I Cry When I Run—and If You Don't, You're Honestly Missing Out
Lean into the tears, and let go.
There are a lot of things that make me cry: The lyrics to Beyonce's "Brown Skin Girl," listening to my 6-year-old daughter sound out words as she learns to read, and that damn Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial. Now, I get why those make me cry: Beyonce is a queen, kids unlocking literature is the single greatest sound in the world, and "Angel" paired with adorable animals in cages who need our help is on the same level of emotional torture as every episode of This is Us.
So when I started crying while I was out on long runs, well, I didn't think much of it. I'm a crier; this is just who I am.
But the tears came fast, furious, and often. Sometimes, silent and dramatic, a single tear I could wipe away and keep moving. Other times, a full Kim Kardashian ugly cry, a cathartic release of something, from somewhere deep within.
I started running five years ago, after my daughter Satya was diagnosed and treated for cancer. (Don't you cry now. Thanks to great medical care and prayers to every god from every faith, her neuroblastoma diagnosis and treatment was quick by cancer standards. Now, she's five years cancer-free. In fact, she recently won a 5K; she's thriving.) First, I just started running to temporarily suspend the emotions of what we'd been through, hoping that physical exhaustion would also exhaust the fear in my mind. Then I started running to raise money for kids dealing with pediatric cancer, supporting the Tomorrows Children's Fund and St. Jude Children's Hospital, each mile a chance to offer another family a little bit of comfort. So when the tears came in the beginning, it made sense. I was working things out.
This year, I'm running the TCS New York City Marathon, my first marathon ever, and crying is still part of my running journey—albeit less frequently and for different reasons. Turns out, I'm not alone.
The Miles-Deep Mental State
"When you do something repetitive like running, you're in a mindful state, your mind is clear, and you're bringing in new ideas," says Sue Varma, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center, and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.
There are multiple layers to why the tears come: physiological, biological, and physical. "When you're running, your heart is racing, your blood is pumping, your skin is flushed, and you're in tune with your breath," she says. "You can tune out the whole world; you're in a state of flow. For others, this state of flow could be while knitting, gardening, cooking, or meditation. It's all about finding this sweet spot where running is comfortable, comforting, and relaxing. There's mastery involved. That's when—for some of us—that clarity and introspection comes. And if you're not the most athletic, you might be making these connections for the first time in your life."
Now, I don't know a lot about mastery. I still hesitate to call myself a runner, and despite four months of purposeful and passionate marathon training under my belt, I mostly feel like a fitness imposter in very stretchy pants. But I do know that feeling of being out on a run and forgetting where I am and what's happening, my legs and body just doing their thing, a sort of non-vodka-induced blackout.
"Running is instinctual and intuitive, not like spinning or riding a bike," says Adam Wright, M.Ed, Ph.D., co-founder of Elevate Performance, where he specializes in the mental and physical conditioning of elite athletes and performers. "So you aren't just finding a sense of self, it's more of a sense of dissolving of self. You become closer to who you want to be. This is about flow state. You push a little beyond your capabilities, but not so much that you're exhausted. You're not relaxed. You're not in fight-or-flight mode. It's conscious awareness. You aren't responding in panic and you're not focused on form. You're just being, and your mind can go where it wants to go. But you are doing it unconsciously."
So when the tears come—likely on a long run—it's becuase you've made space.
"It has to do more with finding a state of repetitive movement and breathing that becomes meditative," explains Wright. "It allows for a change in focus of attention—no distractions, no headphones—and you become much more introspective and aware of your inner life, these feelings of gratitude, grief and love. We try to bury these feelings because they make us uncomfortable; we do everything possible to run away from our inner life. When you take the headphones off, that's when it draws you inward."
Have some things to work out with yourself? Consider unplugging. This state of flow and mindfulness comes when you're tuned inward, not focused on Beyoncé. After all, how can you truly listen to your body when you're blasting "Daddy"? (See: How I Learned to Run Without Music)
I'm Not the Only One Who Cries
To hear Wright describe running like that makes me, well, sob. It's exactly that overwhelming gratitude and love for the life I have—a healthy child, a healthy body, a partner who supports my moonshot goals—that gets me all verklempt. We survived, we still breathe. So, it was at the start of this year, to celebrate my daughter's fifth cancer-free year, that I thought about running the big race, a 26.2-mile victory lap around the city I love to honor all we've overcome together, leaving behind any last bits of fear and sadness that have been tucked away.
"I think you can cry different kinds of tears," says Rebeka Stowe, C.S.C.S., a USATF Level 2 and Nike Run Club NYC coach. "I've cried tears after races of disappointment, sadness when I didn't achieve what I set out to achieve. Those are tears of grief. I've cried happy when I've won, other times for reasons I'm not sure of. Sometimes I don't expect to have thoughts while I'm out running. Letting the experiences come, without expectation, opens you to having an experience you're not prepared for. Then letting yourself sit in that, letting yourself have it. It's something I encourage in my athletes." (Related: You're Not the Only One Who's Cried During a Workout)
I met Coach Stowe as part of Nike's Project Moonshot NYC, a program designed for runners of varying skill levels to reach their individual marathon training goals. I cried the first time I heard her address the group before a long run and again when she referred to me as an "athlete." I often joke about my marathon training with friends—"I'm just someone's chubby mom, not a runner" or "I would hardly call this running, it's more of an elite walk"—all an effort to cover the fear of failure. I'm trying to shed the armor permanently, but like the sport itself, that takes practice, too.
Stowe has this energy that surrounds her: a fierce, competitive spirit, a quiet, compassionate calm, and true love not just for the sport, but for the people who are pushing themselves to achieve something. Her pre-run chats have become Moonshot legend, sweat sermons that encourage runners to set intentions for the work they're doing and, when things get tough during the workout, to remember why they're out there, the reason they run at all. It gets me every time: the power of the group, the intensity of the words, and the strength of my own spirit. (Does this make you want to join a run club?)
For 15-time-marathoner Priya Seshan, it's the people that make running so emotional.
"You're running along and you experience a sense of humanity like no other. There's this sense that people are rooting for you. You don't know them, but they want you to succeed," says Seshan, a school social worker and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Seshan says she's cried while running races (like the Chicago marathon last year) and also while watching others race. "We don't feel a sense of appreciation like that on a daily basis. But on race days, you feel this love from people you don't know, and it's so humbling. You realize how great people can be, that they want you to succeed and feel important, and that can be so overwhelming."
The humanity is evident to any runner who's spent the last few months training for this epic NYC marathon. It comes when you least expect it but need it most: a high-five from a stranger while you're both running down the East Side, an "attagirl" from a runner who's already lapped you in the park but sees you working, or, as was my case a few weeks ago, a fellow Moonshotter deciding to run across the wretched 59th Street bridge with me, even though he didn't have to, just so I didn't quit on myself. He just ran to keep me going. It's that kind of reckless humanity that keeps me coming back to a sport I'm neither great nor graceful at.
"I prepare all the runners I coach and guide for the Queensboro Bridge. I tell them it's a massive shock, a unique part of the course because we don't allow spectators. You just hear the pitter-patter of your feet," says Roberto Mandje, the senior manager of training and education for New York Road Runners, the organization that puts on the NYC Marathon. "But half a mile or so later, you go from running in your head to a wall of human emotion and cheering [when you make it off the bridge and run along 1st Ave.] and it literally lifts you." (Related: The Importance of Mentally Training for a Marathon)
I suppose that's what makes running so beautiful and painful: the lift you get from others and also from yourself. The sense that while things are difficult and out of reach, the power to overcome has always been yours.
So if you're out on November 3rd and see a weepy chick with brown skin and beautiful curls, she's exactly the girl Beyoncé was singing about and she would like all your high-fives and good vibes. In fact, she's counting on them.