How I Became a Runner

Running, like all sports and athletics, was something I always thought you had to have a “God-given, natural-born” talent to do, and I always had a more artistic side growing up. I didn’t realize that athletics, like singing or playing an instrument, is something that could be learned, cultivated, and improved. As far as sports were concerned, most of my childhood was spent watching my brothers play soccer and football while I played the flute, sang in the choir, and participated in marching band and wrestling cheerleading.

It wasn’t until high school that I learned about running and exercise. My stepmother Kathleen ran a lot of cross-country growing up and was a runner as an adult, and I used to think she was crazy when she would leave the house to go for a run every day. I remember thinking, Why would anyone want to just….go run!? Unfortunately, running was something that was used as more of a punishment in school. In marching band, you often had to run laps around the football stadium if you were late or had another misstep of some kind. During the summer of 1998, Kathleen gave me my first pair of running shoes: a green and purple pair of Asics that I treasured. I was 16, and I wanted to try to lose weight for the summer so I took up running around the neighborhood, probably only going about a mile or so, carrying a Discman that always seemed to skip to Smashmouth’s “All-Star.” To this day, that song still reminds me of when I officially started running.

The Start of My Fitness Journey

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September 2002: Me, far left, before my weight loss journey began.

Fitness didn’t really start to “click” for me until I was a junior in college in 2004. I just always thought I was naturally heavy and that’s the way it would always be for me. I didn’t always love it, and I felt invisible next to some of my skinnier friends. It never occurred to me that I could exercise for the body that I wanted and I didn’t have to always be that way.

One day, I realized that I was a little tired of not feeling great about myself. I decided that I was ready to try something–anything. I started with a Denise Austin plyometrics DVD, working out for five days a week in my dorm room, plus all the walking around my college campus. I didn’t focus too much on what I ate; I just exercised a lot. Every once in awhile, some of the girls in my dorm would walk by my room and see me exercising and cheer me on. I felt like I was really on to something. At the end of the semester, when the weight started to come off and the compliments started pouring in, I couldn’t get enough of how great I felt. It was intoxicating.

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July 2004: After a semester of Denise Austin fitness DVDs.

After college, in 2007, I took a job working for a U.S. Senator. I joined a tiny gym in the basement of the federal building where I worked that had three treadmills. Every day, I left work and would run while watching CNN or MSNBC. I set a daily goal to burn at least 400 calories with no regard for time or speed, although I would sometimes clip speed interval routines from my fitness magazines. I also took ballet classes once a week. I don’t know how much weight I lost, but it was substantial: my own mother didn’t recognize me walking past her at the store one day!

After years of trying to figure out a way to keep the weight off and be healthy, I had finally gotten to the weight and look I wanted and was living the healthy lifestyle I knew I was capable of living, and running was a large part of that.

D.C., Born and Raced

After I moved to Washington, DC, I started making friends who participated in endurance events. Running races never occurred to me. I actually thought races were for professionals and that every runner running a race had a manager, an agent, or sponsor of some kind! Having run between 4-8 miles on and off on a trail near my home for the past few months, I decided to register for an 8K with my roommate. It was the first time I ever crossed a finish line, and I was totally hooked.

Over the last few months of 2010, I signed up for and ran a local race every month– three 10Ks and a 5K. Then, I registered for my biggest race yet: my first half-marathon, the National Half-Marathon in Washington, DC set for March 2011. Even with a full-time job for a U.S. Senator, being in grad school full-time, and training in the dead of winter, I finished the race in 2:05. I was so proud of myself– I never knew that I could run 13 miles. I wanted more.

Becoming a Marathoner

After I saw my twin sister finish her first marathon in 5:23, I signed up for the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon, but the training didn’t go as I expected. I didn’t always feel like my heart was in it. For months, it felt like I had this black cloud over my head as I trained. I’m not sure what surprised me more– how hard the training was or how, despite all my running I’d done before, how much I hated it. Despite these frustrations, in October 2011, I ran and finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 5:07. While I was incredibly proud of myself, I thought, “I will never do this again.”  In retrospect, I made a lot of mistakes with training that contributed to my loathesome experience. I knew that somewhere, deep down, I knew I could do better.

In July 2012, a friend of mine talked me into signing up for the Disney Goofy Race and a Half Challenge for January 2013. I thought it was crazy. It was far too above my head and, having only done one marathon, I didn’t believe I could do it. Still, the idea of a challenge enticed me and I was ready to redo the mistakes I had made training for my first marathon so, without understanding or knowing why, I signed up run 39.3 miles in one weekend in January 2013. It felt amazing to have a goal again. There was no more black cloud. To this day, finishing the Goofy Challenge remains one of the happiest moments of my life. I’ll never forget that feeling of finishing that race. That was the first time I felt like a marathoner, and I was absolutely hooked and ready for more marathons.

Overcoming Heartbreak and Injury

I’ve learned over the years that injuries with running happen for a number of reasons, but it’s incredibly important to do everything you can to avoid them in the first place. I have experienced substantial hip, glute, and IT band injuries and have not yet gone an entire calendar year without needing to see a physical therapist. However, overcoming injury to succeed at marathons became the first part of my running journey.

The second part, overcoming serious life obstacles, came in January 2013. Just before the Goofy Challenge in January, I lost my job and was unemployed for months. A month after my job loss, my serious relationship turned into a long-distance relationship that unexpectedly ended in April 2013. It felt like an impossible clash of circumstances for someone who worked hard for the good things in life, and I learned what it feels like to grieve the loss of dreams. Adding running to the days when I literally could not face the world became another step-at-a-time process. But it eventually became my saving grace and the way I got through it.

There are a number of reasons why people start running, but dealing with a major personal loss by running is also an incredible triumph. While those changes still, in some ways, continue to impact my life with the changes it brought, I’m more grateful than proud that I had running to carry me through the journey. Even as I am still trying to find meaning from it all, some days I am out on the trail thinking, “Thank God I can run.” It was the first time I came to appreciate running not as an athletic endeavor, but as a way to regain my confidence, my emotional strength, and my joy.

It’s Not the Destination; It’s the Journey

Today, my running journey has evolved from overcoming major distances and life obstacles to learning how to be present in my running and accepting who I am as a runner right now and appreciating that I can run. Every single run is a gift, and every day that I can run is a chance to be joyful and practice gratitude. It doesn’t (always) matter to me if I am slow or fast. As long as I am free, I am on the right track.

7 thoughts on “How I Became a Runner

  1. Great great read!!! Very uplifting and we all have times that make us stronger.

    I had a running injury that happed in 2009 and finally started to get addressed at the end of last year. I am coming along slowly but the last couple of months I have made a ton of progress.

    I do have one question for you. Earlier this year I was running which I hadn’t done in a LONG time. I was running when all of a sudden my left foot got tight. I would say my foot became a claw. It has gotten a little better over the months since it originally occurred, but it seems like simply running in place can cause it to flare up. Do you have any suggestions that could help me recover from this injury?

    Thanks, Jared

    1. Hi Jared, thanks for reading! Sorry to hear about your foot. Have you tried rolling it over a tennis or golf ball to help loosen up your foot muscles? It could also be a sign of weak ankles since injuries down below are often a result of injuries up top– this was my problem. Also, do you notice if you curl your toes when you run? I personally do it, so I have to consciously tell myself to relax my toes when I run. Good luck– I hope it gets better for you

      1. I massage and roll it on a tennis ball every morning. How long do you suggest rolling it for?

        I may not being rolling it out long enough and a golf ball might be better since it wouldn’t give as much as a tennis ball. I noticed yesterday my left ankle didn’t feel right a little while after my workout and this morning it even hurt for a little while. You might be onto something.

        I haven’t run in a while but I don’t ever recall them being curled when I run. I know when the injury occurred that my toes did curl up. It seems like when I was running I was hitting my heel, so since then I have really tried to remind myself to strike mid-foot, even when walking.

        Thanks for getting back to me quickly, and I am following you now. I look forward to reading about your training for your next marathon.

      2. Hmm, I would roll it for no less than 3 minutes a day. Have you also looked up ankle strengthening exercises like standing on your toes and balancing? That helps weak ankles- a trick I learned from ballet. Crosstraining is also a great running supplement. Good luck 🙂

      3. Thanks! I roll both feet in the mornings, but nowhere close to that long. That needs to change.

        I haven’t but will look up some ankle strengthening exercises today. I am sure they will help even if that isn’t the problem.

        I am currently doing a interval training program to build a strong fitness foundation. A long term goal of mine is to start running again, but I understand that may take a while. It is all a journey!

        Thanks again!
        Jared

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