‘When I was by myself, so deep in the woods the trail was invisible, I considered turning back.’ Woman eloquently describes her journey with running

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“If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far. It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.”

– John Bingham

“By society’s standards, I don’t run fast, I don’t run far, and I don’t run as regularly as many people do. In fact, there have been times when I’ve taken extended breaks from lacing up my tennis shoes, not because I chose to do so, but because there were times when life simply got in the way: infertility, multiple miscarriages, a pre-term baby with a multitude of health issues, a resulting round of terrible depression and anxiety, the never-ending work of raising children, the tasks of helping an ailing parent, the eventual loss of both parents, and a job that I took home with me every single day all frequently took precedence over running. As such, I’ve never classified myself as ‘a runner.’ I ran when I could and didn’t when I couldn’t. However, I always missed it when I wasn’t doing it, and inevitably, in a few weeks, a few months, or sometimes even a few years, those tennis shoes would always call me home.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started running or when I fell in love with it. It’s always been there. I ran all over our three-acre property as a child and tag was my favorite game. At the age of four or five, I remember watching my siblings and their friends run races at our annual 4-H Field Day. I cam home and begged my mom to measure off 50 yards in the field by our house and from then on I repeatedly pleaded with her and my siblings to time me running it. Running that 50 yard dash through the grass continued for years until I was old enough to participate in 4-H Field Day. And yet, because I was just running in the yard or at 4-H, I didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

We lived on a dirt road in the country and my 50 yard dashes in the field progressed to sprints up to the main road every day to pick up the newspaper, the mail, or something from the little store in town. It never occurred to me to walk. I simply ran. And yet, because I was running as a part of the chores I had to do, I didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

I knew I wanted to go out for basketball in junior high school, so in preparation at the age of 12, I decided to start running regularly. At that time I convinced my mom I was old enough to run along the main road in our little town. (This wasn’t exactly a safe endeavor because the road was narrow with very little berm and heavily traveled by coal trucks, but I was quite persuasive, and so she agreed.) I remember getting up early in the summer to avoid the sweltering heat and running through the early morning mist day after day. And yet, because I was running to prepare for basketball, I didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

At our small K-12 school, basketball was the only available sport, and I played from 7th to 12th grade. I was not a great shot, but it was a small school and I was quick and good at defense, so I saw a lot of playing time. I loved it and craved it when I wasn’t doing it. However, I now realize it was ultimately the running I craved.

When the coach would call for 20 sprints and 20 gut busters and everyone else would groan, I would secretly be excited. In fact, as soon as I discovered gut busters that first year of playing basketball, out came the trusty tape measure again and off I traipsed to the field. I measured off the approximate equivalents of the hash marks, foul lines and half-court line of a basketball court and visually marked them with items in the yard (the plum tree, the driveway, the garden, the big dip, and so forth). I ran those gut busters again and again, sometimes making my mom and siblings time me and sometimes running them just to run them. And yet, once again because I was running to improve at basketball, I didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

My running through college was much more sporadic and became interspersed with aerobics. I was either very dedicated or very busy with no real in-between or happy medium. I became much more focused on running my senior year. I progressed to running six miles at a time and even bought my first treadmill. I went on to enter my first 10K and actually placed second in my age group. Yet, I blew off this accomplishment telling myself there just weren’t very many people in my division. As such, I still didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

A full-time teaching job and having children of my own followed, along with the aforementioned ups and downs of adult life. Again, I was either very dedicated or very busy. During one particular stretch of dedication, I remember making a conscious decision to train for a half-marathon. Several months passed by and I was making steady progress. Unfortunately, however, my mom, who had previously been diagnosed with lung cancer, began to decline quickly. I continued to train, but one day while attempting to run my farthest distance (8 miles) I received a call that my mom was very ill and they weren’t sure what was going to happen. I remember looking down at the treadmill display when I picked up the phone. I had run 7.48 miles. To this day I’ve yet to run farther. Hospice and a nursing home placement followed for my mom. She passed away a year later and my half- marathon dreams never came to fruition. I felt like a quitter, so I didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

By this time I had become the principal of our small community school, which now only housed elementary students. I loved my job, but it occupied my entire life. There was little time to run, and a substantial amount of weight gain followed. I frequently attempted to start back to running, but those attempts always fell through. Then my dad passed away rather suddenly. My parents had divorced when I was very young, and since I lived with my mom, I was closer to her. Thus, I was completely blind-sided by the depression and anxiety that blackened my world with the passing of my dad. I was overweight, lacked dedication, and always felt depressed or anxious. I certainly did not consider myself ‘a runner.’

Fortunately, shortly thereafter our school began to participate in a local running club. I stayed after school as often as I could to help with practices and was immediately drawn back to my love of running. It soothed my broken and overwhelmed soul. The formation of the club also resulted in many staff members, parents and community members becoming first-time runners. It was exhilerating. The adults even entered races with the students. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. And yet, because people who had never run before could already run farther and faster than me, I still didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

That was just a little over two years ago. So many people started running with that club that without even realizing it, I became a part of a running community that motivated me to stick with it. The independence of teenage children and a change in jobs also helped to free up more running time. I haven’t taken an extended break from running since. I still don’t run very far or very fast and life still gets in the way at times, but I have remained dedicated to putting one foot in front of the other for the last two years. Running simply makes me feel good. And yet, until last week, I still didn’t consider myself ‘a runner.’

Last week I had the bright idea to sign up for a five mile trail run despite the fact that I only run three miles at a time. I don’t know what possessed me to do it. There was a 5K in the area I could have run instead but chose not to.

I arrived at the check-in table and there were only a handful of people there. When the organizers advised me that I should probably study the map, I became nervous. When they started discussing how steep some parts of the trail were, I considered dropping out. When I hit those steep parts at barely two miles in and the grandfather behind me (who was at least 20 years my senior) passed me with ease leaving me in last place, I felt like a failure. When the trail became even steeper and I had to use trees to pull myself up in spots, I considered yelling and asking the grandfather to wait for me. When I was by myself and so deep in the woods that the trail was nearly invisible, I considered turning back. When I rolled my ankle and nearly lost my shoe in a mud hole ten inches deep, I considered calling someone to come get me. (Unfortunately, I was so deep in the woods that I didn’t have a signal!)

However, up there all alone in last place on that unyielding mountain, I had a lot of time to think. I began to think about other runners I knew who talked about the very moment when they became ‘a runner.’ I began to think about other runners I knew who talked about why they are runners. I began to think about other runners period. And I began to think about myself. I began to think about the fact that running has always been a part of my life; the fact that I can’t pinpoint a definitive beginning to my running but would be heartbroken at the prospect of a definitive ending; the fact that despite taking extended breaks from it and not being naturally good at it, I’m always called back to it; the fact that running makes me feel whole, and in thinking about those things I realized that they are precisely what makes me ‘a runner.’

So in misery and defeat in last place on that unyielding mountain during the most difficult race I’ve ever entered while at times nearly crawling as opposed to running, I conquered my misconception that I am not a runner. You see, I am a runner because it’s in my heart. I am a runner because it’s in my soul. I am a runner simply because I run.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amy Jo Rowan Smith. Submit your story here.

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