(originally appeared in Huffington Post)
In my early twenties, while working in publishing and pursuing my first graduate degree, I discovered running. At first, two miles was as far as I ventured. I ran the twenty blocks from my apartment on Manhattan’s upper east side up to 90th street and 3rd avenue and back. I loved the feeling of passing the world by as I ran, taking in the people, pets, and dawdling doormen as I plowed through NYC’s cluttered streets. There were days I visited my parents in Brooklyn and would run from their house in Mill Basin the three miles to Marine Park, run the loop there a few times, and then run back to their home, sweaty and exuberant. There were so many times through growing up that I had passed that park while driving in a car, that to run there held a fascination for me. It was the beginning of a feeling that would flourish as my running expeditions took shape and form—the concept that adventure was something that I could embark upon each day by lacing up my running shoes and heading out the door.
The more I ran, the more I discovered the allure of being part of the world, while moving through it. Sure, driving a car had a similar effect, but there was something to my feet hitting the pavement that empowered me to become engaged and aware of all around me. It was as if each time my foot struck the ground, it reaffirmed, I am I am I am. I noticed the littlest details: the shape and sound of leaves as they evolved from season to season, and how they transformed from rich yellows to muted browns and grays and back to green as the year progressed. I began to see and smell and experience the outdoors in a way that was reminiscent of my childhood at sleepaway camp in upstate New York.
I grew faster with each month I ran. I loved it. The freedom, the air rushing past me, the focus, the movement. Soon after, I ventured to Central Park, and each morning, as I entered at 72nd street and made my way onto the 6.2-mile loop, it was as if someone had wound me up and set me lose. I struggled uphill that first mile, waiting until I passed the black panther statue hiding up above in the trees beyond the Boathouse Café, and from there, I always felt my legs and breath align. My early morning hour runs extended to an hour and fifteen minutes, then an hour and a half. My feet pounding the pavement, my being exhilarated from the exertion, I never wanted my morning runs to end.
I ran alone those first few years. I craved the solitude and autonomy. I had always been an independent girl, but running took it to another level: I was now an independent girl who could take myself wherever I wanted to go on my own two feet. There was the me who loved to be with others, surrounded by my friends, and the me that craved time and space away and alone. Running gave me a chance to think, dream, work out short stories—which in my early 20’s—began to write themselves in my mind at a fierce rate. I sometimes carried a pen with me and paper in my CD carrycase a la the 1990’s, and a few years later, a boyfriend bought me a tape recorder pen, which I ran with and spoke story ideas into. Years later, I would learn to edit story ideas in my mind and tuck them away so that I no longer had to write them down or record them, but was able to recall them when I was home, in front of my computer. There were also the success stories I told myself as I ran, my adrenaline high, my mind all shades of optimism: that I could do whatever I wanted to do – that it was my life! Then there were the games I played: promising myself that if I could just make it across that street before the traffic light turned red, anything was possible. There were many victories during my runs, and some losses, too. But they taught me to dream and try and trust, and most importantly, they helped me to understand that pursuing the things I aspired to was tied to exertion and forward motion.
Running was about getting lost—physically at times—and finding that within me which led me back, to myself, and to my upper east side apartment. The theme of much of my fiction writing was born during my runs. It was the concept of missing people, and how in this great big world, full of twists and turns and alleys and highways and tunnels and bridges, it was possible that so many people found their way home day after day. To me, out on those runs, it seemed that one wrong turn could take me far away from my life, spiraling into another realm. And yet, I managed to find my way home daily, along with millions of others. I knew this, because walking home from work each night, I looked up into the endless apartments spawning midtown and the upper east side, and saw lights on in each of them, from the first floor up to the sky. But beyond that, I suppose when I was out on my explorations that I took on the persona of a missing person, because as my feet took me further away, I was unlocatable. There was no address to tell someone to come find me, because where I was one moment, was not where my legs led me the next. Running taught me that it’s such a big world, both within and without.
I ran through another graduate degree, a career transition; I ran through 9/11 and its reverberations. I ran through a marriage, through moves to new cities and states, through a divorce, through traveling across the U.S. and Europe. I ran through family sickness. I ran through the hardest days of my life, and the ones filled with the most joy. I ran 5ks, 10ks, half and full marathons. I grew fond of running with close friends and spending the time catching up on one another’s lives. Running became a social outlet for me as much as a time out with myself over the years. I grew to love my weekend long-run adventures through Manhattan, and later Florida, with my confidantes, rehashing our weeks, our dreams, our fears, our lives.
As my mom battled Leukemia, I started to run longer and farther than I ever thought fathomable. The reality of my mother’s struggle with cancer filled me with an immense gratitude about what it meant to be healthy. Good health meant freedom; it meant that there were no limits to my life, beyond the ones I imposed, and with that, the need to push the boundaries of my life was born within me. It was during my first ultramarathon—the North Face Wisconsin 50 miler on the Ice Age trail—that I began to comprehend the next realm of what running could teach me. I had been fearful going into that race—the trails, the hills, the thought of being alone out there, in foreign terrain, for such a long distance. To add to the nightmare, it began to storm violently as the race took off at 5 am: thunder, lightning, and torrential downpour. A few miles in, I felt confident that no one would blame me for quitting; after all, who ran in that type of weather?
Somehow, I persisted, and the rain stopped by the afternoon, although the trail was muddy and rugged from wear. Over 11 hours later, I crossed the finish line, with two men from Florida who had adopted me along the way. It was not only the beginning of dear friendships, but the beginning of the next chapter in my life. One in which I no longer let limitations define me. One in which I sought out challenges and began to trust in myself, in my strength, in my determination. During that race, I had wanted to quit so many times, but something within me knew better, and slowly, over the hours I spent running, climbing, hiking, hurting, praying, wishing for the race to be over, I began to settle into a rhythm and understand that the good and the bad was all part of it, and that the finish line would come, and that the next day of my life would come, and that at some point in the near future, I would long for the freedom that being out on the Ice Trail gave me.
Days later, reminiscing with my two new Florida friends once we were all back in Florida, the race loomed enjoyable and fun to us. Our minds had somehow transformed the pain and hurt into laughter and good times. Because that is often what struggle gives us: a heightened sense of joy and accomplishment; a deep-rooted knowledge that we can and will survive and overcome the challenges in front of us. And when you learn it physically, it becomes a memory richly rooted in your being and psyche. Since then, there have been over 100 ultramarathons for me of all distances in the last few years, with thirty of them completed at the 100 miles or more distance. Through them all, I have laughed, cried, struggled, got lost, made new friends, and have developed a granite within me so strong, that on my weakest days, it promises me that I can, that I will, that I am.
The miracle of movement is real, and it can enrich our lives in ways that often don’t reveal themselves until we have put in the time, the miles, the blood, sweat, and tears. It’s some 20+ years since I first laced up my running shoes, and still, now, running has remained an outlet for me to work out stories and articles, as well as work-related hurdles, and relationships. Over the years, I’ve been interrogated about my knees and often told by those who don’t run how I am ruining my body. There are science-based studies to support whichever side you choose to reside on. To me, movement is freedom and cultivates self-awareness, serenity, and an investment in the earth. Those who persist in practicing movement know that each mile we earn—whether on the race course or during training—helps us to engage deeper with ourselves, and thus enables us to connect with the world on a different level. We know that running releases what we hold inside, and that it enables us to take in the world, to meet new people, to explore the nooks and crannies within and without that are so often overlooked. We experience a freedom that is undefinable, and a knowledge that finish lines are only steps in our lives that keep leading us to the next finish lines, and that in the end, we are all moving towards something so much larger than ourselves.