It’s been ten years since I laced up a pair of sneakers and went for my first run. I was oblivious to the fact that running could change a person. But all those miles and minutes I clocked on city streets, with endorphins whooshing through my brain, reprogrammed who I was and recalibrated my understanding of how I fit into the world. Like slow-moving tectonic plates, running shook the old buildings and boulevards of myself to the ground.
It was summer on the east coast and the mosquitoes, who thrived in the humidity, swarmed and caroused on my front porch late into the night. As was my summer protocol, I retreated indoors to gorge myself on snacks and read books. In my stack of summer reading was a comic book titled The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by Matthew Inman. Reading an entire book about the purported pleasures of running made me wonder: When was the last time I ran? Was my body even capable of running? The idea seemed ludicrous – me, forever toeing the line between being overweight and obese. Me, heaving and panting, flushed and soaked with sweat on the side of the road. I wouldn’t survive five minutes.
Memories of faking menstrual cramps to get out of gym class played on the projector screen in the back of my mind. At times it seemed the sole purpose of this projector was to replay my life’s most humiliating moments for the entertainment of my ever-attendant self-critics. The loud ones in the front row heckled and jeered with glee as my former self held her stomach, and watched the sporty kids dart around the football field with ease. No, I was not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I tossed the book aside, dismissing the idea as quickly as it came.
But one August evening, the oppressive heat relented and gave way to a cool breeze. Every muscle in my body relaxed when I stepped out onto my front porch. The air, perfumed with honeysuckles, rustled my hair beneath the indigo sky. It felt as if I hadn’t been outside in years. Standing there, captivated by the breeze and the beauty of the evening, I was surprised to ask myself: Should I go for a run? The heckling critics snapped, “Are you out of your mind? You’re not a runner! Go back inside before you embarrass yourself!” I furrowed my brow and glanced down at my shoes – shoes that had never moved particularly fast. Suddenly, with one drawing breath, I jogged down the porch stairs and toward the end of my driveway. Once I reached the end of the driveway, I jogged into the neighborhood. Self-imposed limitations melted away. Despite the shrieking of my inner critics, I pushed on into the mystery and thrill of what could be.
My heart hammered after five minutes, and by twenty, I skidded to a breathless halt. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and watched the evening traffic crawl on the road alongside me. Drivers took turns blaring their horns and shouting into oblivion beneath the stars. After a moment, I laughed and thought, I’m moving faster than they are, at least. My anxieties about looking stupid and being incapable lifted off of my shoulders and floated away in the breeze.
Running evoked that summertime high I’d felt only as a kid after hours of biking, swimming, and scampering through the woods. It stoked memories of being in perpetual motion until I collapsed in giggles on the front lawn. I felt weightless then, sprawled out on top of the earth. My brain, pumped with dopamine and dreams, lit up like the fireflies ablaze in the tree branches overhead.
What happened to that bliss? Years passed, and the angsty behemoth of adolescence devoured the spritely days of climbing trees and exploring forests. I traded in forest romps for CosmoGirl. I latched my windows, cranked the AC, and watched MTV’S The Real World. By thirteen, I gave my attention away to boys and friends who, in time, faded like all tenuous trends do. The wild girl who rollicked through life’s jungles faded too.
Rediscovering that spunky girl as an adult in a pair of old sneakers was like a spiritual rebirth, igniting a self-exploratory decade of trail sprints, coastal trots, and yes, even forest romps. One run led to the next, and while I didn’t fully realize the metamorphosis occurring inside of me at the time, I began to catch glimpses of the life I desired and raced into the future at warp speed. Running exhumed the ambitions of the 7-year-old girl who once only dreamed beneath the fireflies.
After a year of running, I moved to the west coast where the mosquitos were sparse and coastal trails, abloom with wildflowers, made for fantastical runs. Since moving, I’ve run in several half marathons and hope to complete my first full marathon in 2024. When people ask, I proudly say, I am a runner – a fact that I consider central to my identity. Even though I once doubted my abilities, my passion for discovering the world on foot remains my greatest joy.