I’ll never forget the first time I went for a run. My brother and the boys next door were sprawled across the furniture watching Batman cartoons, and I was left with a stack of coloring books and the anxious boredom of a late summer afternoon. A tomboyish 10-year-old who lived in soccer shorts and sneakers – I tied my shoes a little tighter and announced my plan to the resident running expert – my mother.
“Mom! I’m running to the anchor and back!”
Through the door! Adventure was calling and I must go. The anchor, a neighborhood fixture a full quarter mile away from my front door, was close enough to feel safe but far enough to require courage. Heart pounding, ponytail whipping in the wind. I was alone. I felt brave. And free.
But even before that fateful anchor run at age 10, running was familiar. I grew up watching my mother practice the ritual every morning. My bedroom window overlooked our front yard, and the flicker of bodies walking in front of landscaping lights signaled she was on her way out. Sometimes she ran alone. But many mornings, a group of her close friends waited in our walkway. Even hurling twigs at her window if she wasn’t out the door on time. Those scenes imprinted in my mind before I could really understand the significance of it all. I took these memories with me. Not yet a runner.
I also got to know my mother, and her running practice, through the collection of racing artifacts tucked away in our basement. Like running, the basement was a little scary. A little dark. Filled with the unfamiliar. But braving the narrow stairway offered the gift of a different kind of adventure – old running shoes, bibs and medals, photos of races she’d run alone, and with her friends. A living history hidden away – relegated to the archives so that family photos, school portraits, and the achievements of her children could decorate our walls. I took these relics too. Not yet a runner.
Running became my own ritual in high school. Almost every morning I’d get my miles in. Braving the dark and the rain and a teenage body that didn’t want to wake up. I explained my running habit as a competitive advantage of sorts – something to keep my fitness high as I worked my way down the college soccer track. But truthfully, I liked that it was hard. I liked that it was lonely. It gave the darker parts of my mind something to push against. A storm outside is often easier than the storm within. But I still didn’t call myself a runner.
A running practice also followed me through college. Through a disappointing soccer career. Through a change of heart, and schools, and majors. My life can be remembered through a series of memorable runs – because running is almost always my response to life’s changes. I ran through a new city. I ran through heartbreak. Through loss. Through doubt. Through a crippling depression that commanded my early 20s. Through my first real job in consulting – where I’d often wake up in a hotel room near an office park in an unfamiliar city. Morning miles my only consistency. Running, but not a runner.
I have run almost every day of my adult life and have never called myself a runner. I’ve raced - several marathons, a handful of halfs, a fun 5k here and there. I’ve BQed. I’ve cowbelled. I hang out with runner-types. I even work for a company that flies the flag of a sport and its impact on women. I’m an athlete. I’m a feminist. I’m a strategist. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. But a runner? Why is that signal, that identifier, so complicated for me? Why is it so complicated for others?
I could blame comparison. Or the stereotypes of the sport. Or body image. Or a childhood without track or cross country. Or my pace on the course. It isn’t any of those things.
Running is a place where my biggest fear in life is both realized and resolved. When I run, I am alone. But when I am running, I am okay. Every stride is carefully balancing all that I have to lose, and everything I have to gain. It is terrifying. It is liberating. It’s a meditation on mortality, and a call to keep going. To embrace change and uncertainty and doubt, and move toward it. Through it.
To run is to be alive. And while I’m no expert at this dance, it’s fair to say I’m practiced. Because running is in each one of us. And running belongs to us all.
So I sit here now, as the dawn breaks and the morning rolls in on my 30th birthday, reflecting on who I am today. I take my last sip of coffee, and reach for my running shoes. A gesture so familiar, so habitual, it’s easy to miss.
Through the door! Adventure is calling and I must go. Heart pounding, ponytail whipping in the wind. I am alone. I feel brave. And free.
A runner from the beginning.
A runner at last.