Why #31DaysOfRunning #31DOR changed my life

July 31st, 2020. Finished #31DaysOfRunning at the East River track.

Yeah, that’s a bold title. But as I was posting about my excitement for the next round of #31DOR on Twitter this morning, I realized just how big an impact it had made on me last year. So… I figured I’d share some thoughts on my experience with my first ever running streak.

The backstory

This might be important context for some of y’all who come from a different background: I never exercised consistently in my life. I’ve never participated in any competitive sports. In part because that’s just how I grew up (see also my post on “Is it okay to just be okay?“), and in part because competitive sports aren’t as big a deal in German schools and colleges as they are in the US. I only got into running casually in college, and only started taking it more seriously (i.e. tracking my times) in early 2020 when I embarked on my “52 weeks, 52 albums” running project.

I also used to get absolutely debilitating exercise-induced migraines ever since was a kid, in particular triggered by exercise in hot conditions, which made it impossible for me to run through summer even when I was in fairly decent shape. It took me until my late 20s to figure out that I had to supplement massively with electrolytes (big fan of nuun!) to make up for all the sweating, and ever since then I’ve been able to live a fairly normal life with the occasional advil thrown in.

By July 2020, I’d spent the first few months of the pandemic doing not much else and felt like I’d be physically able to do a run streak. Enter: #31DaysOfRunning.

What’s #31DaysOfRunning?

Real simple: #31DaysOfRunning is a running “challenge” where you commit to running a certain mileage every day of the month, for 31 days. Specifically, the version I know, is committing to running a minimum of 3.1 miles (5K) every day in July, one of the hottest months of the year in the northern hemisphere. And yeah, the weather is kind of the point.

Honestly, I can’t quite recall how I came across this hashtag on Instagram, but someone in the NYC running community posted about #31DOR and I decided to commit! According to MapMyRun, it was actually started by NYC folks a few years back… which doesn’t surprise me, given how hard people go in this city. We truly have no chill 🙂 Resident Runners, the NYC running crew lead by Ray who originally started the streak, keep a website up where you can sign up to “officially” participate in #31DOR and may be in the run for some Under Armour gear. According to their Instagram page it looks like it’s happening again this year!

Why is #31DaysOfRunning such a game changer?

Habits! Y’all love habits!

First of all, this is the most obvious one: You do something every day for 31 days in a row, it will likely turn into a habit. Meaning, it’ll be easier to do it and it’ll come naturally to you without having to think about it much.

For me, not having to think about whether I’d run but only figure out some of the logistics (when, where, how long, do I have anything left to wear!?) took a lot of the procrastination and “I’ll do it tomorrow” out of my running and made me… JUST DO IT. It’s almost a relief to not have to play the eternal mind game of “will I, won’t I?”.

The other thing it made me good at was the actual logistics. I was able to significantly cut down the time it took me to get ready for a run, then shower afterwards and get ready for work or other activities, which still helps me today when I want to squeeze in a run but don’t have a ton of time.

Resilience, mental and physical

If there’s one thing you’ll get from running every single day during one of the hottest months of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere), it’s mental strength. Being able to deal with The Suck, aka the feeling of discomfort that’s clearly different from actual pain and non-threatening but it still sucks and you want it to stop. Especially during the first 10 days or so, I could definitely feel the physical strain on my body, but I also knew that my mileage had been high enough and my running consistent enough that I’d be able to handle it. I was just sore and felt, well, The Suck. I just kept going and after a couple of weeks, I had a mental shift that enabled me to run an easy 5K at pretty much any time without really noticing.

And after a while, there’s also some physical resilience happening. I wasn’t sore anymore after my 3 milers. It just felt… normal. Keep in mind, I didn’t have a pace goal whatsoever and kept a lot of these runs super easy.

Daily wins. Like, DAILY. WINS.

Every single time you put on your sneakers, get out of the house, and do even the tiniest little baby run, you will feel like you’re absolutely CRUSHING your goals. And you get that 31 days in a row. Pretty awesome.

I still remember coming back home from a bike packing trip (50 miles through rolling hills with an old bike and panniers full of camping gear), dropping off my gear, and going for a run at the East River track. My brain went “wtf are you DOING“, but I felt like I’d finally accomplished… something.

What stuck with me?

After finishing the run streak, I took a day off running, believe it or not. And then went right back at it the day after, because I felt like it. Sadly, I’d been dealing with a light injury which had been caused by a toe injury the year before, so at some point in September 2020 I had to put my running on hold to get some rest.

It did take me a while to get back into a running habit in early 2021 (also in part because I was worried about the injury returning…), but I never lost the ease with which I’d put on my sneakers and run. Going for a run isn’t a big deal anymore or takes much thought, it’s just part of what I do several days a week, even when I’m not necessarily feeling it. I know I’ll get into it once I’m running, and if not, I know I have the mental strength to push through The Suck… or I can just run back home.

And in that way, #31DOR did in fact change my life. I’m very much not the same person I was before that. I’ve developed a habit, something that I just “do” without thinking about it. I know I can do hard shit, like, really hard shit, much more than I thought I could.

How do you do #31DaysOfRunning?

It’s pretty simple. You kinda just… run? The post on the MapMyRun blog has some really good insights, but here are some of my thoughts:

  1. Pick a minimum distance/duration to commit to. Classic #31DOR would be 3.1 miles/5K, but I’d say if you’re not running on the regular, this might be physically overwhelming. Pick whatever feels like a challenge, but where you know you’re not going to overwork your body. Commit to walking if you’re not a regular runner, but I would say if you do feel like running 31 days is physically possible, go for running. Even the lightest jog requires a different mindset from walking. And keep in mind, it’s a minimum, you can always do more. I probably ended up doing more miles about 50% of the time.
  2. Find a good regular time, or just be ready to run whenever. That might mean early morning, midday heat, or 11pm at night. Make sure you have the right equipment (see below) and have some routes planned out that are suitable for different times – shady or breezy during the day, safe, well lit, and with plenty of people at night. You might end up circling your block 10 times… that’s life.
  3. Have the right equipment and have it ready. That means: Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, water if you’re going for a longer run, watch or phone, headlamp and reflective stuff if you’re running at night, something to hold your stuff. ELECTROLYTES (y’all know I’m obsessed with nuun).
  4. Track every run (or walk) as a separate workout using your favorite app (Strava, MapMyRun, Nike Run, Garmin, etc.). This is about being intentional. “I happened to walk a lot today” doesn’t count, the point is to get into the habit of putting on your shoes and getting out the door.
  5. Workout clothes logistics: You’ll be going through an insane amount of clothes because SWEAT. I usually take my outfit (shorts and bra) into the shower with me and rinse it in soapy water, then hang it up to dry. That way I’ll get 1-2 more runs out of it before it needs a proper wash. Yes, your bathroom will likely be covered in drying/wet workout clothes. That’s part of the fun.
  6. Sign up with Resident Runners if you want to commit to the daily 3 miles and share your runs via MapMyRun! Apparently there may be some Under Armour gear happening…
  7. And finally, share the fun! I’ll be posting daily updates with the #31DaysOfRunning #31DOR hashtags on Twitter with the day and my mileage and maybe a fun lil snap. Feel free to share and tag me (@spbail) too and I will be HYPING YOU UP.

But also: This is a challenge for yourself. Make it your own thing, whatever feels good. My mileage isn’t as high as it was last year and I’m still coming back from an injury, so I’m only committing to a 1 mile minimum (but I’ll likely do more if I feel it’s safe). I’ll be posting daily updates on Twitter with the hashtag! Let’s goooo!

Is it okay to just be okay?

Equinox wall art. Photo by @amazing_jay

While I usually publish less personal posts on here, I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since I started to learn snowboarding and skateboarding a couple of years ago – in my early 30s, which has been not just a physically painful experience, but also stirred up a lot of emotions about my own sense of worth.

I’m not an expert in anything. I’ve never learned to play an instrument. I enjoy exercise and sports, but I’m far from actually being good at anything. I’m fluent in my second language (English), but will probably never be at the level of a native speaker, and I’ve been struggling to reach any kind of fluency in Spanish for over a year. I did well (not amazing) in school and in my PhD, I’m decent at my job, and (luckily) I’ve always had the chance to work with plenty of people who are significantly smarter than I am. In short, I’m just kind of… okay at things. Good enough where necessary to not be a burden to others (like my job, organizing events, public speaking and teaching), and somewhere between pretty bad and decent at everything else.

And I’ve resented myself and my parents for that pretty much my entire life. While some of my friends joined sports teams or started taking music classes at an early age, learning a skill that would last them their whole life, I sat at home, watching TV, and eating top ramen. Others appeared to have an interest and internal drive to learn and excel at their chosen hobbies at an early age, as well as the determination and ambition to stick with it through years of hard training, competition, failures, and successes. Meanwhile, I became addicted to online chat rooms at age 13 and didn’t leave my computer for years, racking up enormous phone bills until we finally switched to a flat rate.

A lot of this is my own fault – I had the chance to speak up and ask my parents to enroll me in a class or club at any point during my childhood. But I almost never did, and the one attempt I made at taking piano lessons at age 12 (copying a friend of mine from school) failed after several months because I preferred to take afternoon naps rather than go to class. Some of this might be due to my parents leaving me to figure things out by myself at an early age, emphasis on “by myself”, and the lack of support from any adult who might have had a more long-term view of the benefits of extra-curricular activities. Besides, US schools put a lot more emphasis on extra-curricular activities than German schools (or from what I know, any European country for that matter), with scholarships being an important factor in gaining entry to college education, so any activity outside of class is usually driven by parents who did the research required to find the right clubs and lessons for their kids.

Whatever the reason, I have been struggling with my mediocrity my entire life, but ironically also never attempted to actually rectify this and put in the work required to become an expert at something – at any point, I figured it was already too late anyway. Now, at 34, I’m a decent software engineer (thanks to the internet and wonderful smart and patient coworkers) who can play a handful of songs on the harmonica, ride up and down small ramps on a skateboard, survive blue runs on a snowboard, do a few yoga poses, bake a nice cake, get a couple of laughs when doing standup, and communicate in mostly broken Spanish (old people usually find that charming though, so I guess that’s a win). I’m not great at any of these things – I’m the textbook definition of “okay”. On the other hand, my partner is a software engineer and multi-talented musician who plays and performs in several bands, has been skateboarding for decades, and knows how to ride and maintain a motorcycle, just for good measure. And I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t pain me to face my own ineptitude every time I see him perform on stage, land a seemingly impossible trick at the skate park (first try!) or bomb black runs on a snowboard.

So. Where do I go from here? Should I stop doing the things I enjoy because the chances of me becoming an expert are fairly low, given that I’ve never shown any sort of stamina and determination when it comes to learning anything outside of what’s required for my job (I have a strong sense of duty that seems to kick me into overdrive mode when needed)? Should I work hard to finally change my personality that’s been shaped by 34 years of mediocrity, self-loathing, and abandoned plans to become a better person? Throw money at the problem and pay someone to coach me? And once I’ve achieved expertise in something, will I be able to lead a happier and more fulfilled life? Why do I even believe that it’s so important for me to become an expert at something? Do I want to get better because it’s the only way I’m able to enjoy something or because it enables me to do even more enjoyable things, or do I want to achieve expertise because expertise is highly valued in society, and I crave the attention and praise that might follow from it? Why do we value expertise so highly for interests like arts and sports that have little actual impact on other people’s lives? (I’m not talking about professions that require expertise to ensure safety and wellbeing of others – being a mediocre pilot or doctor is not exactly an option.) Why the hell am I beating myself up over this so much when I don’t even know what I’m doing this for, other than my own enjoyment?

Interestingly, while writing this post I did a quick Google search on “is it okay to be mediocre”. Most results told me “NO” – it’s a sign of laziness, you should strive for greatness, no one is average – everyone is special! and so on, and so forth. And then I found a post from Mark Manson, author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” which I actually read about a year ago. In his post “In defense of being average”, he writes:

It’s my belief that this flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that “exceptional” is the new normal. And since all of us are rarely exceptional, we all feel pretty damn insecure and desperate to feel “exceptional” all the time.

A lot of this might be obvious to others, but things only just clicked for me here:

  1. Praise and recognition are a wonderful result of doing something, but most of what I do voluntarily is already enjoyable, even if I will never receive any compliments or applause for it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. Or maybe shouldn’t be doing it.
  2. I also realized that one of the reasons why society values expertise so highly is because it makes your skills valuable to others – they can benefit from it, whether it’s you working for them, or providing entertainment of sorts. Just about average performance isn’t worth anything to others. Especially in tech, we’re constantly looking for rockstars and ninjas and superheroes – people who are exceptional at their job, devaluing everyone who is good but not amazing.
  3. Mastery may open up new opportunities – maybe a black run really is disproportionately more fun to ride a snowboard on than a blue run – but for me, even easy runs are still fun and challenging. Even if I don’t practice and train at the level to become an expert, if I keep doing as much as feels right, I’ll most likely make a little bit of progress eventually and get to try out something new. Or I might not. Maybe I’ll keep doing the same blue runs over and over without ever getting any better, and eventually give up on snowboarding because it’s getting boring. And that’s… also okay?

A lot of people are afraid to accept mediocrity because they believe that if they accept being mediocre, then they’ll never achieve anything, never improve, and that their life doesn’t matter.

(Mark Manson again)

While I still wish I had invested more time and effort into mastering something earlier in my life, I should probably just accept that I can’t go back, and at the same time, that mastery might not even be the right goal for me. I’m not an expert in anything. If you say “you still have time to become one”, trust me, I won’t be, I’m not the kind of person who will. But I’m neither a pilot, nor a doctor, and I’m both confident enough in my job skills and aware enough of my deficiencies to consider myself competent, employable, and not a risk to others. Whether I’m just mediocre at the things that I enjoy doing shouldn’t matter to anyone, and it shouldn’t matter to myself. Maybe it’s okay to just be okay.