regularly. Instead I discovered that the demands of parenting strengthened my commitment. I don't even mind when the alarm buzzes at dawn, because I'm looking forward to a serene hour with the sunrise while the girls snuggle in bed with my husband until I get back. Sometimes Agnes and Imogen meet me at the door, tennis shoes peeking out from under their nightgowns, and we jog around the block together. Those mornings are the best of both worlds.

Jog Your Mind

By Allison Winn Scotch

Searching for the best way to start this essay, I went for a run. Not because I was trying to procrastinate (though I probably was), but because I figured it would spark my brain into action. Running rejuvenates not just my quads but also my creativity. It's in my sneakers that I often stumble, sometimes literally, upon good ideas -- how to iron out a spat with my husband, what to cook for a dinner party, or just the right plot twist for my novel.

Lest you think I'm one of those bouncy runner types who drop the mention of a marathon into brunch conversation, let me be clear: I didn't set foot in a pair of running shoes until my mid-twenties. I played tennis in high school, step aerobicized my way through college, and happily jumped on the stairclimber trend in the late '90s. And then, at 24, I went for my first jog on a whim after a nasty breakup. A few miles to clear my head turned into loops around Central Park, and I felt like myself again.

Running swept that ex out of my head, along with other garbage that was clogging my thought process. When I focused on the step, step, step of my foot strikes and the music on my iPod, inspired stories found their way into my mind, sentences echoed in my brain, characters' voices became crisp and clear. Pounding the pavement in my neighborhood, I would get in touch with my characters in ways that sitting in front of a computer screen simply hadn't allowed.

It was on one of these jogs on a gorgeous spring afternoon, Kelly Clarkson blasting in my earphones, that I conceived the story for Time of My Life, the book that went on to be the breakout of my career. My mind went into that runner's trance; my pulse was a metronome in time with my footsteps as the bright blossoms whizzed by. And then, bam, there it was: the idea, the characters, the voice I needed. I sprinted home, banged out the first 15 pages, and a book was born. I had found my muse.

A Runner's High

By Colleen Oakley

Running had always been my exercise of last resort. If I couldn't find a hiking pal or the gym was closed but I needed to ease the guilt of a pizza binge, I would reluctantly go for a jog. Even then, as before a trip to the dentist, I'd pray it would be over quickly and not hurt too much.

But everything changed when my husband lost his job last February. At first I went into cheerleader mode. "We'll be fine!" I assured him. "Everything happens for a reason. You'll get something better!" But two months slowly ticked by, our bank account dwindled, and my "Keep your head up" catchphrases began to ring hollow.

Then we decided I should cancel my boxing-gym membership. That stung. I loved it and was in the best shape of my life. But my husband hadn't received so much as a phone interview, and the bills were piling up. The gym would have to wait. I was officially down in the dumps. Two weeks without a workout passed, and I began feeling flabby and sluggish. I knew I had to do something, so I took a deep breath and laced up my running shoes.

I jogged two miles, loathing each strike on the asphalt. When I got home, sweaty and out of breath, everything was how I'd left it -- my husband was jobless, my bed was unmade, and our bank account was near zero -- but my attitude had experienced an almost imperceptible shift. I felt an urge to tidy the sheets. I called a friend to chat. All in all, our circumstances didn't seem quite so dire.

The next day I ran again, still slowly, still struggling, but this time more appreciative of the way I felt when I was done. Over the next three months, running became my own form of Prozac. I hit the pavement three or four days a week, rarely exceeding three miles. Those jogs didn't give my husband a job, but they helped me keep it together and stay positive until a company did offer him a position five months later. Running is no longer my last resort; now it's my drug of choice.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2010.