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How Running a Little Bit Every Day for Two Months Changed My Life

When a summer job left her with few other options for exercise, Emily Abbate taught herself to love the open road.


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illustration of female figure running in front of calendar

Illustration of Alicia Tatone

Running, like cilantro or “What’s Luv?” by Fat Joe, can be a polarizing subject. Most people fall into one of two camps: those who love hitting a stride every morning, and those who would sooner do anything to avoid it.

For most of my life, I was planted firmly in the latter camp. I topped 200 pounds for the first time as a 5-foot-4 college freshman, but really, the battle to manage my weight had been years in the making. My size, and more specifically, how I felt about my size, seeped into every aspect of my life, from the circuitous, hill-free walking routes I’d take to lecture to how I chose what clothes to buy. After nights out with friends, I’d dread waking up the next morning to notifications of new tagged photos, because I knew some of them would put me on display for the world to see.

I dabbled in different types of exercise over the years, with varying degrees of success: travel soccer, high school volleyball, and a stint teaching hip-hop dance classes, which is still the fun fact I tell on first dates. At my college gym, I watched hours of forgettable rom-coms while cranking away on the elliptical trainer at a ten-percent incline.

I always hated running, though. At age 12, I remember entering a neighborhood 5K with my dad; I also remember placing dead-last, followed by only the sweeper police car crawling patiently behind me. Three years later, I didn’t make the junior varsity volleyball team because I couldn’t run a mile in under 10 minutes. Every single time I laced up to “run,” I felt as though failure—in some form or another—was the only possible result.

The summer after my freshman year, though, I took a job at an overnight camp in Connecticut, where I essentially got paid to be a kid again. I spent my days keeping an eye on the kayakers, supervising the arts and crafts studio, and making intricate shopping lists of the items we’d need to pull-off an all-camp six-hour relay race. When it came to exercise, with neither elliptical trainers nor the Netflix streaming library available to me, running was suddenly my only option.

So, I made myself a promise: Every single day, I would run to a lamppost located a considerable ways down the road, and then back to the cabins again. By most runners’ standards, it wasn’t far; I estimated the total distance to be about a mile. But I vowed to squeeze it in every day, no matter how long it took, and no matter what other camp-related responsibilities I had to fulfill. The ensuing streak lasted for 61 days—the entire time I spent at camp that summer.

I started to feel better about the person I was seeing in the mirror, sure. But to my great surprise, I learned to love running, too—enough to eventually integrate it into my career. I went from dreading the sport to plotting vacations around spots with the best running views. I’ve finished seven marathons and more shorter races than I can remember, and am now a certified run coach. These were the secrets I discovered to changing my outlook.

1. Make it a non-option: I was very specific about when and where I would run. The timing: after lunch. The route: that long stretch of tree-covered road. Because I did not allow myself to deviate from the plan, it became something I did without thinking, like brushing my teeth or putting on deodorant in the morning.

Research in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91 percent of people who wrote down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through on their ambitions. I made myself a chart down at the arts and crafts shed, and hung it on the back of my dusty cabin door. Every day, with sweat still dripping down my arms, I’d cross off the day’s effort—a badge of honor, along with fresh bug bites on my ankles.

2. Control the controllable: Decision fatigue—the inability to make good calls when you have to make calls constantly—is real. Since I was already overloaded with important choices, like red or green streamers and whether to scratch the junior girls’ free swim because of an approaching thunderstorm, I needed to make the choices about my midday bout of exercise as easy as possible.

This meant that I wore the same thing to run every day: black tights and white Hanes v-neck tees. I’d walk into my bedroom, change clothes, and get moving. There was no sitting back down on my bed, or picking up the phone, or doing anything that wasn’t walking right back out the door. I also came to terms with the fact that if I happened to be a little sweaty for the rest of the day, so be it. It was summer camp. Lots of people were sweaty.

I made a playlist, too. Research indicates that your rate of perceived exertion during exercise—that’s how hard you feel like you’re working— can decrease when you’re listening to appropriately fast-paced beats. Most runners have a cadence hovering around 180 beats per minute; curate your selections accordingly. (“What’s Luv?” is a tad slow.)

3. Have a SMART goal: A key detail about my initial embrace of running is that my aspirations had nothing to do with running: I wanted to lose a certain amount of weight, and fit into a pair of jeans from the Gap outlet. I did not set out to run a marathon in 61 days, because that would have been totally unrealistic for a beginner, and a sure recipe for disappointment and/or injury. By setting a SMART goal—a helpful acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound—I gave myself the best odds of success.

4. Be easy on yourself: I knew I’d never be the best runner. I’m still not the best runner—even though I coach others to do so. At the very end of the summer, bursting with pride at my accomplishment after that final run, I celebrated by using my car’s odometer to measure the distance I usually needed about 15 minutes to run. I had spent the entire 61-day stretch believing it was a mile; it was, in fact, just 0.55 of a mile. I sat parked on the side of the road for 10 minutes, embarrassed and tearful, feeling as though I had unintentionally cheated myself.

I was wrong. For me, success in running wasn’t about how far or how fast I was going—it was about making a commitment to accomplish something hard, and then putting in the work to follow through. That summer, I learned to love what running does for me: it makes me feel empowered and strong. Twelve years later, I still chase that feeling (almost) every single day.

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published June 27, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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