Alli Harvey: Confessions of a former secret runner

Alli Harvey

Runners and running used to be a complete mystery to me. The people in my neighborhood who chose to spend their time running seemed both miraculous and deranged. It was the most difficult activity I could imagine -- moving your legs and arms as though being chased for long periods of time without stopping, and somehow not passing out. Why would anyone want to do that? Why did it seem like everyone in my neighborhood was doing that?

I had to try it.

I was 16 when I went for my first run. I ran alone, outside at night in the dark, for 10 minutes. It felt strange to move my body in that way, and parts of me were jiggling. It made me feel somehow like a fraud (everyone knows real runners don't jiggle, my female teenage self thought). The movement of running wasn't the same as going to my parents' gym and swooshing along on a gentle elliptical, my body sashaying in cushioned rhythms. No -- this movement was harder, made my legs work in new ways to compete against the gravitational pull toward pavement. I quickly felt that even though I was awkward at it, running was somehow better for me than the type of exercise I got at the gym.

Still, I was embarrassed about this new pursuit. I felt vulnerable and secretive. If I ran in broad daylight, wouldn't everyone see me struggling? If I went to the store and bought the kind of tight spandex I saw runners wearing, wouldn't it a) alert the store clerk to what I was up to, and b) make everyone in my neighborhood aware of the basic shape of my butt? It was all too much. I snuck out of the house in loose cotton layers and a bathing suit top I'd convinced myself was exactly like a sports bra, telling my parents I was going for a nighttime walk.

After I'd run a few times, I confessed what I was doing. My parents said benignly, "that's great, honey!" I was surprised at this reaction. I had thought they would judge me, since running wasn't something anyone in our family did. So I continued to run, although furtively, only at night. Then one day I went for a run during the day. I bought a real sports bra. Then I went beyond my parents' block.

In college I joined a running team. I ran for a full hour for the first time. I ran six, then seven, then eight miles for the first time.

Running became a daily accomplishment. It was something I could always do, wherever I was -- outside or at the gym. It was a way of reminding myself that I could start in one place, and end up somewhere completely different.

I could set out for a run and discover a new park or coffee shop. I could start running feeling lethargic and end happy. I could look back on my career as a "runner" (it took me a long time to define myself that way) and realize I had started by running zero minutes a day, and worked slowly and consistently up to many more.

Running was something I owned. I competed against nobody but myself. I took pride in my running, and that feeling spilled over to other things I did. If I could take steps toward becoming a strong runner, I felt I could do anything. This is a good feeling -- really, really good -- for a young woman. It spilled over into the rest of my life.

Running calmed my mind down. As I pounded pavement, ideas jostled into place. Nagging feelings from relationships or work, self-doubt, and guilt were minimized by this continuous force; a force determined completely by me. The psychological control it took to get through a run helped me control my thoughts in other areas of my life. The adrenaline rush -- sometimes called a "runner's high" -- kicked in at random times, usually during or just after a run. This got me to continue to push further, looking to get even more from running, seeking to hold the rest of my life to that high standard of happiness.

Now, running is mine and I take it places. It's always incredible to me that sneakers are almost all I need. My body comes equipped with the rest of the necessary infrastructure, unlike in biking. I can do it in most places and on most surfaces, unlike sports like swimming or climbing.

When winter in Anchorage decides to check out for several weeks, as it did recently, running is still there for me. I'm not alone in this. I see all of you runners out there enjoying the trails with all sorts of studded shoes; I see running celebrated in this newspaper and others.

There is a tremendous sense of community that comes with seeing the faces of other runners. Running is a daily reminder that we never really lose our sense of exposure and vulnerability. We go outside -- rain, snow, or ice -- see what Cook Inlet and Susitna look like on any given day, and feel how our bodies fare. It never stops being an incredible feat to simply tug on shoes and then move our legs and arms as though being chased for long periods of time without stopping, and somehow not passing out.

When I started out, I was afraid that by trying to run, I would be telling the world I was deficient in some way. Over time and many, many (many) runs I realized that by trying to make myself "better" at the one activity that seemed the hardest, I was happier both in that activity and the rest of my life.

Finally, I've long since accepted that jiggling is a normal part of running (especially for women), not to mention that when I wear spandex people will become aware of the basic shape of my butt. My adult self would tell my teenage self: this is really not a big deal at all. Keep running. Go somewhere new.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

Daily News correspondent