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The first hundred strides are the hardest. The motivation that I’ve carefully mustered evaporate each time my shoes meet pavement. My legs are starting to feel weird. My back is itching. My mind tells me that I’ve made a terrible mistake, and it’s not too late to stop. I can still walk back and enjoy the comforts of home. Maybe I can even have an ice cream.

But these thoughts only happen for a short time. The truth about running is that it’s a form of torture. It’s not about speed or ability or condition. It’s a mental game, one that I play with myself every time I lace up. The rules aren’t to have some incredible atlas-level perseverance, but rather to simply take a step, and another, and another after that.

At some point, my mind, and body realize that this run is going to happen with or without them. My breathing becomes more focused, and my legs gain a new confidence. Looking at my watch, I’m on pace for my target. All that agony at the start was just a distraction. A thought creeps into my mind. Maybe, I can even run faster and hit a new personal best. My heart skips a beat at the thought. I smile at the passing trees.

The meters start to disappear. The next time I glance at my watch, it tells me that I’m almost at a thousand meters. Air rushes in through my nose. My breathing tempo’s shifted from one breath every four strides to something more desperate. In, then out. In, out. In and, out.

The thought of reaching a personal best, so achievable a few hundred strides ago, seems so foreign now. It’s all I can do to point my knees forward and keep pumping my legs. It’s all so hard, and it’s so easy to stop. I started to bargain with myself. Maybe I can slow down and miss the personal best, maybe I can start taking heavier breaths from my mouth, or maybe I can just run a 5k instead of a 10k today. My mind latches on to the idea of a vickrey auction. A couple of minutes ago, I submitted a bid to run a personal best 10k. The results now show that the next bid was a 5k. Get there and I can stop. If I’m lucky, I won’t even fell bad for failing to reach 10k today.

A new sound intrudes on my haggling. It’s the music. Until now, I’ve been too busy managing my legs, steadying my breathing, and arguing with myself that I forgot about my running playlist.

Well, calling it a running playlist is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like a loose collection of sad songs. Neat 3 minute packages of sorrow, grief, anger, frustration, and acceptance. The chords swing from major to minor to diminished to augmented. For a second, I can hide my fatigue behind the wall of emotions blasting in my ears.

Lately, I’ve been listening to sad songs. Not just for runs, but also when I wake up and my eyes are stuck shut and when I go to sleep and my mind can’t power down. The notes wrap around me like a blanket. A wet, soggy, smelly one. But a blanket nonetheless. There’s something comforting about following the arc of hope, crisis, and raw emotions. It reminds me that the human experience is fundamentally the same. We try, we fail, we learn, and we pick ourselves back up.

My mind snaps back to reality. My watch tells me that I’m almost halfway to a 5k. I’m still on pace for a personal best, for both the 5k and 10k. That’s nice. I let in my first breath through my mouth. My body welcomes the extra dose of oxygen and for a second, I feel lighter. At this point, the soreness has left my legs. There’s a slight dull ache, but that’s pretty manageable. Replacing it is exhaustion. The feeling that no matter how far I’ve gone, there’s still more to go. I’m tired and yet, I still have most of the run left. Chemically, this probably means that my body has finished its stored glycogen and moved onto burning fat. Unfortunately, knowing the science doesn’t lessen the internal complaints that my body is lodging about the low-quality fuel it’s now being forced to use.

So, I center on my breathing. It’s rugged but with some odd rhythm. It’s somewhere around one breath for every stride and a half. The intake ends with a sharp gasp, and the exhale is just a rush of air. I don’t need to manage it. It feels natural. Instead, I can start digging for motivation to keep taking steps forward.

I think back to when I first started running. At the time, I had a ball of emotions lodged in my chest that weighed down everything that I did. It was hard to focus, to think, or to even relax. All I wanted to do was disappear. That’s when I put on my running shoes and tried my disappearing act. I didn’t get very far. The years of sitting in front of a computer and compulsion for boba had corroded any athletic progress that I achieved when I was younger. Walking home, I added a new emotion to the ball on my chest, the desire to improve. The next day, I was a bit more strategic. Instead of a flat out sprint, I started at a more moderate pace. But without the surge of emotions, I found myself stopping at roughly the same place as before. Completely gassed. On the second walk home, I added shame to the collection. Since then, I’ve been running regularly.

At some point, the weight in my chest started to lighten. Replacing it was curiosity. How far could I run? How fast could I go? It was a healthier set of emotions, I think. But I also kept a kernel of raw negativity. Less from choice and more because I have no clue how to remove it.

Instead, in times like now, I’d reach in and for a few minutes, forget all the physical pain and be consumed by mental pain. Time flew by. It wasn’t that the running was less tiring, it was that I no longer cared.

My watch told me I only had 1k left to reach a 5k. I was ahead of pace. Unfortunately, like my carbs, there’s a limit to how far my emotions can carry me. It was a sustainable resource, like solar power, but the battery was small. And now, I could feel every step in vivid detail. My feet were crashing down on pavement, and my body felt spent, and a creeping doubt was starting to seep in and poison the run. I had squandered my stores of energy. The rest of the run would have to be done on willpower alone. I only had a thousand (give or take) more steps to go. The question now was whether I would give in or not.

The smart thing to do in these situations would be to slow down and walk a few steps to recover some energy. I knew that I couldn’t do that. It’s not that a break would make me give up. My guilt is too strong for that, and I’d start running again before even catching my breath. It also wasn’t that the break would sacrifice my personal best. I could make up the lost time. It was the fact that I’d set a dangerous precedent. Even after I pushed through to start running again, my mind would know that stopping, that failure, was an option. And when things got hard, as they had during every step of this run, I would have permission to stop. No, I needed to finish this run, even when my body and mind were telling me no.

Two hundred meters left. I had run 96% of the distance. All that stood between me and the finish line was half a lap. Some small part of my mind protested. I was supposed to run a 10k. I shoved that thought down. All that mattered was getting a personal best in the 5k. I was so close. Step, breath, step, step, breath.

At the finish, when my watch buzzed and told me the kilometer split time, a feeling of relief washed over me. My hips relaxed, letting my legs play in front of me. I was using my heel to slow my momentum. I didn’t care. I was done.

As I walked forward, my breath started to slow down and fall. It was nice. I had bull-rushed through my previous record. The rubble of my effort was a layer of sweat on my arms. They glistered as the sun added its golden fingers to the world. The silence in the air, the gentle stirring of the world, and my slow even steps. It was morning. It was beautiful.

I smiled and threw my legs forward. I still had 5k left to run.

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