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Selfie of Maggie Fazeli Fard and Carrie Tollefson

Running is hard.

Let me try that again: Running, for me, is hard.

And I also kind of love it.

This is an oxymoronic truism that I’ve lived with for the 35-plus years I’ve been comfortable balancing upright on two legs. There is video footage of me, as a child, trying to run sprints across a playground. In it, my dad, who is also the cameraman, can be heard cheering me on. I have a lopsided smile on my face and am breathing hard. I’m not running fast, but I’m trying hard.

I tried less hard as I grew older. I was often last during every mile-run test at school, and eventually I stopped running it altogether. I opted to fail effortlessly rather than come in last trying my hardest.

In secret, though, I longed to run. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair, the burning in my lungs, the ache of tired legs. As my classmates ran, I closed my eyes and imagined being the fastest kid in school.

In my 20s I took up running in earnest. I had accepted that, while I couldn’t be the fastest person ever without trying, I could try a little and become the fastest version of myself.

Each week, I increased my mileage, and over time, I increased my speed. I welcomed my burning lungs and aching legs and set off to let the wind carry me one mile, then five, 10, and eventually 13.1 miles at a time. Once I even medaled in my hometown 5K.

My improvements were surprising to everyone who knew how I had avoided running for so many years. My dad pulled out the old video of me running around the playground to ­illustrate how far I’d come. People were proud of me. I was proud of myself.

And then, without a lot of thought, I stopped running. It stopped feeling great; it stopped being fun; I stopped improving. I took up strength training and discovered new loves: lifting, hiking, trapeze, dance.

Fast-forward to January 2020, nine years since I’d run with any passion or consistency. I am trucking up a small hill alongside Olympic runner Carrie Tollefson. She had invited me to be a guest on her podcast, CTolleRun, to chat about my volunteer work with Girls on the Run, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young women through the power of movement.

Carrie suggested doing the inter­view while running, an idea that initially made me cringe. But when an Olympian invites you to go for a “run-and-chat,” you don’t refuse. You put off the worries about keeping up.

The interview was a blast. It also affirmed what I already knew: I couldn’t really run anymore.

I casually complained about it to my coach, who didn’t miss a beat. Running has since been a consistent part of my training plan.

Coming back to this sport has been humbling but, miraculously, not disheartening. I know I’m not where I was nearly a decade ago when I comfortably identified as a “runner.”

I’ve learned that fitness is simply a set of skills that we prioritize and practice. I once prioritized running, I practiced it, and I got better. In the last few years, my priorities have been elsewhere. It would be silly to expect that I could pick up exactly where I left off, much like my childish dream of being fast without putting in the work.

The best lesson I’ve learned through fitness, but which transcends fitness, is this: Start where you are. I know that I can’t get anywhere if I don’t acknowledge and understand where I am right now. If I expected to pick up with the same speed and prowess I once had, I’d either throw in the towel out of disappointment or risk injuring myself trying to recapture the past.

Meeting myself in the present moment and using that as a judgment-free jumping-off point has helped keep me safe, get fitter, realize goals, and achieve more than I’d thought possible. I try to cloak myself in this attitude not only when I’m attempting something new but, frankly, every time I work out.

Starting where I am means that something can be hard, and I can love it, and I can get better — whether or not I’m ever the best.

Thoughts to share?

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