I loved the feeling of being on a team, I liked challenging myself, and I enjoyed being outside, but I wasn’t as serious as some of the other members of the team about my training. It seemed natural for me to run 7:30 minute miles, but I wouldn’t say that I went out of my way to do anything extra. I had a successful first year of running in my junior year, hit my “sophomore slump” in my senior, and much like most things in my life, I relied on my natural talent to get me through, and that was enough. In the off-season, I would run very sporadically, and though I tried track for a season, too, I realized speed was not my strong suit. When I finished my last cross-country season in high school, I was relatively confident that running would only exist in my memories. It was something I did, but not something I loved. I shared this feeling with my coach, who had successfully drawn me into the sport in the first place, and I still remember her voice, echoing in my ears, “You will be a lifelong runner.”
But I went away to college, and despite that natural ability, I had other, very singular, interests that drew my attention and dominated my time, mostly revolving around partying. In four years at college, I laced up my sneakers probably 2 or 3 times. Forget the freshman 15, I gained the freshman 50. The cycle that began in my very first days of school of partying, eating bad food late at night, being hungover and eating poorly again the next day, and being as sedentary as possible, would haunt me far past college. I knew there was such a thing as a “balanced life,” but it was a mystery to me as to how to achieve it.
Over my mid to late twenties, I would make several attempts to start exercising and dieting again. Most attempts were short-lived. Many times, my laziness trumped my desire to get healthy, and I tried to rely on restricting my diet rather than successfully utilizing a combination of diet and exercise to lose weight. On two occasions, I was able to lose a significant amount of weight, but in completely unsustainable ways. The last time I lost weight, I was able to shed 30 pounds, but convinced myself I could keep it off without exercise, and once again, the weight flew right back on me, like it had never been gone at all. At my heaviest, I weighed almost 200 pounds.
I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care about what I was wearing or how I looked, and while everyone else has pictures to look back upon to signify their attendance at functions and events, it was almost as if I didn’t even exist in the tangible proof. During the years of 2010-2013, the very few pictures that do exist of me involve me hiding my body, shirking in the background, and covering my face. I drank more, ate poorly for most meals, and just generally let myself go. But as I aged, I very slowly realized I was absolutely miserable. And so, after facing this constant internal struggle day in and day out, I decided that for my own sanity and well-being, I needed to make a change.
I started my running journey in February of 2013. In June of the same year, Jeff’s journey with mental illness and addiction would “begin.” Looking back, I realize this was my higher power giving me a gift. The universe moved me to grow a strong foundation of commitment, patience, and dedication to running in the months before Jeff’s struggle began, so that when the proverbial shit hit the fan, I had a way to cope and survive. I can’t imagine what I would have done without that outlet because at the time, it was all I had. But, before those tragic and significant events occurred that would go onto forever change the course of my life, I started with a simple dream to retake control of my body. When I came into working a recovery program, it took some time for me to realize that my journey with running has really been a practice in the principles of recovery.
First things first, I laced up my shoes and started on a treadmill. I put one foot in front of the other, and I did the best I could with what I had at the time. The mantra that got me through those early days was simple: I could be miserable for 30 minutes, or I could be miserable for the rest of my life. People laugh when I say that because it’s very serious. But I spent 10 years of my life, telling myself I was going to do things, and rarely ever executing them. I took my running with an easy does it mentality, realizing that there was no quick fix. If I was going to build a strong foundation, I would have to take it slow and steady, one run at a time.
I also acted “as if” I was a runner, even when I was far from it, and I just kept doing the work. I just kept coming back and doing the next right thing, even when I didn’t want to. I certainly didn’t feel like a runner for a really long time. I didn’t immediately crave running, or understand the benefits it was bringing into my life, but much like my recovery, I woke up one day, and suddenly, I was a runner. Now if I don’t run, I can feel my insanity. I have grown to truly enjoy running. I am finding beauty and strength in my experiences, both big races and every day runs, and I couldn’t ever imagine being at this point when I was hitting the treadmill, running for 10 minutes at a time, clocking in at 12 min/mile.
As things got crazier in my life, the running gave me the solace I needed to make it through the day. And as I ran more, not shockingly, the more I improved. I found if I thought about major or extreme goals, it overwhelmed me, so I thought of my goals in very small increments. To run a 5k, to finish an 8K, to beat a previous time, etc. I made these small bets with myself, until one day, I woke up, and I was beating my 5k times from high school, finishing longer races than I had ever completed, and finding a 6 mile run was my version of an easy day’s work.
But for a long time, I wanted to run a longer distance race. It was important for me to see how I could push myself, to set my mind to something and follow-through, to develop trust and faith in my abilities. However, I used a marathon as motivation several times over in my journey to health, but every time, I fell short due to lack of motivation, injury, and/or fear. But those things aside, I just wasn’t in the mental space to do it in the past. I couldn’t commit to anything and see it through when it got tough. I didn’t know how to stay present. Most importantly, in running and in my life, I was incapable of running the mile I was in.
This time around, I knew to take my goals in smaller increments. I signed-up for a half marathon for July 2013 after I felt mildly confident that I was at the right place in my training to realistically complete it. I didn’t have control over much in my life at that point. My husband was struggling mentally and with addiction and I had no clue how to fix it. The only thing I could do was try to focus on me. I trained as best I could, but the constant anxiety over Jeff’s mental well-being, his increasing descent into alcoholism, and the juggling I was trying to do between my professional life and keeping my family afloat left me ill-prepared.
I was still ready to assert my will over the race, even though I know I might not have been as ready as I could have been. In a serious turn of events, Jeff relapsed and threatened to hurt himself the night before the race. I was devastated and inconsolable. Needless to say, at that point I did not have the skills in my life to detach with love, to self-care, or to let go of his issues and focus on me, so I skipped the race. Looking back, I’d like to think this was my higher power, trying to take care of me, as I probably wasn’t ready for the race anyways after the crazy and overwhelming few months we had, but at the time, all I was capable of seeing was me, once again as a victim.
Two days after I was supposed to run that half marathon, I was running home from work, as I still do several times a week. I was running by Lake Michigan, and it was a very windy day on the water. I was oblivious, because obviously I had a lot on my mind at that time. Mid thought, I was hit by a giant wave over the sea wall, which was so powerful it knocked me over. I got up, soaking wet, and I decided in that moment, in mile 3 of what was to be my 6 mile run, that I was going for the full 13.1. I prided myself on that moment for months, my ability to leg through that run despite being completely unprepared for it. Looking back, that action was one of the major signifiers of my insanity. I ran 13 miles, in soaking wet shoes, with having had only a yogurt to eat (because I was also so anxiety ridden during those days that I could barely eat anything), dragging myself through the last 3 miles despite having my body scream at me to stop, just to prove I could. I was unwilling to admit that I was powerless and that my life had become unmanageable.
This is an actual photo I snapped, just after being knocked down:
I signed up for a half marathon in April in Chicago on one cold day in January. I ran on vacations. I ran before going to Disneyworld, twice. I ran on a cruise, around a track where 11 laps equaled one mile. I ran every day, in the Chicago winter, home from work 6 miles, in temperatures that sometimes dipped well below 0 with the wind-chill. I ran to and from recovery meetings and friend’s houses. I ran when I didn’t want run and I ran when all I could do was run.
The longer training runs continued to bring me spiritual awakening, upon spiritual awakening. I learned that I should be a goose: http://www.lifeimpaired.com/melissas-blog/holocene1. I learned to take it, one mile, one song, and one step at a time. I learned to accept myself for who I am, to always see the beauty, and to believe that I can and will. I learned to stay the course. Most importantly, I learned to let go and trust that there is more road.
Today, I ran that half marathon. I did so with little pomp and circumstance, or declarations about what I would, or could, or should do. I showed up, put my bib on, and just like every other day, I put one foot in front of the other, and I ran. Around mile three, the pace group I was running with reached a part of the race path that went underneath Lake Shore Drive through a tunnel. The tunnel was flooded, and many people were turning back in confusion, retracing the route to find a dry path. So early on in the race, to run through standing, smelly water seemed like it might be pace suicide. But my pacesetter went through, and not one to want to lose time, I followed. It was cold, and my feet were disgusting, but I came out of that tunnel smiling. Suddenly, it had all come full circle for me. It didn’t bother me that I would have to run the next ten miles in this manner, because I had already done this once, two years prior. A moment that I was such a victim in then became something that I am eternally grateful for now. My higher power gave me that moment to allow me truly appreciate this one. As I emerged from the tunnel, grinning like a complete idiot, I looked up and saw a goose. In an instant, I once again knew that whatever happened, I would be okay, just as long as I just kept going with the flow instead of resisting it.
It took me a lifetime to get to the starting line, but I completed it in 1 hour and 50 minutes (with an 8:22 minute pace).
“It's, not, how you start, it's how you finish, ”