Since I’m not a natural runner, it should come as a surprise that I wasn’t fast when I first started running. And I lacked endurance. And I didn’t really know what to do to improve either of those things.
It didn’t stop me from running, though. I slogged through laps around the track outside Couzens Hall a few times a week, running a mile (or maybe two if I felt ambitious). As winter set in, I found myself enjoying my running routine and going a little bit farther each time. Instead of one or two miles, I ran two or three, or sometimes five miles.
My mom, seeing my interest in running, proposed that we both take on a race together. I agreed it would be a (potentially) good idea. We don’t do a lot of things together, just my mom and I, so maybe this could be something we shared. Feeling empowered by our consistent mileage and perhaps a little too ambitious, we signed up to run a half marathon on Memorial Day weekend in 2009. It was two or three times further than any distance I’d ever run. I was terrified to race, but also invigorated by the challenge.
Thankfully, the track path stayed plowed during the winter months, so I kept running. On days when it was too cold or snowy, I moved to the indoor track at the gym and ran there. I felt physically better than I had at any other point in my life. Nothing made me feel as joyful and bubbly and ready to take on the world as running did.
Running did so many other things for me, too. I took chances during my sophomore year of college that I wasn’t brave enough to do my freshman year. Longing for a news room, I joined the Michigan Daily and was elected Co-Managing Design Editor after only a semester on staff. I also ran for a position on the executive board of the Arts Chorale choir. I was voted in as Secretary (and held onto my position through senior year). I also finally decided on a major, which was stressful until I realized I loved learning about art more than anything else. I tried dating some guys during my sophomore year, but all I really got out of that experience was some awkward date stories. Despite being successful in some ways and unsuccessful in other ways, it didn’t matter. The important thing was taking risks and trying new things, and my running dedication fueled these actions.
One Spring day, I decided to leave the track and run on the sidewalks and roads of Ann Arbor. My love affair with beautiful Ann Arbor town began that day. I started by running the streets near my dorm, sticking to what I knew. Then I ran a little outside my bubble of familiarity and fell even more in love with AA. As my mileage increased, so did my knowledge about Ann Arbor and the community outside of Main Street and the Diag. I learned street names and knew how far it was to different destinations because I was logging the miles. A city that once felt so large became easy to navigate, and I memorized its streets and hidden gems each day.
The day of my half marathon arrived at last. I was nervous, but I felt prepared. While I didn’t understand the finer points of racing, race prep, and pacing, I was ecstatic with my finishing time of 1:56:22. It was under two hours, which was my goal, and I felt strong.
This joy carried through the entire summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I met a kind, intriguing boy at work; we got pretty serious pretty quickly. I took a break from running far distances but still stayed in shape. As I drove back to college in the fall, I carried two new things in my heart: a long-distance boyfriend and a dream to run a long distance—my first marathon.
I found a marathon training program online and set my goals on the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City (the same route that I ran for my half marathon). I organized my class schedule around long morning runs, obligations to the Daily, and the Art Chorale choir. I loved tracking my runs and living my life on such a regulated calendar. A few sacrifices were made along the way, but it was for the sake of my ultimate ambition: 26.2 miles. Daunting, but doable. Things couldn’t be better, and I felt good finishing up my first semester.
But when I returned to Ann Arbor after spending winter break at home, everything lost its color. It was hard being in a relationship with someone who lived four hours away. Tackling a 10-mile run in a blizzard is the epitome of misery. Running on ice made me fear injury. I felt lethargic and unmotivated, but I stuck with my schedule and put in the miles.
In the core of my being, I felt an aching unhappiness that followed me everywhere. Something inside me was off-balance. I cried at irrational things (Air Bud, a new Taylor Swift song, rereading letters from long ago, missing a phone call from my boyfriend). I distinctly remember being at a choir event and eating an entire pizza by myself. I spent the next three hours wallowing in degrading thoughts of my own worthlessness while putting on a happy face for the sake of everyone else.
Even though there were plenty of warning signs, my 21st birthday tipped off a series of events that I was drastically underprepared to face. I had two exams that day and had to deal with a stressful choir crisis for our upcoming tour. When I finally made it home late that night, longing to simply go to bed (and probably cry), my wonderful roommates greeted me with presents, smiles, warm wishes, and hugs.
I reacted to this onslaught of love by having an emotional breakdown and sobbing on the living room floor in a pathetic heap.
Uncertain about how to respond to my actions and—rightfully so—annoyed by my selfishness, my roommates left me there in the living room to lament. I stayed there for 20 minutes before gathering my wits and apologizing to my roommates. I explained that I just really needed to be alone. They gave me more hugs and sent me off to bed. I tried calling my boyfriend to talk it out, but as usual, I got his voicemail. This was the norm as our relationship advanced. I passed out in my clothes and hoped the weekend would be better.
Somehow, things got worse.
My boyfriend called in the morning, saying that the reason he didn’t answer last night was because he spent the night in jail for possession of marijunana. I was speechless. I told him I had to think about some things, hung up the phone, and reached for my winter running clothes.
It was barely above freezing outside, which meant I was running in rain instead of snow. Spring breaks quicker in Ann Arbor than in my hometown up north, but it still felt like winter. Everything was muddy and gray, mirroring my thoughts and feelings at that moment.
I ran hard. Way, way faster than my marathon training pace. I couldn’t catch my breath the whole time, and after one measly mile, I had to stop and gasp for air. My body felt drained. I looked around and found I was in a school playground, which was completely empty on account of it being shittier than shitty outside.
Something inside me snapped.
I started punching a nearby tree in frustration. My head was swirling with anger, rage, and raw unhappiness. My boyfriend made me feel worse instead of better. My 21st birthday was a disaster instead of a celebration. The end of my college career was a year away and I had no idea what to do with my life. And now, after months of running, I couldn’t even finish a mile without wanting to collapse. These were the obvious things.
But there were other things, too. I’d lost the desire to eat anything other than steamed bags of frozen vegetables covered in cheese, protein shakes, raw spinach, and boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats. I’d hit my lowest weight ever, and yet I felt diminished to nothing instead of beautiful, confident, and strong. I gave up an opportunity to study History of Art in Paris—HISTORY OF ART. IN PARIS.—because I was scared and insecure about leaving the familiarity of the “perfect” world I’d built for myself.
And there it was: I was scared and insecure. That’s all it was.
I stopped beating the tree and wiped the hot tears from my face, looking around. Instantly, I recognized my childish immaturity, not to mention how crazy I probably looked to anyone passing by (though they had to be crazy to be out in that weather, too). Drawing a deep breath, I walked to the swing set and started swinging. I played on that swing set for almost an hour, letting everything fall away with each back-and-forth, pumping my legs and clearing my mind.
When I made it back home, I took a shower and started doing what I knew I had to do. I purged almost everything from my past: letters, emails, photos, gifts. I threw out anything that pulled me back into where I had once been instead of where I wanted to be. I deleted my Facebook account. A few weeks after that, I broke up with my boyfriend.
I focused my energy on my studies and the people around me that I loved so deeply. Whatever energy wasn’t focused on those things, I put into running. Through running, I began repairing myself.
My runs grew longer. I spent the miles and hours thinking positive thoughts focused on being a whole person. The thing I wanted more than anything—to run a marathon—was my own personal desire. It was something I did only for myself. No one forced me to go for a run or dictated how far I should go. This was a choice, and every day, I chose to run instead of continue wallowing in my sadness. I allowed myself this time alone, selfish as it was, in an effort to better understand my soul.
Two months later, I was still uncertain about a lot of things. I didn’t feel ready to get close to anyone and was pretty sure I wouldn’t be ready for a long, long time. I had a college major but knew I probably wouldn’t use it when I graduated, which made me uncomfortable. Even so, my mindset shifted from “terrified” to “curious.” I didn’t know what the future held for me, but I could hold that uncertainty in my mind’s eye and view it from all sides without freaking out or having a breakdown.
I crossed the finish line for my marathon at 4:12:08. To this day, I consider completing my first marathon one of my greatest achievements. Knowing I powered through my doubts, fears, and anxiety to accomplish something I never thought I’d be able to do is something I am proud of. I did it against all odds. I never thought I’d be able to say, “I ran a marathon.” Now that I can, I am confident that I can face anything.