How I Became a Runner

img_30734.jpg2007 was the year I became a runner. Before that, I never believed I could be either, nor did I really want to be. I remember being 11 years old and getting signed up to do community track and field one summer. There was a girl on my team who was fast–incredibly fast. There was no way I could have eclipsed the kind of talent she brought to the team, though I tried. One day, our coach asked us to run a mile around the track. This run wasn’t like any other in which this girl would kick my butt every time. I started running and realized about halfway through the first lap that I was ahead of this girl– and by a lot. I was so far ahead of her, in fact, that I was able to hold her off until the last half lap. Finally, for a few gleaming moments, I felt like I was good at this. Suddenly, without hardly any realization of what was happening, I saw her fly past me and soar across the finish line like she’d been training for that mile run her whole life. I left my last shred of will on the track and quit the very next day.

A few years later, during the summer of my junior and senior years of high school when I usually went to visit my dad and stepmom, I joined my dad in a summer weight-loss challenge. We both went on the Atkins diet and I started running with him and my brother in the evenings. My stepmother, who was a huge runner back in the day, lent me an old pair of her running shoes– purple and green Asics that I fell in love with– and I carried a cheap Discman that always skipped with headphones that would never stay in place. Running was hard, but I wanted to show up the boys, so I pushed myself but couldn’t beat them. I never knew how far I went, but my dad and brother were always ahead of me and keeping up with them was frustrating and exhausting. Eventually, I just decided to go at my own pace and go on my own route. I don’t remember if I actually liked running at the time, but I loved being outdoors on a summer night. This is when I discovered the pure joy of running. To this day, the Smashmouth song “All Star” reminds me of that summer and remains one of my running mantras.

Run! Geek! Run! 8K Washington, DC September 2010

After college, in 2007, I took a job working for a high-profile U.S. Senator. I loved the job more than anything else, but it wasn’t without stress. Part of my job was to take phone calls from people who wanted to tell my boss their opinions on legislation and politics, but not all of them were very nice to me about it and it got to me. I soon realized that I needed to have an outlet for all the stress that built up during the work day and my natural instinct was to run it off.  I joined a tiny gym in the basement of the federal building where I worked and, each day, I set a goal to burn at least 400 calories with no regard for time or speed. Sometimes, I ran intervals on the treadmill to keep myself from getting bored, but this became my outlet and something I looked forward to doing every day. Eventually, running just became my most natural form of stress relief and catharsis. Sometimes, I would even go run in the middle of the night if I was too stressed about anything else in my life. Maybe it was something about the symbolism of running.

5675Every few months, as life got in the way, I would stop going to the gym only to revisit the idea when I felt like I was getting out of shape or knew I had a big event coming up that I wanted to be in shape for. Running races never occurred to me: running was just a way to keep fit and relieve stress and I just didn’t think I had what it took to run races. I just wasn’t good enough but that was okay. However, when I moved to Washington, DC in 2008, I made friends who each participated in some kind of endurance event. At first, I decided I wanted to train for a triathlon but eventually came to realize that triathlons weren’t for me. 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– the Run! Geek! Run! 8K in Washington, DC with my roommate Anthony, who had just come back from Army basic training and, despite not having run for awhile, swore he could run the race with me. The entire time, however, Anthony looked like he was struggling to keep up with me, not me trying to keep up with him! Finally feeling as though I had “beat the boys” felt great and I knew I was ready to run more races.

My first ever endurance event and the girl who told me I could do it.

My first ever endurance event and the girl who told me I could do it.

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Veteran’s Day 10K Washington, DC November 2010

Over the last few months of 2010, I signed up for and ran a local race every month– three 10Ks and a 5K. Each time I crossed the finish line of my race, I felt strong and proud of myself. I registered for my first marathon in 2010, the National Marathon in Washington, DC set for March 2011. It was this race that I learned firsthand how much dedication it takes to train for a full marathon. I was also in graduate school at the time and had a lot of trouble finding enough time to train. I was also training for the first time in the dead of winter. Some nights, I wouldn’t get home until almost 8PM and I would still have several miles to run before I sat down to study. Getting out in the freezing cold is the hardest part about winter running but it made me fall in love with night-running and being all alone on the trail to train at my own level and in my own world. Unfortunately, I had to drop down to the half-marathon because I just hadn’t been able to make it work on top of graduate school and a full-time job with the Senate. Finishing that race though, despite having only trained up to 8 miles, was utterly exhilarating. I remember that I was in shock that I had actually just run 13.1 miles. But it came with a price: having overused my untrained ankles, my Achilles tendon was injured during the run and I had to take time off for two months, including missing out on the 2011 Cherry Blossom 10-Miler with my Senate colleagues.

National CareFirst Half-Marathon, Washington, DC March 2011

National CareFirst Half-Marathon, Washington, DC March 2011

I remained undaunted that I would run a marathon.  I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011, but the training was very difficult. I didn’t always feel like my heart was in it. I had strong doubts that I could do it and, to be honest, I felt like I hated running. For months, it felt like I had this black cloud over my head as I trained. It wasn’t that I felt like I couldn’t do it– I felt like I didn’t want to do it. I always questioned why I was doing this. Despite these doubts, in October 2011, I ran and finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 5:07. I was overwhelmingly proud of myself but more relieved that it was over. Looking back, I realized I made a lot of mistakes that probably added to my stress more than alleviated it. Since the bulk of my training was in the summer and I’d only ever run short distances in the dense heat and humidity of DC’s inexorable summers, I didn’t even think to wake up early to get in my long runs before the heat banished the day away. I also relied very heavily on only water during my long runs, barely using any nutrition or sports supplements so I got worn out very fast and felt very frustrated. I also abided by the taboo rule of novice marathon-running that dictates you can eat whatever you want. My body, in essence, wasn’t recovering properly because my diet was awful, so getting out the door felt like more of a chore than it needed to. I also didn’t add very much variety to my running by going on different trails or listening to different music and I probably took myself far too seriously. Plus, the biggest reason: I was afraid that I would fail and that running would become something I couldn’t even look in the face anymore.

Being medaled by a Marine Corps Lieutenant after finishing my first marathon in 5:07.

Being medaled by a Marine Corps Lieutenant after finishing my first marathon in 5:07.

In the next few months after the marathon, I found myself wishing that I had something else to train for. Despite the hardships of training for my first marathon, I couldn’t deny that I craved that sense of glory from doing something that not everyone gets to or wants to do. Plus, as I became more educated in my running, I felt like I had done things wrong and I wanted to redeem myself for it. Sure, I had a lot to be proud of for myself for my first go-around, but I wanted to do it right this time. I didn’t sign up for another marathon until July 2012, the Des Moines Marathon. Before that, I had been casually working out and had run the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in April, but I was definitely not in training mode. Around this same time, a friend of mine talked me into signing up for the RunDisney Goofy Race and a Half Challenge for January 2013. This race was more than “just” a marathon; it was a back-to-back half and full marathon in Disney World. 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, without understanding or knowing why, I signed up run 39.3 miles in one weekend in January 2013. I had a lot of work to do and a long time to get it done, but I admit— it felt amazing to have a goal again. There was no more black cloud.

Training for marathon season 2012 began in July. I started running outside again instead of indoors at the gym on the treadmill for fun. Having been through the process before, I knew what to expect and I knew how to do it better. But, no sooner had I started training again did I run into a runner’s worst nightmare: a serious injury that our faithful routine of RICE couldn’t fix. I went for a run one day and suddenly, everything in my hips seized and tensed up. I thought I had just taken it too far, too fast so I rested, but a few days later, I could barely get through 4 miles without feeling like my hip muscles were cold rubber bands. Looking back, I don’t remember exactly what I was feeling– all I knew is that even walking fast was difficult, let alone running. And no amount of rest or recovery was helping. After several days off, I would run 4 miles just fine and the next day, it started all over again. I had to seek medical help. My physical therapist diagnosed me with having extremely tight hip adductor muscles and IT band tightness from over-compensation due to weak core stability and improper balance. I had even come out of alignment and was running with a gimp! It was no wonder I was in so much pain. Starting in September, I was sentenced to 6-8 weeks of physical therapy to loosen my muscles and re-train them to be used properly. Unfortunately, this took running the Des Moines Marathon off the table. It was that race in which my twin sister, a former pack-a-day smoker for almost 10 years, would go on to qualify to run the Boston Marathon. Despite being incredibly proud of her, not being able to run the Des Moines Marathon was a bitter pill to swallow.

Finisher Medals for the 2013 Walt Disney World Goofy Race and a Half Challenge: Thus far, the crown jewel of my running accomplisments.

Coming back from an injury is an experience I know very well. I’ve been injured multiple times while running because I either wasn’t careful enough or I just didn’t know better. Being a runner is a learning process and it can be hard to stay patient with that process. But there can also be some blessing to it. With the help of my physical therapist, I regained a lot of the core stability and strength that put me on the bench and soon, with the help of my loosened muscles, I was running stronger and faster than I ever had before. I became much more aware of my body and how it works and I gained a deeper appreciation of it. Even though I couldn’t run the Des Moines Marathon, I was still well on track to tackle the Goofy Challenge. I was able to keep pace with a highly rigorous 16-week training plan that included three 20-milers, mileage up to 55 per week, and several back-to-back doubles that was designed to prepare you for running a half and full marathon in two days. Despite facing an upcoming job loss, the holidays, and sinus infection from hell, I stuck with the program, even though it felt like I had been worn to my core. But the hard work paid off when I crossed the finish line at Epcot Center and received my half-pound Mickey medal and Goofy medal. To this day, the Goofy Challenge remains to be one of my most amazing accomplishments and one that I still can’t believe I did. It was the first time that I felt like a true runner, that I had finally arrived. And it was the first time in my life that I was proud of my running accomplishments and resolve. The race was hard– hot and humid and my legs were still aching from the day before. But I never gave up through all the physical therapy and the hard training and the life obstacles, I stuck through it. I was crying when I crossed the finish line– I was overjoyed.

Eight weeks after finishing the Goofy Challenge, I experienced one of the greatest challenges to my running yet: real life. It is in this current point in my life at which I feel the need to write this blog. I have been unemployed since January and looking for jobs for two years now when my boss first announced his retirement from the March 16 059Senate in 2011. While I had initially started running to alleviate stress in my life, what I am currently experiencing is not the kind of thing you can’t run from. You have to face the challenges of unemployment head-on. I have learned unemployment involves a grieving processes. I loved working for the Senate and serving my country and I lost that. Still, through it all, I was able to set a very strong personal record at the Rock ‘n Roll USA Marathon March 2013, beating my Marine Corps Marathon record by over a half hour and avenging the marathon I set out to accomplish but couldn’t in 2011. But everything is not totally okay. I have lost my running mojo, as if it just slipped away from me at the finish line. Sometimes I wonder if running is such a high that, when you come down from it, things can appear much more bleak than usual.

I’m determined to continue running and I’ve already signed up for a couple of more races for this year. But I want to shake the feeling I get that says I’m not a runner or that I can’t do this anymore. Sometimes I don’t know why I do this. Getting out there to run miles that only cars are meant to travel is tough both mentally and physically, and each time comes with it an overwhelming sense of fear and failure. And sometimes, no running mantra can defeat it. You just have to get it done. Perhaps the 11-year-old is still in my head, telling me I’ll never be as fast as the girl in front of me or perhaps I have lost passion somewhere along the way. I’m a strong woman– I always have been. Anyone who could tell you about me would say I’m fiercely independent, I hate being told what to do because I prefer to learn it myself, and that I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I also love. And man, I really love this.

Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing a huge piece of your soul. Not only are you beautiful, talented, strong, honestand fast, you are trying to find a new path in life too. It’s there, just a bit out of your reach right now, but God’s help, within your grasp…love you!

  2. It’s so great to hear every runner’s beginnings! I’m proud of you. 🙂


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