How Running Saved Me

My journey of falling in love with a sport and myself.

sravya balasa ♂
9 min readNov 27, 2020

I’m not your typical athlete.

My lack of hand-eye coordination, for lack of a better word, is pathetic. Actually, it’s practically nonexistent. I vividly remember joining my city’s soccer team in elementary school and being never passed the ball due to my lack of aim in passing it to my teammates. No one helped me and I was relegated to the sidelines. Due to my failures, I developed a self-conscious streak that continued throughout middle school and high school, where I continued to be chosen last for teams, hit the volleyball backward during games, and would shiver at the thought of P.E. I quickly threw myself into academics as a coping mechanism, hoping that success in at least one aspect of life would make me content.

Dancers don’t need wings to fly.

However, my journey with the larger world of sports started at the age of 8. At this young age, I stepped foot in the first of many Bharatanatyam dance classes. Bharatanatyam is a South Indian classical dance form originating in Tamil Nadu that follows the Natyashastra, a scripture on dance and drama, through abhinaya (expressing emotions), mudras (hand gestures), and complex, rhythmic footwork.

One of my dance competitions in 2017.

At first, I was one of many who didn’t think of dance as a sport, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. From late Friday night practices at my dance teacher’s garage to early morning Sunday competitions, I would always leave sweating, legs burning, and mind racing trying to remember patterns. Although I stopped Bharatanatyam classes my senior year of high school, it left me with grit, flexibility, a knack to pick up salsa dancing, and the constant reminder that creation is power.

Despite my successes in dance, I felt empty. Firstly, classes were only a few times during the week, leaving me feeling disconnected. Secondly, yet again, I didn’t seem to have the same knack as my teammates after years, leading to a slow decline in my passion for dance that spanned over several years. In college, I’ve developed a better growth mindset that helps me focus on patiently meeting those goals rather than comparing myself to others and quickly giving up, but 14-year old me was not there yet.

So where did this leave 14-year old me? I was a wide-eyed freshman in high school, feeling out of place and insecure. In the mornings, I’d do school and in the afternoons I’d do nothing but sit around and eat. Meanwhile, I laughed at my friends who joined cross country in the fall because who runs long distances for fun?

Let’s try Track & Field?

I joined Track & Field my freshman year spring semester because the only part of P.E. I enjoyed in middle school was sprinting at the end of the 1-mile time trials. I felt powerful during the short bursts as everything blurred away. Short distances are fun and easy, right? Wrong. Track practice was a constant struggle for several reasons. Among the sprinters, there was only ever a level of competition and no community. As a result, with slower times, my improvement was secondary to my coach and teammates and I continued to fall back. I stayed on the track team for three years, and although I never fell in love with the sport and dreaded going to practice, I gained a massive amount of respect for those sprinters who make it look so effortless.

However, on the track team, I became close friends with the hurdlers. The community I found missing among the sprinters was filled with the constant locker room jokes, weekend hangouts, and waves in the hallway from them. Through all the sports I had tried, that is all my heart desired. Because of their loving urges and nothing else, I signed up for the cross country team in the fall of my sophomore year with hopes that I would continue to grow my community.

Joining Cross Country!

Cross country was different. It wasn’t just that everyone was passionate about the sport. Everyone was passionate about each other. From success on the trails to success in the classroom, we supported each other in reaching every goal. For once in my life, I felt wanted.

For once in my life, I felt wanted.

In analyzing it, you’ll quickly see that cross country is a team sport despite many assumptions that running is individualistic. At practice, our coach would divide us into groups based on mile time and assign us to run a certain amount of distance at a certain pace. These groups are your family. We’d whisper “good job” to each other as we reached the steepest part of the hill and bring ribbons to tie in each other’s hair on race days, giving the group enough morale to continue. In understanding each other’s weaknesses and strengths, we’d plan who picked up the pace on the hills and who kicks at the end, setting the pace for the rest to follow. I knew I’d have this support system on race day, and despite my nerves, having my group was comfort in itself. I found this team mindset of collaboration over competition addicting. It’s still something I practice to this day.

I found this team mindset of collaboration over competition addicting.

My supportive coaches in cross country showed me how much an excellent mentor can shape your progress. As a result, I have gone out of my way in college to find mentors, whether that be peers or those in the industry, who believe in me just like my coaches did. The coaches on the cross country team valued everyone, no matter their speed, equally and spent the time to make sure we all improve whether that be running with us on long runs or crafting our pace plans.

During those years, I rarely felt undermined when I was running at the back of the group because the coaches cultivated a culture where effort and dedication were rewarded over sheer talent. They taught us to believe in the results that we’d see weekly after the 6 days of practice, and over time we began to believe in ourselves. Slowly but surely, with their encouragement, I transformed from a shy sophomore with a 10:30 mile to an outspoken team captain my senior year with a 6:30 mile. The combination of encouragement and improvement was addicting, leading me to know that I had found a place where the goals I set would not just remain goals.

Here’s some of the people that made XC so special for me :)

I never ran for student council because I didn’t consider myself a “leader”. That’s all wrong. I hadn’t found a group I wanted to lead yet. Cross country is the first place I demonstrated real leadership by giving back to the first community that believed in me. In being team captain my senior year, I learned that leadership isn’t just delegating tasks to people and answering questions. It is all in creating a community through a role where someone will not always be there to double-check my work and my words. There were underclassmen looking up to me eagerly and I had to step up to the plate. Therefore, I never wavered when I spoke encouraging words before a race despite my own nerves, always showed up with a smile on my face, was open to answering all questions about class schedules, and would push myself to set the right pace even if I got a bad night of sleep. It was all well worth it: the junior varsity team my year had a strong rapport on and off the trails that spurred our constantly dropping times. Stepping into this role successfully gave me the confidence I needed to take on more leadership roles in college. Without the confidence being a team captain gave me, I would not have opened myself up to the joys that mentoring others brings.

Why Long Distance?

Long-distance hurts. Just because I continue to get faster every time I run doesn’t mean that a run hurts any less. In fact, every day may hurt more as I put pressure on myself to beat yesterday’s time and have a larger mile split. I constantly try to remind myself of the following points to keep myself from giving up and hope that you can as well.

Body Image

I’ve struggled with my body image for a long time. It’s an entirely different story, but I say this because looking at running or any other sport as solely a way to lose weight off a part of your body is not sustainable. When I had this as my goal, I’d look at myself in the mirror every day, and not seeing any changes gave me an immediate reason to give up. Dig deeper for your reason because then you’ll look for improvement in your long-term feelings than impossible short-term improvements in appearance.

To-do List

Theoretically, if I failed a test, got fired, and burned myself all in the same day, but went for a run in the morning, I’d feel a sense of accomplishment and some surety that I did one thing right for my body. Ticking that checkbox every day (or whatever my schedule is) keeps me centered.

On Starting Again

Getting back into running is infinitely worse than running itself. Running is difficult without the same support group I had during the cross country season, a problem I faced during my freshman year of college. As soon as I entered UCSD Fall 2018, I didn’t run for 3 months and lost nearly all the fitness I gained over the year prior. It was devastating and demotivating. Without the support of one of my friends who pushed me to run with him again, getting back to running would have been incredibly hard.

You can ask any runner who has taken time off of the sport and they’ll tell you that the first week back feels like their lungs are being ripped out of their body. Sometimes it’s inevitable because you just lose motivation for months on end, become swamped with work, or are not kicked by something in your life to start the sport again. Although small, reminding yourself of the progress you’ve made is enough motivation to force yourself to run on your off days so you don’t lose it.

Feedback Loops

I do the best work in my life when I’m running. I’m happy that I’m enriching my body and walk into the rest of my day with a clear mind; these feelings are evident in the quality of work I create and the sharpness of my focus. As a result, I’m in a feedback loop where running motivates me to work, and succeeding in work motivates me to keep shaving off seconds. When I started running again this past September, I noticed the gears controlling this loop becoming well-oiled again, and the progressive success keeps me going.

Give Yourself Grace

My runs over the last month! I’m not at my peak, but I’m always happy with my progress.

Don’t push yourself too hard too fast. It will demotivate you and give you more reason to quit. Currently, jogging about 2 miles for 4–6 days a week works best for me. Recently, I started running on the hills again. When I feel ready, I’ll eventually do hill repeats and longer runs. Give yourself the grace to do what feels right, not what others are doing.


Cross country’s rough regiment trained me to feel powerful when I run. On finishing a run with my lungs aching and mind racing, I am reminded that I am strong and capable, escaping everything from emotional turmoil to feelings of inadequacy about school and sports. Instead, I play a mind game with myself to beat times instead.

The world is beautiful outside. Go take a look :)

To end this, I’m lucky to have found a sport that has made me a better person in all aspects of my life. It’s scary to think where I’d be without it, so I have nothing left to say but that I’m thankful.

Try running sometime. I’ll be there to support you.



sravya balasa ♂

cs, design @ ucsd. intern @instagram @viasat @salesforce. lover of outreach and dogs!