The Healing Power of Running


By Joe Nayquonabe

My running story begins in February of 2016 when one of my friends challenged me to run a half marathon with him. My initial reaction was “no way, you’re crazy — why would I want to run a half marathon?” I thought about it all afternoon. I had recently lost some weight and knew the next step to maintain was to incorporate more physical activity. I had never considered running before, and since I’m not one to back down from a challenge, I started doing some research on where to begin. The race was just 5 months away, so I knew I had to get started.

One of the most interesting finds during my research was an excerpt written by Charlie Otto Rasmussen about how run- ning is a big part of the history of the Ojibwe culture. It was titled, “Michitweg and early Ojibwe runners.”

Long before the construction of roads and communication lines, runners served a vital role in Ojibwe communications across the upper Great Lakes region. When a person fell ill without a qualified healer available, the Michitweg — both men and women — were summoned. They would run all over to contact healers in other villages; sometimes they’d run a few dozen miles, other times it was well over 100 miles.

The excerpt also said that elders would pass the running tradition on to their children and grandchildren, fostering a legacy that spans generations. I immediately thought of my girls. Let’s face it — our kids imitate us, so why not use it as a force for good?

Having that motivation in my arsenal, I laced up my sneak- ers and hit the pavement.

Fast forward to 2017. I have run eight half marathons, one 10-miler, and two full marathons — one in New York City and the other just this past October in the Twin Cities. In this process, the sport became my solace. My daily workouts were a channel for my thoughts — whether I was happy, sad, or frustrated. My training gave me the time I needed to connect with myself; healing 10, 15, 20 miles at a time.

While I’m proud of the miles I’ve run, this article isn’t about listing my accomplishments in the running world, but rather sharing my experiences about what I’ve learned since starting this journey. Too many times in life, we start something with- out completing it because it becomes difficult. I’m hoping that through my words and experiences, it will motivate and en- courage others to find something that they’re passionate about. Maybe it’s running. Maybe it’s something else.

# 1: You can always find an excuse. Don’t let excuses get in your way of success.

I remember one morning I woke up, laced up my running shoes and heard a little voice from upstairs asking, “Daddy, where are you going?” It was my five-year-old. “Running,” I said. “Why?” she asked.
It was a good question, and one I couldn’t readily answer. The truth is, just before you run is the worst possible moment to try to explain to someone, or even to yourself, why you run. It just doesn’t make sense. Running is hard. It requires effort. I didn’t really want to run that morning. My body was still sore from a previous run, I knew I had a busy day ahead at work and sleeping in would have been way easier. I was training for the NYC marathon, sure, but it was still months away. Right at that moment, it didn’t feel critically important to be heading out on a 9 mile run. I could go later. Or the next day. Or I could skip this run all together. I ended up ignoring those excuses and ran those 9 miles. When I was done, I felt completely re-energized. I remember when I crossed that finish line I was so glad that I decided to ignore the excuses that crept in before so many of my training runs. I thought of the Michitweg and felt a sense of pride knowing that I was the first Mille Lacs Band member to finish the New York City Marathon. That was an indescribable feeling. There will always be excuses to find something else to do — just ignore them. The truth is once you get up and mov- ing, the time goes by fast and you’ll feel better. And once you hit your goal, you’ll be anxious to make another, just to repeat that incredible feeling.

# 2: There will be times when you are diverted off course. Embrace it.

My toughest race was in Walker. It was a half marathon that I decided to run as part of my training for the full NYC marathon. At this point in time, it was normal for me to run 13–16 miles, so I didn’t anticipate a tough race. I said “see you soon” to my wife and made my way to the starting line. I envisioned confidently crossing the finish line, breaking two hours. My stride was on point, my breathing was in rhythm, and my legs were feeling good. What was supposed to be one of my fastest half marathons quickly became my slowest. About halfway through the race, the course was diverted into the woods — a trail run! I had no idea the course steered away from pavement running and I had definitely never prepared myself for a trail run. I had to run on that trail for 5.1 excruciating miles, which forced me to slacken my pace. I left feeling humbled and defeated. Look- ing back on that experience, I am glad I had that diversion — because that’s reality. We all face times where our plans don’t work out as we had hoped, and there is something about un- certainty that just doesn’t sit well. You can almost guarantee that at some point in your life, you’ll veer off course, just make sure you are able to get back on the right path.

# 3: Our kids learn from what we do — and we can learn from them, too.

My daughter Bella started cross country running last year and loved it, so I thought it would be fun to have her and I run a race together. We decided that we would train for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth and run that race together. This race wasn’t going to be about my personal best; I just wanted to complete it with my daughter. During one of our training runs, I noticed that I was quite a bit ahead of her. I looked back and saw her dedication and determination to try to catch up to me. I felt terrible so I ran back to her and finished at her pace. That was a huge lesson for me that day. When I am by myself, I push myself to run better, run faster. It’s ok to take time for you and surpass your goals, but it shouldn’t always be about us — especially when it comes to our kids. That run wasn’t about me — it was about making sure that she felt good about herself and comfortable with her run. I was a very proud dad when Bella and I finished 13.1 miles and crossed the finish line together, hand-in-hand.

# 4: Hard times in life are inevitable, but we need to move forward.

Loss in life is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier. As most of you know, I lost my mom this past May, which has been difficult, to say the least. Many in our community have suffered great loss, too. For me, in honor of my mom, I decided that I was going to just do better. With everything. There is no timetable for grief, but the time I take for my runs, by my- self, has been a great healing outlet for me. All summer long, I trained for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. I was going into the race with an injury, one that I made sure I could still safely run with. I knew I wanted to beat 4 hours, which would be a personal record (PR) for me. On race day, I felt pretty good. Once I got to mile 20, I hit a wall and I wanted to give up. It was then I thought of my mom. I thought of her smiling and laughing. I was able to put one foot in front of the other and continue. That forward momentum was a symbolic and literal manifestation of what I’ve been doing since May. I ended up crossing the finish line 3:50:38 — beating my first marathon time and hitting a PR!

Now that the marathon is behind me, I have thought a lot about this past year. It’s been tough, but I realized that the struggles in my life don’t define me, what I’ve done with them does. I could have skipped my tough training runs. I could have given up when the course got tough. I could have waved an official to signify that my marathon run was done. But I didn’t. I pulled myself together and continued pushing, moving forward, in running and in life.

It’s no secret that our community is suffering, but we also have so much to be proud of. My hope is that we continue to heal and move forward.