I hated running.
I was a slow, chubby kid. Every time we had to run in PE for the fitness test, track and field day or Terry Fox Run, I’d try to run the shortest distances possible or pretend I was feeling sick.
I was told that my pancake-flat feet would limit my athletic abilities. I was told that my body just wasn’t meant to do sports. Running around in the polluted Beijing air didn’t help either. At that time, from 2000 to 2012, Beijing had some of the worst air quality in the world.
My parents divorced when I was in eighth grade. On the surface, I felt like nothing had changed. Dad was never around much to begin with, so now he just wasn’t going to be around — ever.
My family consisted of individuals living in silos. My sister always had her door closed. My mom spent a lot of time at church. I was always on my computer. We were individuals related by blood and we just so happened to live under one roof.
I was wrong.
I remember one time after a creative writing assignment, my English teacher told my mom, “JJ’s a bright kid, but be careful. He’s got some really dark thoughts.”
My mom passed on my teacher’s message. I just shrugged and went back to my computer games. I remember some days I would wake up at 3 AM just to play my computer. I barely went outside. I’d just play all day. I could play 16 hours straight, stopping only for washroom breaks and to eat leftovers or instant noodles.
My friends told me I’d changed. I used to be really outgoing and extroverted.
Now, I retreated into my own world. I was always angry about something. I wore a face that read, “don’t talk to me”.
I was depressed, and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know if it was just puberty and being a teenager, or if it was related to my parents’ divorce. I had no idea.
I was lucky because my best friend saved my life.
He told me one day, “hey, JJ, starting tomorrow, we’re going to go run in the morning.”
“What are you talking about?” I protested.
He was athletic, sociable and living the good life. Why would he waste time on a loser like me?
“Come on, it’ll be fun. We’re in different classes so we don’t see each other much at school anymore. Let’s just try it and see what happens.”
I was certain that he wouldn’t show up. Empty words are empty words. Just like my parents saying they loved me forever and wouldn’t leave me. I didn’t have faith in anyone at that point.
The next day, my phone rang at 5:00 AM in the morning. I thought I was dreaming.
“Yo, JJ! Wake up! I’m outside! It’s a bit cold so you might have to wear a sweater.”
I was shocked. I looked out the window. There he was, about to throw a rock at my room if I didn’t hurry up. I swore and raced to put on clothes. I don’t think I’d moved that fast in months.
I got out the door and was greeted by Beijing smog.
“This is crazy.” I said.
“Come on, just try it.” He said, and we started running.
I was so slow. I could barely jog a block without stopping to rest.
“Go on without me, there’s no need to wait for a turtle like me.” I said.
He laughed, “we started together and we’ll finish together. Come on, I don’t care if you’re the slowest guy on the planet. Just try your best not to stop. Try your best not to walk.”
I nodded, ready to die. I kept going.
By the end of that first run, something had changed. I didn’t know it at the time — Running felt like hell and I had no idea why I was up so early before school. But something had changed.
Running meant routine and something new. It was a break from wallowing in my misery or blaming myself, my life, and my parents. It meant spending time with a friend. It made me realize that I had friends who wouldn’t give up on me.
Running meant freedom.
I kept running. I was never fast, I was never really that great, but I kept running. Even on days when my friend couldn’t make it. Even on days when I wanted to give up. I kept at it. I thought to myself, if I could complete my run for the day, then I wasn’t a total failure. I still had a small something to live for.
So I ran.
Fast forward to the second year of university. I now lived in Toronto. Over the summer I had just lost a lot of weight, and I was about to start a new adventure — living in an apartment with my new best friends, away from the university residences.
I shared a room with a varsity track and field runner. He would always go training and then play endless Madden on the Xbox in our livingroom.
That fall, we started running together. It was his idea. Things weren’t going too well with his leg. He had torn his hamstring a few years ago and it severely limited his ability to compete at the highest level. I don’t know why I said yes to running. I preferred almost every sport other than running. But I said yes.
I thought that if he was going to go running in the mornings before school, I’d be woken up by him anyway. So why not?
We started running at the University of Toronto’s Athletic Centre on the indoor track.
I learned what it meant to train like an athlete. Up until then I’d just put on my shoes and go. But not with him. Before every session, we would do a light jog and then we would do warm-up drills and dynamic stretches to make sure that our muscles fired properly.
I felt embarrassed about running next to a real athlete. We were running on the track where U of T’s Varsity athletes trained. I felt like a complete fraud.
I could barely do a runner’s “A-skip”, let alone a “B-skip.” What was I doing here? I just wanted to go home and crawl back into bed.
“Dude, don’t worry about it, just try your best.” My roommate told me.
We would warm-up for 18 to 20 minutes, and then start the actual workout. He’s a sprinter. I was just some guy trying not to fall asleep.
Long story short, I died.
After the workouts, we’d cool down and stretch, which took another 20 minutes. Everything was timed. Running with my roommate taught me the importance of warm-ups, stretching, and holding yourself accountable. More than that, I learned the discipline and joy of healthy habits and routines.
I dreaded every run. But then one day something clicked.
As usual, I was sleeping through my morning alarms. My roommate usually blasted “Turn Down for Kabaragoya” into my ear to wake me up.
This morning, something changed. I actually got up.
“We running or what?” I said.
“I don’t feel like it.” He replied.
I was in shock. I’m the one who wants to run, and he doesn’t? The guy who loves athletics and running. He doesn’t want to run?
“Are you sick or something? I asked.
“Nah, I just… I just don’t feel like running.”
I got up from bed and dragged him out of his. “Come on man, let’s go!” I told him. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was driven by habit, more than anything.
By the time we started our warm-up drills, he said to me, “thanks, it’s good to have somebody keep you accountable.”
I laughed, “let’s talk after the run. Right now I’m just getting ready to suffer through hell.”
Running with my roommate were some of the best times of my university life. Waking up at 5 or 6 in the morning to walk in the snow in the dead of winter just to run indoors. What kind of crazy life was that?
Yet every morning felt like a saunter through Skyrim. Every run was an adventure.
We always ended the runs by grabbing a protein drink (Muscle Milk) or chocolate milk (occasionally a Sealtest Chocolate Dairy Beverage) At G’s Fine Foods, a convenience store on the way home from the track.
They weren’t easy days, but they were some of the best.
Yes, they were our salad days.
I remember one morning when my roommate couldn’t run with me. He had gone to visit his parents during a holiday.
I went running because I had nothing better to do.
I remember sprinting on the track, trying my best to do everything my roommate had taught me. Head up, elbows bent at 90 degrees, shoulders moving, knee lift, dorsiflexion!
I stopped to catch my breath. An older gentleman walked by. He was fit, fitter than me for sure.
“Hey, nice running form. Keep up the good work.” He said.
I looked around. I was sure he was talking to somebody else. An athlete, maybe.
But there was no-one else, it was just me and him on the track.
“Thanks.” I said.
It was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. I felt like maybe, just maybe, I kind of knew what I was doing. I felt like maybe I was a runner after all.
After years of on-and-off running, I now try to run every week. Once a week is enough. Anything more is a bonus.
Do I love it? No.
Do I love to eat afterwards? Yes.
Running is the perfect start to the day or weekend. I think that getting something hard out of the way early in the morning is one of the best ways to enjoy the rest of the day.
It’s my meditation. I was never good at sitting down and doing nothing. I was always hyperactive. Running allows me to be free from my phone and my connected-ness. I get to be lost in my thoughts. Lost in my breath. This step is all that counts.
So why do I run?
I’m still looking for the answer. I’m not going for any world records. I don’t even have any concrete fitness goals. I just want to keep up a habit of living an active lifestyle, and exercise as often as I can.
So I don’t know why I run, but I guess this answer will have to do for now:
Because I can.