To our fifth anniversary.

I was at the gym yesterday reading the latest issue of Runner’s World and came across this quote from Marc Parent’s Newbie Chronicles column. 

“No matter how big and inactive you are, no matter how long-standing your hatred of running or exercise of any kind, if you give it a try and stick to it, the day will come when it no longer sucks, no longer fees like a crazy idea, no longer makes you want to die-when life itself no longer sucks, and you no longer feel like you’re crazy. If you stick with running, the day will come when you’ll want to live forever.”

And it just stopped me in my tracks with its truth and relevance to my own experience with running. And then I realized that it’s been almost exactly five years to the day since I started running, and that my anniversary with running deserved a mention, because running has done for me all of those crazy things that quote talks about.

I hated running. The only time I ran before the age of 24 was when absolutely forced to in a PE class or to chase after a baby I was nannying for. I thought it was the most insane type of exercise. Although really I hated exercise in general. I wasn’t exactly overweight but I wasn’t at my ideal body weight. I did the occasional yoga. But I was also absolutely not in any kind of physically fit shape. And I was deeply unhappy in the middle of probably the worst year of my life (to be fair I have had a remarkably blessed life, and this “bad” year was still so much better than most people’s truly bad years, I absolutely realize that my struggles were not the kind of struggles that truly constitute awful). But I was unhappy. It was the year after Thailand. I came home so sure that I would immediately get a full time writing job. I even lined up an interview for an internship (full time and unpaid naturally) with The Atlantic (THE ATLANTIC!) while still in Thailand. The stars were aligned. It all made sense. But that interview did not lead to an internship. Nor did the many, many other interviews and applications and writing samples. Everywhere I looked there were dead ends and rejections. I was adrift. My friends all had jobs or were in grad school. Most of them were in serious relationships. 

I was living with my parents and single and desperately let down by the world in the way only a 24 year old can be. And even more let down because I was coming off these incredible 6 months of travel where the world was wide open and beautiful, and I couldn’t process or understand how it could suddenly not be that way. I was young and spoiled and expected to sail through life, because I had done that up until that point. And as I applied again and again to jobs that I didn’t even really want (note to any aspiring writers, there are approximately 2 full time “writing” jobs that open up in the country each year, everything else is editing, and I HATE editing, as you can probably tell from my horrendous use of punctuation), I knew I had to do something to save my soul. I felt myself getting bitter and mean. I didn’t like who I was becoming.

So I started to run. It was early spring just like now, when running, even for a non-runner seems do-able and even enticing. Because the air is that perfect mix of cool and warm, and the sky is the kind of blue you swear you’ve never seen before. You notice trees for the first time that have been there all year, only now they are starting to show those first sweet blossoms of things to come. The air itself is lighter, less dense, easier to move through than in the chill of winter. And so you tell yourself you can run.

The first few months were…a process. Any runner will tell you that even if you go on to run 10ks and half marathons and even marathons, there is nothing harder or more of a test of your very self than that first mile. And it’s so true. That first mile is still for me the hardest I have ever run. It took many, many attempts to go a mile without stopping or at least feeling like I was going to die. But even after that first mile I struggled. The first year was hard.  I had shin splints. I had a hip strain. I even documented all of this struggle for when I signed up for the Monument Avenue 10k (my editor was and remains the coolest and most indulgent of my requests to write about any and everything).

But I kept going. I kept running. I lost about 10 lb and for the first time in my adult life didn’t think of myself as fat (to be fair I never was “fat” but that doesn’t mean my crazy brain would accept that). I felt comfortable in my skin and in control of my body. I signed up for more races, for a half marathon, and eventually a marathon (that’s a whole other story). 

This story is about that first year. It’s about the way running gave me a purpose and a plan when the rest of my days were empty and aimless and full of waiting for yet another letter or email or phone call to tell me thanks but no thanks. It gave me something physical and real to do every day, something I could control. I couldn’t force those people to give me a job but when I got yet another rejection that always, always felt like a slap across the face (you would think if you got turned down for 20 jobs, the 21st would hurt less, but it never did hurt any less, it always felt like the wine was knocked out of me for a few days), I could put on a pair of tennis shoes (back then I think I ran in Nike’s! that was before I discovered the wonder of Brooks), tie them up, walk outside, and move. That physical pain of running eased the deeper, gnawing pain of rejection. I could ground myself in the way my muscles changed and grew stronger, in the way I felt after each run, calm and tired and happy. I ran in Richmond. I ran in DC when I lived with my sister and her husband. I ran down Monument past Civil War statues, down Connecticut Ave in DC past cherry blossoms in all their puffy, pink glory. I ran through the National Zoo and waved hi to pandas. I ran through Maymont and around Shield’s Lake.  

It was on a run that I decided to go to Haiti on a volunteer trip that changed me as a person and changed the goals of my life. It was on a run that a little thought snuck up in my head that maybe I should go to nursing school, learn a trade that could help people. It was on a run that I realized that I would always be a writer regardless of if my primary living came from writing, that maybe by trying to force writing to be my profession I was killing it. I was putting so much pressure on this love of writing of mine that I was destroying my relationship with it. And that it was okay to stop trying to force this door open that would not budge no matter how hard I worked, to try something new, that I could choose another path if it meant that I could be happy. That it didn’t mean I was giving up or failing. It just meant I was finding a new path.

It was on runs throughout that year that I made the most important decisions of my life. Running gave me that. It gave me that clarity and strength and belief. It gave me everything.

Five years later and I am happy to still call myself a runner. My body might not be so happy with this all the time (curse you IT bands!) but I am always happy to call myself a runner. I am so happy I made that choice five years ago to try something I previously hated. I am so happy that even as I continued to hate it most of that first year I kept running. I try to tell anyone who doesn’t run that simple truth. You don’t start off running because you love it. You start off running precisely because you hate it, but because you need to show yourself, on a molecular level, that you can handle doing something that hard, that you are capable of putting one foot in front of the other even when it sucks, that you aren’t the kind of person who only does things when they’re easy. You need to be the kind of person who pushes through runs and days and life even when they are at their hardest, even when it hurts, because that’s the only way you ever come to know your own strength. 

So here’s to running, to our five year anniversary, to a relationship that has given me aches and pains and physical therapy bills but also gifts beyond measurement, truths about myself that will stay with me always. 

And because these words are just so good, one more quote from Parent’s article to end it on:

“Always run as strong and as long and as fast as you can. Always be patient with injury…Do anything to keep running. Never stop hoping for more, expecting the best, celebrating early (and often!) pushing harder…Let’s never, ever stop.”

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