Confessions of a former playground adrenaline junkie

Is it possible to build more love for a certain kind of pain?

Confessions of a former playground adrenaline junkie
The Johnston kids left to right: Torrey, Mac, Casey, Allie.

The Question

Ok, I've read every column you've ever written about motivation, and while I get it that goals are important, and having goals that can be broken down into actionable steps are important, and that not every day is supposed to feel inspired or exciting, I just feel like I rarely ever have a good day. Or maybe I just want to have more good days. Is that possible? I can sort of deal with the responsibility of it all, but is this really all there is? Is there any way to feel more excited about working out generally speaking? —AS

The Answer

Thanks to having three siblings with whom I tore around our backyard and the woods of the dead-end we lived on, I was a pretty good runner when I was a kid. In the time before “good social skills” were currency, being able to run fast meant you were good at most of the ways kids play, and you also had a kind of ultimate control: You could catch everyone, and no one could catch you. So when I was still in elementary school, I could run fast, and because of that, I fucking ruled the playground.

When recess was ending, the teacher aides would herd us back over toward the doors and line us up in pairs of two on the concrete sidewalk to wait while they corralled the last few from the shouting hordes of kids dangling from the play structures (we had one of those big wooden jobs, and it was massive and sprawling, at least in my tiny child memory).

While we waited, we would run head-to-head races. Two of us would line up, a third would count us off with "on your mark, get set, go!" and the rest of the kids watched while the pair sprinted along the finished brick wall until it cornered, tapped it, and sprinted back. Every day, I took great pleasure in laying waste to girl after girl, boy after boy, my best friend, my worst nemesis, my crush, my other crush, while the last minutes of recess ticked down. I could beat almost everyone (except Dan A., who had the tiny and frail frame of a kid whose mom smoked throughout her pregnancy, but he had an absolute manic energy for running. He'd beat me every time). My older brother was similarly wiry and fast, so I always had someone to practice against.

When I was seven years old, I ran a mile during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in 7:38; the fact that I even remember that now speaks to what it meant to me as a kid. Even my crush (the main one, not the other one) was not intimidated by my athletic prowess, and no matter how badly I beat him at running, no matter how many times I caught him on the playground during tag or Red Rover or capture the flag, he would continue to annoy and poke and whisper at me during story time.

I wish there was some big culmination to this story, but mostly, it just faded away. Being good at running was not ever again as cool as it was when I was in fourth grade. Adults do not simply run around for competitive fun. Not without it being at least some kind of formalized 5K for which you have paid good money and gotten a souvenir t-shirt. By the time I was in high school, running became something to collectively whine about; running a mile was a regular feature of sports practice, and our coaches had to herd us onto the track, clapping and blowing their whistles and holding their little wrist watches up to eye level to time us. Every time afterward, we all crumpled to the grass and laid spread-eagled on the track field afterward, panting, in open defiance to the coach telling us that the best way to not feel sick was to fold our hands on top of our heads and keep walking.

But even when I was a little older, I would still play cops and robbers with my younger siblings' little neighborhood friends during the summer, the handful of us spreading out across our adjoining yards as twilight turned to dark and the stuffy summer air was cooled by the breeze passing through the trees. I'd see a distorted shadow behind a landscaped bush that looked ever slightly too big, and slowly creep closer, until the hiding kid was spooked away and took off, with me hauling ass after him, flicking through the alternating deck floodlights and pitch black.

All of this is to say, even though I was never a pro athlete or even all that good at sports, I have deeply embedded, fond memories and experiences of physical activity. And not just physical activity abstractly and generally speaking, but all of the little attendant experiences of it: the sharp lung pain and out-of-breathness from running too hard, the muscle growing pains, all the little injuries that come from stepping on twigs and rocks, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, tripping and falling. All of it hurt, but it had a halo.

I've been thinking a lot lately about all the kinds of preferences that were or might have been essentially formed against my will. I think sometimes I can take for granted that while I've never felt like God's gift to sports, my unstructured life did involve a lot of moving around and having fun doing it. My mom took me and my siblings on hikes, and to my recollection, we'd go willingly. My siblings and I all did swimming, dancing, basketball, soccer, gymnastics. One year, our mom splurged and bought the four of us one of those giant trampolines, and we spent thousands of hours over the next decade jumping on, jumping off, launching each other into the air, kids on the ground throwing playground balls as hard as they could at kids mid-jump in a semi-sadistic, not at all above-board-safety-wise version of dodgeball.

So all of the practical motivational stuff aside, maybe it's this. Maybe you did not, like me, have the opportunity to derive personal value from what was nothing more than “running very hard.” Maybe your personal historical connection to working out or moving around at all is a big fat goose egg, or worse, horrendous and torturous to even think about, let alone do. So what then? What can I, a born jock in attitude if not in accomplishments, teach you or tell you?

I think I can safely conjecture that there are two more types of people, other than what I am. One is people who have semi- to very traumatic relationships with physical activity (picked last for the kickball team, humiliated by their gym teacher, belittled by their former-military parent). I honestly think is an underrated one to work through with a therapist. So many people have, and I say this without judgment, real hangups about working out, really, really bad memories and experiences that haunt them so bad that they can't look at a treadmill. We underrate this as an "issue to work on" because obviously many people think working out is stupid and optional. Everything in life is technically optional, but exercise does do stuff for us that other things don’t do, that much is clear. It’s more worth clearing a lane than I think we have long believed.

The other type would be people who have absolutely zero background in or relationship with physical activity, your classic indoor kids. I don't think I have all the answers here, for anyone, but maybe this will be some small comfort. Recently, I was talking to a former gym bro who wanted desperately to get back into working out, but was absolutely haunted by the knowledge that he will never again look or feel the way he did when he was in his prime. Now the best he has to hope for, the most he has time for, is the type of working out he finds empty and thankless: strictly functional stuff that will let him pick his increasingly heavy kids up without back pain.

We might say, boo-hoo, gym bro, at least you HAD something once. But I think it's actually quite hard to mourn a former self, in this way. It can feel very much like a part of you has died. We can also lose these parts and not even realize it. At least for me, physical activity was a very ingrained part of being a kid, and has been a not-at-all-ingrained part of being an adult. I left organized sports behind in high school and then went on to be significantly depressed well into my junior year, for a lot of different reasons. It took me a long time to realize that one of my main healthy-ish coping and managing tools—getting some exercise—had just vanished, and while it wasn’t going to fix me, I was more miserable without it. Like the gym bro, I had to accept that, while I’d had those positive experiences, they weren’t going to bolster my sense of worth and identity the way they once did. They might even lower my self-esteem for a while, but I had to believe it would be okay, and remember that I ultimately don’t want my self-esteem to come from competitive achievements.

This is sort of what life has become to me, just little parts of me dying, constantly renegotiating my relationships to things. Some things I'm happy to see go, some things I will miss, some things I can't get back, and some things I can. But if I wanted to get them back first I’d have to identify 1) what they were, 2) that they are gone, and 3) how I can come to terms with maybe not getting back all of what I once had. Unlike me and the gym bro, the former jocks, you might have no pride to swallow. As fit as you get now might be the fittest you ever become in your life! But you might also need to reconcile an ideal you’ve always held about yourself, but never challenged.

If you’re the indoor kid and you’ve been doing strength training, strength training itself might not what makes this connection for you, or lets you come to terms with yourself. Maybe there is a super-goal that would put your strength training to use that would complete the picture and maybe even give you some of that social/bonding experience that enriches this whole thing. Playing one of the more unusual team sports? Learning one of the more power-oriented track and field events? Coaching some kids? Becoming a teacher yourself? Starting a club?

You might need to make your own good memories and associations with exercise. Maybe you need other people for that, at least for a while, and you might really need the right people; I will say, adults can be weird about exercise in a way that kids aren’t so much. Monastic personal achievement in strength training does it for me, but it might not be doing it for you. I think it’s good to remember that, while there are strength training sports—your powerlifting, your Olympic weightlifting—for a lot of people who aren’t particularly blessed at those sports, strength can work far better as a base skill that can pay off in lots of other venues. Jiu-jitsu, rock climbing, strongman, pole dancing. The world is big.

It might be worth reaching back in your memory and seeing if there’s anything you ever even just tried, or saw and admired, that you might have connected with then and could reconnect again with now. It's not enough to just have a goal or even a goal you feel is important on paper. You need a goal for which you’d endure the validating kind of hurt, the kind when you just ran a fast mile with your teammates and you’re all lying face up to the sky on the grass, lungs hurting, side cramps dissipating, until you get up and keep going.