It started as a distraction I hated. Then it became an obsession I craved. Then, a passion that carried me through.
I was halfway through my run when I broke my "no walking" rule. It was 97 degrees in Brooklyn and I stood at the bottom of the Fort Greene Park stairs trying to motivate myself. I counted to three and then started up the steps humming the Rocky theme song. But these were hardly Philadelphia steps and I was hardly Rocky. I didn't have enough lung capacity to sing and run. So I resigned myself to watching the dizzying concrete blur beneath my sneakers. Eventually, I stood at my doorstep pulling sweaty keys from my sports bra. Five horrible miles done, I thought, still feeling my pulse in my cheeks.
Three weeks earlier, I'd decided to start running. I have never considered myself a "real" runner. Like a lot of people, I liked the idea of running more than actually running. But, lying in bed at 4am next to an empty box of Fig Newtons, I decided to try. Earlier that night over Skype, my long distance relationship ended without much of a goodbye, and my summer took a sharp, unexpected turn. I laid awake curled around my laptop watching Friends reruns and eating cookies. Looking at the screen, I tried to wrap my brain around the new reality: that after a month apart, he and I wouldn't be reuniting the next morning as planned.
Before we'd broken up, I'd told my boyfriend that when I needed to blow off steam or process something, I went for long runs. It was the type of lie people tell at the beginning of a relationship when they're trying to seem just a little more of something than they actually are. For me, it was exaggerated athleticism based on an untested, romanticized idea of running borrowed, most likely, from Forrest himself.
Staring at my ceiling that night, watching the blades of my fan slice silently above me, I thought about my lie. It hung in the relationship's reality, unrevealed. As light began to fill my room that morning, I told myself I'd jog the next day. Tire myself out, test the theory, live the lie. My life wasn't what it was when I'd woken up the morning before. Running hardly seemed like a solution, but it was the only thing I could think to do. Unsurprisingly, the next day I found a reason not to run. My ex and I had plans to escape with friends to New Jersey. So I found myself waiting for the NJ Transit from Penn Station surrounded by some of his best friends, lying to them he couldn't make it but that we'd had a great visit in the city.
With a smile on my face, I barbequed, laughed, swam and retold stories from college. Buying it? I was. My friends were. But after my third trip to the bathroom to cry, I admitted I wasn't holding it together that well. I sat on the cold ledge of my friend Rachel's bathtub in New Jersey staring at my feet. I rested my cheek on my knees and let myself look as trance-like as I felt. I tried to feel my legs beneath me. The responsibility that I would have to pick myself up from this was just sinking in. I allowed myself a few more seconds to sit there. The thought of running floated through my head again. I walked over to flush the toilet and run the sink while I touched up my mascara. I practiced my smile and rejoined the festivities.
The next afternoon, I gathered my hair into a stubby ponytail, and put on my sneakers. Well, I'm doing this, I thought as I stepped off my stoop and started a slow jog. I ran slowly. I was out of shape. Despite my loud thoughts and blasting ear buds, my legs felt heavy and my lungs reluctant. I listened to the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack -- a favorite movie -- for inspiration, wanting to take my mind off my aching muscles. I struggled to find a rhythm and got lost in the borough's busyness. I excused my way through throngs of pedestrians, jogged in place waiting for walk signals, and got passed by buses and dump trucks. I followed the blocks due West but my mind circled the break up. Not the Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence jogging montage I'd pictured. Stretching on my roof, the same thoughts pounded with the blood in my temples. I craved one moment's peace. Maybe I was naïve to expect a reward so soon, but I felt I'd missed something.
I taped a piece of paper to my bedroom wall with a sharpie title EXCELSIOR, a motto I'd taken from Silver Linings Playbook. Borrowed, romanticized, whatever: his motto motivated me. I divided the sheet into three columns: Date, Miles, Minutes. 2.9 miles. 34 minutes. In the shower, cool water pushed salt off my skin and for one moment I felt proud that I'd run. Before falling asleep, I looked at the Excelsior log, a mostly blank sheet of paper with one thin line recorded.
The next day at the office, I kept excusing myself to the bathroom to cry in private. That afternoon I followed the same loop. Three miles in 33 minutes. The break up still haunted each step. I ran most days that week. Every day I recorded date, miles, and time. I still wasn't enjoying the runs, but I looked forward to my shower and liked watching the paper fill up. For now, that was enough. So I kept putting on my sneakers.
After two weeks, even though running was miserable, I was notably unhappier on days I didn't run. So I kept doing it. I scribbled line after line on the log. I composed new playlists, and charted new loops on undiscovered streets all over Brooklyn. I started reading books written by marathon runners, and fell asleep watching their documentaries. I studied their training. Like mine, their patience with their bodies and their mental determination wavered. I started to think about these athletes on the subway to and from work. I ran with their advice in my head, repeating their stories to myself. I wanted them to take up more of my day; I began to run further, slowing my pace so that I could do so.
One day I found myself leaning back against a tree two blocks from my apartment. I'd run 8.2-miles, which was at least three miles longer than any other run I'd done. I started to cry, a release I still can't fully explain. Physical exhaustion. Frustration. I wanted to keep running -- to try for nine miles. I was frustrated with my mind for not shutting off until mile eight, and for my body for reaching its limit just when my mind was quieting down. I was overwhelmed, dehydrated; my legs ached. Knowing I wasn't going to finish the run, I walked the rest of the way home. And for two blocks, my thoughts calmed beneath my breath. Finally.
After that day, my runs became more and more my own. A few blocks at a time, I reclaimed my mind and the habit that I'd only ever ascribed to my break up. The Excelsior log became an afterthought. My mileage built steadily toward 10 miles. I had brief moments when I felt fast, and my times plummeted. After the break up had brought me to my knees, I felt my legs strengthening beneath me. I was stronger than the first 2.9-mile run. As I'd always theorized, but never experienced, the emotional and physical hewed to the same trajectory. They strengthened together.
I began to know my body's rhythms in a way that my three-mile jogs before this summer had never allowed. I learned that I tend to run at a pace I like after two miles. I learned that I only start to enjoy my run after about four miles. And finally, at around five miles, when I'm tired but not done running, I reach my high. I look down at my sneakers and watch the pavement slip away behind me, and I'm just in it.
Running never gets easier. We just get better, emotionally and physically, and want to push ourselves further. Sitting on the ledge of that bathtub in New Jersey earlier that summer, healing seemed out of reach. It wasn't something to grasp at -- not yet. But growing stronger was at my fingertips. I started with the physical, and learned patience with the emotional. There were moments of horrible frustration with my mind and body as the summer shredded my misconceptions about running. But I kept lacing up my sneakers, and practiced not complaining as I pushed myself.
My relationship fib became a reality, a passion that lasted much longer than the breakup's pain. Running didn't make the pain go away, and it didn't speed up the healing process, but it carried me through it. I let my legs carry me through it. Trusting they were there below me when I couldn't feel them.