The Pain and the Passion of Running

Owen Howard, a collegiate cross-country runner, writes about the influence running has had on his life.

By on February 3, 2022 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s Community Voices column is authored by Owen Howard, a Biology major at Central Michigan University. Previously on the cross-country team at Saginaw Valley State University, he now runs for Central Michigan University. In the spring of 2020, out of curiosity, he ran 100 miles around the perimeter of his county, completing the loop in 19 hours and 30 minutes.]

I love the act of running. I find solace in it — I always have. From my days as a five-year-old, running wild across the freshly cut grass to chase my dad on the lawnmower, to my current position as a member of an NCAA Division I cross-country team, and all the in-between. The in-between has certainly been an undulating path, filled with ups and downs: injuries, doubts, wishes for some semblance of skill in any other sport, or simply just thoughts of walking away from running entirely.

However, the prevailing emotion in regard to my relationship with running is love. I’m not certain this love will remain in perpetuity, but as for now, it is only compounding. If you were to ask me if I will always love running, my answer would simply be, “I hope so.” But I cannot speak for my future self or any unforeseen developments — I can only speak for today, and today, the fire shows no signs of cooling.

Owen Howard Cross Country

The author Owen Howard at a duel cross-country meet with the University of Toledo in Shepherd, Michigan, in October of 2020. All photos courtesy of Owen Howard.

All that said, I do not run solely because I love the act itself. That certainly plays a role, but it’s only a fraction of the whole picture. I got into running for the love of it, but I have stayed in the sport largely due to my strong desire for self-improvement and unwavering curiosity to see what I can achieve.

Sustained by the nature of the quest to see how good one can be at putting one foot in front of the other, I have spent the last decade of my life trying to be fitter, faster, and stronger than I was yesterday. It is this fight for incremental improvement that gets me out of bed each frigid, wet, or humid morning to do a slight variation of the exact same thing I did the previous day.

My love of running absolutely plays a part, but at the root of it all, Ernest Shackleton said it best, “I love the fight, and when things are easy, I hate it.” There is nothing that makes me feel more alive and sure of myself than fighting to bring a dream to life. And this is why I have some level of uncertainty about my future in running.

We live in a big world, full of opportunity, challenges, and secrets to be discovered. We’re not allotted a certain amount of these things to chase in our lifetimes. We are allowed as many as we can fit in. Personally, it is my belief that you can only truly focus on one, maybe two, pursuits at any given point. That fact, along with my curiosity and the sheer number of possibilities available in a lifetime, leads me to believe that I may eventually switch my focus to something other than running.

I don’t know exactly what I need to accomplish in running before this exchange may take place, and frankly, I do not care. As long as the fire stays burning, I’ll keep showing up. All I know is that I do not want to grow old and become passionless and hobby-less; I do not want to become comfortable with being comfortable. Whatever my attention may turn to, be it hunting, gardening, skiing, or even water aerobics for the elderly, I pray that I will pursue it with the same unrelenting passion and childlike hubris with which I now pursue running.

Owen Howard Track Meet

In April of 2021, Owen (right) ran a 5k PR of 14:47 at the Hillsdale Gina Relays. On the left of the picture is his younger brother Gideon. This race inspired Owen to write this essay.

If I woke up tomorrow to a world that had suddenly outlawed running, I would of course be sad. But I don’t think it would take an obscene amount of time for me to realize that the door to other ventures was now wide open, effectively blunting sadness with the hope that comes with new opportunities. I am not actively looking for an exit, but if one were forced upon me, I take comfort in knowing that I would not be permanently lost.

This paradoxical attachment to running — the unbinding dependence — is perhaps the healthiest and most beneficial attachment possible. It is essentially caring without caring. There are certainly ways to find success in a more shackled relationship, but I think that is less sustainable.

A few months ago, I crossed the finish line after a particularly poor and forgettable performance, and my first words to my coach were, “I don’t care.” Maybe what I truly meant was, “I’m not worried,” but this nonchalant mindset allowed me to come back, stress-free, to the same course two weeks later and run over two minutes faster.

I wasn’t always able to let the waves of depression, self-loathing, and doubt wash so cleanly over me, but the newfound ability has allowed me to reach a performance level that I was previously unaware of. I still have not completely eliminated those negative thoughts and emotions, and probably never will, but gaining the upper hand is all it takes to ease the burden.

Owen Howard Cross Country 2

Owen running at the NCAA Division I Mid-American Conference Cross-Country Championships for the 2021 cross-country season in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

All that is easier said than done, and I’d be lying if I said that I just flipped a switch and suddenly transformed my entire running paradigm. The actual change is much more gradual. Slow, subtle, and not always perceptible, it is driven by experience. Loss is a far stronger catalyst for change than victory, though both play their part.

The single biggest moment I can recall in my journey toward this change was the day I understood that my worth is not attached to my running. That is a relatively common cliché in the sport, and to tell the truth, I heard it, said it, and wrote it countless times before I truly understood it. When I finally did, I could feel myself conceding control of my expectations and results.

“Conceding control,” being the key part of that, because all control really is an illusion, powered by a veneer of weakly manufactured confidence to make ourselves feel more comfortable with our current situation.

When that illusion is broken, we can take our first steps in becoming the best versions of ourselves. This is part of the battle just as much as the tempos, long runs, or interval workouts. While devoid of physical pain, shattering the illusion of control is as hard as any aspect of running.

I write this not as an expert, but as a student. I have plenty yet to learn. Surely, many humbling experiences still await me. While I do not necessarily look forward to these experiences, I do appreciate their transformative powers. They have made, and will continue to make me, a better athlete and human.

Along with improvement in running comes a growing desire for more. Not quite greed, but rather a compulsion to capitalize on whatever latent ability remains to be discovered. At our worst, this compulsion can lead to comparisons to other people, specifically in how our success measures up to theirs.

Comparisons are particularly easy to make in a sport as simple as running, where there are but two measures of performance: time and place. It is not difficult to get caught in the trap of wondering why you are not having the success that other people are, while forgetting just how far it is you’ve already come.

Progress in running can be seen very simply, irrespective of talent, and it serves us well to look back at the path behind us on occasion. Nobody can know why God decided to give some people more talent than others, but we can resolve to make the most of what we’ve been given.

For me, the final piece of the puzzle in the journey to find my “why” in running fell into place when I was able to recognize that I did not have to rise to the level of my competitors to be considered worthy — I simply had to rise to the occasion of matching the potential I’ve been blessed with.

Owen Howard 100 Miles

Owen running at mile 30 of his 100-mile run around Isabella County, Michigan in May of 2020. On the bike is his younger brother Gideon, who rode with him the whole way.

It is tempting to look jealously upon the success of others and think, Why can’t that be me? But that’s not the game, is it? The real game is in our own minds, battling to reconcile ourselves with our capabilities and limitations, thus allowing ourselves to get the most out of our bodies every time we toe the line. This is the true way to find peace in our performance, whether it is with running or any number of other pursuits.

Right now, I know I have more left to give the running world. I’m not done yet. What comes after the next few years may simply be more running, an intentional extension of my career. It may also be something completely different and unexpected.

The exciting part is not knowing where I may go. The more intimidating, yet still butterfly-inducing part is that I may not be going somewhere familiar. But right now, I know exactly where I belong. I love the act of running, and I thank God for this every day.

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