On October 8, 2016, three months after I moved from San Diego to Terre Haute, Indiana, I decided to go for a run. I wanted to be outside. I wanted to move. I wanted to feel free. I was tired of feeling run down, and trapped inside my house, my body and my mind. It was a Saturday fall afternoon, so the weather was turning slightly cooler and leaves were starting to clutter the ground.
I kept my running plans to myself, perhaps because I wanted this to be MY activity and mine alone. As my husband, Bryan, was just about to drive our daughter, Sophie, to volleyball practice, I casually told him I was going out for a run. “Be careful and don’t push yourself,” he said. “When was the last time you ran? You don’t want to hurt yourself.”
But I wasn’t worried about hurting myself. I wasn’t worried about anything. I just wanted to get out of my house and move.
I put on an old pair of New Balance running shoes I found at a Ross Dress-for-Less four years earlier. I never spent a lot of money on exercise clothes or shoes since I would never use them to their potential. I didn’t deserve expensive running shoes; they’d be wasted on me. So on went those shoes, along with a pair of baggy black cropped yoga pants, and a turquoise blue short-sleeve shirt, worn over two very old extra-large black sports bras from Target (if I was going to run, I needed the large chest I was “blessed with” to stay intact). My shoulder length brownish-blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail and I was ready to go.
Across the street from my house is a sidewalk path that runs from east to west, from Dobbs Nature Park to Deming Park, which is full of playgrounds, tennis courts, a pool and grassy hills for disc golf. From park to park, running one way on that sidewalk trail was just about one mile (although I had no idea of its length at the time). In my two months in Indiana, I came to realize that sidewalks are a rare thing in the Midwest. Such a common place to walk in California didn’t really exist here in Terre Haute. It was small things like sidewalks that made me realize how far from home I truly was. So I noticed every sidewalk and decided that stretch would be what I would run that October afternoon.
I went outside my front door, crossed the street, and I started to run. And then I walked. And then I ran again. I didn’t have a fancy watch or timer. I didn’t even listen to music on that first run. But I moved, on legs that felt heavy and a body that carried 40 pounds of fat that it doesn’t hold today. I struggled with picking up one foot and putting it in front of the other. My head felt like it was “ahead of” my body, and when I picture myself in my mind, I see an image of just that — my skull, head and shoulders protruding out and going faster, while my torso, legs and feet struggled to catch up from behind me.
Breaths came rugged and fast. I tried to push air through my nose and out my mouth, a breathing technique that felt similar panic. My heart pounded faster and faster, to the point I could hear the pulsing in my ears. Was this cardiac or aerobic activity, or was this simply old fashioned anxiety? How would I know the difference?
My foot was sore, and I felt a tightness in my right hip. Was the pain real? It wasn’t there before. Maybe it was there to occupy my brain; anything to keep my mind from focusing on the real pain that was deeper inside my soul and poked through my exterior with headaches and sleepless nights. Suddenly, I realized I made it to Dobbs Park on the east side of the trail. The pain was gone and I was flying off the ground.
Eventually, I finished my run. I don’t think it was even a full mile, and I’m sure I walked more than I ran. The idea of racing, fast or even a “sub 15” minute mile was laughable to me. But I did what I set out to do: I ran. My body felt lighter and my cheeks detected a smile across my face. My shoulders held me up higher. And while I was sweating and breathing heavily, it was in relief; not in pain.
I got back home to two dogs barking loudly, wondering what had happened to me outside the walls of the house; and more importantly, why they weren’t allowed to come along. I guzzled water to quench my thirst and my parched mouth. For the first time in a very long time, my body felt like it was awake. And in an almost intimate way, I felt connected to my physical self. I was glad Bryan and Sophie were still at volleyball practice, as the running and those feelings were mine, and mine alone.
Two days later, I went outside and ran again, on the same path and in the same clothes and worn-down shoes. And then I did it again. Almost every other day, I ran/walked that stretch of sidewalk across from my neighborhood. Eventually I added more time, or repeated that path to get two miles. Or I ventured into the park to add distance. I had no plans for those runs. I only went outside and let my feet and mind take me where they wanted to go.
Eventually, I created a Spotify playlist and my phone and wired Apple earbuds accompanied me on runs. Soon enough, I figured out that “Free Fallin’,” “I’m on Fire” and “Solsbury Hill” would get me about three-quarters of the way through the run. I added more and more songs, and that “Classics” playlist, as I called it, would keep me company for the next several years.
I ran alone, but I was never lonely. I found something out there, moving in nature by myself. I had no idea what it was, but it comforted me. It made me feel strong and free; feelings I didn’t have inside my house or inside my body. After that day in October 2016 — and for the first time in my life — I kept running. I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t stop.
Runners will always tell you that the first mile is always the hardest to run. It’s in that first mile that you regulate your breath, your pace, and you have to go inside your body to get out of your own way. That was certainly the case for me, as that first run was the hardest mile of my life. But that first mile is also the most important, because it sets the foundation and tone for every mile that follows. It’s that first mile — that first run — that invites you to run a second, a third, and maybe even 100.