Put One Foot in Front of You

The first time I ever ran a mile, I thought my lungs would explode. For the longest time I associated running with side stitches, calf cramps, and an inablinliy to catch my breath. Fear and loathing to the ninth degree. That’s how I felt about running.

I was a chubby kid who fell in love with words. Oh, I liked riding my bike, playing chase, and backyard baseball but you’d often find me with my nose in a book. I devoured stories. I lived for library days at school and couldn’t wait to get back to class to start reading. I mean I literally couldn’t wait so I would read while walking back to class. I immensely enjoyed my art and music electives. I excelled at them much like I did my academic classes. Physical Education, however, was a different story.

P.E. was the bane of my existence- unless we got to play with the rainbow parachute because that was awesome. If we were graded on skill rather than effort, I doubt I would have ever made any grade above a “C”. Remembering gym class is the equivalent of remembering a long list of failures. I never made it above the first knot on the rope climb. I lagged behind on suicide drills. I could never do a single pull-up. My sit-ups were wobbly. I always had to do “girl” push-ups and never managed that many. It was anyone’s guess as to whether I would be able to catch, throw, kick, or hit any ball with accuracy. But there was one day I hated more than any other from elementary to high school: the day we did the mile run. That day always left me with a pounding head, burning lungs, and aching legs. It also left me with a bright red face which was partially from exertion and partly from humiliation. One of the best things about the end my P.E. days was the end of being forced to run a mile.

January 2011, marked a new era for me. At twenty-four, something occurred to me that never did at fourteen: maybe running is something you have to learn how to do. I was a bit lost in this season. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next or how to get my life together but running seemed like a place to start. I decided I wanted to run a half-marathon at some point in my life but I knew I couldn’t manage this on my own. I needed help. I needed a coach. This great gal in my Bible study at the time happened to coach track and I traded babysittiting for training. The first time I met her at Edwin-Warner, jogging 0.25 miles felt like mini-deaths. I wanted to stop before reaching the marker. She ran alongside and told me something that quickly became a mantra I carry with me to this day, “You can do anything for one minute.” She was right. I could keep going. It became very apparent that learning to run was as much mental preparation as it was physical. Tara taught me how to do both. “We are sooooo going to turn you into a runner.  You better brace yourself!” she emailed me. She was right again. I went from being able to barely run for three minutes to running ten, then fifteen, twenty, and thirty. Each minute I added, every 0.1 mile picked up was a little victory. In May, I ran the TN Baptist Children’s Home 5K. Towards the end, I wanted to quit running and just walk. Tara jumped in beside me and helped me finish strong. I learned a lot about myself in those months but I think learning that I could do something I failed at so many times before was the biggest take-away.

After this 5K, I ran from time to time. I started nursing school that fall. I ran for exercise. I ran for stress relief. I ran for pleasure. Sometimes I would go months without running. I didn’t think much about how I wanted to run a half until this winter. It was a grueling winter: bitter cold, bitter disappointment, grey skies, and grey moods. I needed a fitness goal. I needed to remember what it was to accomplish something that seemed improbable. I needed that runner’s high. So, I bit the bullet and signed up for The Four Bridges Half in Chattanooga. An October race seemed doable. It gave me enough time to get back in running-shape. After all, it had been quite some time since I ran more than a mile at a time.  I met with my friend, Abbey, and we talked training strategies. As the months passed and it became more of a reality, I told a few more people what I was doing but I kept this decision pretty quiet. I didn’t want it to become a thing. And the looming probability of failure kept my mouth shut.

In March, I went to REI and got fitted with running shoes. I bought a pair of Brooks that kept my feet happy as I wandered down the same paths at Edwin-Warner that led to my first 5K.

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As I began training anew, I quickly rediscovered a couple of things. First, I hate running on a treadmill. It makes my knees hurt. Time seems to stop. I put in a lot of effort to go nowhere. So, decided to run outside. I ran some at Edwin-Warner and some around my apartment complex. In May, with the help of some friends, I discovered a nearby greenway.  Quickly, it became clear that this was my place. This was the trail where my training began in ernest. I have made it there almost every week at least once the last five months and I never grow tired of its ever-changing beauty.

I’ve run under the canopy of trees. Grateful for the shade in the summer’s heat and delighted by the leaf-light that trickles through.

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I run across the bridge and take in the water. Sometimes its high and clear and sometimes its muddy and low. I never quite know what I’ll find.

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After the bridge, I round the curve and enter the field. This place has left me in awe over and over. It can be an open space or overflowing with wildflowers. There are butterflies and ladybugs. I never quite know what I’ll find around the bend.

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Something about this space is sacred. As I’ve wandered down its paths, I’ve experienced so much wonderment and delight. Little pockets of joy wait for me. God’s whisper grows louder here. I remember time and time again that I need this beauty. I need to hear moving water. I need the sun on my skin and to feel the breeze on my face. I need to take in the changing seasons and know all is well. I am better for every moment I’ve spent on this trail.

Once I reclaimed the ability to run a mile without stopping, I remembered another reason that I loved running. It shuts up the voice in my head belonging to The Girls I Am Not. This voice in my head that sounds like me but isn’t me, at least not the real me. It’s a catty, snarky voice that likes to corner me from time to time. She’s loudest in dressing rooms, mirrors, and large social events. She gazes at my reflection and sighs, “If only…” If only I were prettier or skinnier. If only I were more daring. If only I was athletic. If only I wasn’t so klutzy. If only this than xyz would happen. “If you could just be more like her and less like you,” she whines.

With every foot step pounding against the pavement she grows a bit quieter. Running reminds me that I can do more than I think I can. It’s as mental as it is physical. Each time I run farther than I have ever gone before, I find new courage. Running clears my head. It helps me focus on what’s true. It helps me find clarity when I’m lost. The endorphins boost my mood. The sweat dripping down my neck is detoxifying. When I run, my stress decreases and my strength increases. I might not be the fastest or most graceful but I’m still doing it and that silences the voice that likes to tell me I’m not enough.

In June, I ran a 5K with some sweet friends. By nightfall the temperature was cool, the sky was beautiful, and we were glowing with excitement and neon.

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As I raced up the long hill, I recalled a day doing hill sprints with Tara. She laughed at me amused by my speed, “You run faster on hills than you do when the ground’s flat. Most people slow down.” Something about the difficulty of the incline makes me want to speed up so it’s over sooner. Christine suggested I’m tapping into a deeper strength when it gets hard. I think it’s probably a little bit of both. I was able to run the whole course which was thrilling. 3.1 miles down; only 10 more to go.

June and July held an onslaught of Tennessee heat and humidity. I knew if I could get up at six I would find some relief. Unfortunately, working nights has made it near impossible to get up at six to do anything I’m not excited about. So I ran at dusk. Somedays I just didn’t run. And while my running suffered a bit as I wilted in the heat, I still made progress. By August, I had laid out a training template to get me up to 13.1 miles. I knew I might not be able to run it straight, but I wanted to to try.

On August 7th, I ran my best run yet. It was a warm afternoon but not unbearable and I was in a really good mood. I ran four miles straight fueled mostly by excitement from scoring a PTO night off work to leave town with a few of my favorite people. It was the longest straight distance I’d ever run and that put me in an even better mood.

On August 8th, I fell. I’m klutzy and it’s not the first time I’ve tripped in flip-flops and I doubt it will be the last. But it wasn’t a cute little fall. It wasn’t skinned knees or bruises that fade after a week. No, this time I busted my knee open. That was apparent from the moment I got up off the floor. It’s two months later and while it’s healed over, it’s left quite a scar. It’s fading some but it’s a mark I know I’ll always bare. What wasn’t as obvious that night was that I had rolled my foot. That pain came later once the swelling started on Sunday. It smarted on the car ride home and ached as I walked through my three shifts in a row. I did rest, ice, and elevate it as much as I could and while it got better, the pain didn’t go away. A “healing sprain” was the verdict I got Thursday at the walk-in. I wasn’t sure if I should run on it or not so I asked and was told to take a little break and baby it that weekend.

So, I babied my foot that weekend just like the NP said. Or I jumped up and down on it at Needtobreathe for a few hours, ran errands while setting up for a bachelorette party, and played laser tag. One of those statements is true. I’ll let you guess. That being said, I waited to run for a couple of weeks. I didn’t want to do anything too stupid. I rely heavily on the ability to remain on my feet for nearly twelve hours, three nights a week and I didn’t want to screw up my ability to work by pushing too hard, too fast.

August 25th, I headed to the greenway. I knew my foot wasn’t up to snuff but I had to start again. And by starting again, I mean starting again at square one. I felt the ache by 0.25 miles and by 0.75 the pain was too much to run. I had to slow to a walk. This was to be expected. I’d have to rebuild my strength like everyone does post-injury. What I didn’t expect was that the word stupid would echo in my head every time pain shot through my body as I ran. Stupid was how I felt when I fell. Stupid was how I felt about crying when I fell. Stupid was how I felt about a lot of things that happened that weekend. Stupid created a crack of insecurity and suddenly the “If only…” train of thought crept back into my head. If only I hadn’t gone. If only I hadn’t tripped. If only I had kept my mouth shut. If only I had done things different.

But sometimes it is what it is. You can’t flip a switch and change things. There’s not a quick fix that magically makes everything better. Sometimes the only way to get better is to lean into the pain. It’s trying again when you know last time you failed.

In September, I ran the Funnel Cake 5K at the State Fair. I walked way more than I wanted to walk. The course was ugly. My foot hurt. But I finished and afterwards I ate funnel cake and rode rides with friends. It was the worst feeling I’ve had at the end of a race but I came out knowing even if I walked almost every mile of the half that I could finish. Up until that point I wasn’t so sure.

I’m reading Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, which ironically is about getting up after we fall. I doubt it is any coincidence that I’m reading this right now. I love this passage:

I know, badassery is a strange term, but I couldn’t come up with another one that captures what I mean. When I see people stand fully in their truth, or when I see someone fall down, get back up, and say, “Damn. That really hurt, but this is important to me and I’m going in again”– my gut reaction is, “What a badass.”

Slowly the word stupid faded away. I ran as much as I could and gave myself grace to walk anytime I needed to walk. I kept going. When I managed to run/walk ten miles, I knew I’d make it through. It might take me longer than I’d like, but I could do it. I hoped.

Suddenly, it was October and race weekend and ready or not it was time. I had to wake up at six, which five central time, which was brutal for a nightshift gal. I almost didn’t find parking in time, even though I had anticipated this problem. I ran/walked about a mile just to get to the starting point on time, stopping just long enough to safety pin my number in place. Turns out I cannot pin and move at the same time, believe me, I’ve tried. It was dark and cold. I hadn’t had time to make a playlist like I wanted, so shuffle would dictate what I heard. It wa not my ideal way to start a race.

But the sun came up up as we began to run. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The temperature rose slowly but remained chilly enough to cool heated limbs and cheeks. It was a gorgeous morning in Chattanooga. Running across the bridges and over the rivers was breathtaking. I ran over three miles straight before I had to walk for a spell. Then, I fell into a rhythm running when I could and walking when I couldn’t. I didn’t try to do pacing or time anything. This race was solely about making it to the end.

  

About mile eight, I was starting to struggle. The pain and fatigue had started to creep in and I knew that while I had made it over halfway, I still had a good stretch to go. Every once in awhile, bystanders would be cheering on the sidelines. A little boy and his dad repeatedly popped up with a white board encouraging their mom. Volunteers happily shoved water, energy drinks, oranges, bananas, gels, and gummies into our hands. Right when I needed it most there was a guy holding up a white piece of posterboard with scribbled Sharpie that read, “The voice in your head that says you can’t do this is a liar.” Those words gave me my second wind.

The last couple of miles, were possibly the least picturesque. I was tired and ready to be done. I had no clue how long I’d been going until the girl with the 3:00:00 sign was creeping up behind me. I had the same reaction as a few other people: no way am I finishing behind that marker! So I dug into some last energy reserves and stayed ahead of her and then I would have to walk and she would start to pass me and I had to speed up all over again. When I rounded the curve that led us back into the park, I knew I wanted to finish with a song that would have some meaning. I had to press skip a couple of times, but when I landed on Sleeping At Last’s song “Daughter” I knew I’d found the right note to end my run.

this is your kingdom,
this is your crown,
this is your story.
this is your moment,
don’t look down..

you’re ready, born ready.
and all you gotta do
is put one foot in front of you.

I finished at 2:51:00:765. It was faster than I had anticipated. Fast enough that my brothers, and Zack’s girlfriend, Leah, hadn’t left yet to come see me cross the finish line.

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Afterwards, I happily spun the medal that they hung around my neck and texted my family. Then I laid down on the grass, staring up at the bright blue sky and let little tears of joy roll down my cheeks.  It wasn’t a perfect run. I walked more than I had expected to walk when I started training in March but I had finished. I did something that the chubby kid who hated running would have never have expected me to do. As I hobbled the nine miles back to my car- seriously, it felt that far away- I knew that every painful step was worth it. When I could barely climb into my Jeep, I thought, Worth it. When going up steps made me want to say ugly words, I still knew it was worth it.

These last four months and over I feel like I’m learning to lean into what isn’t comfortable. Cough up the words that would rather remain locked tight in my throat. Sit in moments of vulnerability and say this is how I really feel. Talk through things I would rather ignore. I’ve had to say, “I’m sorry,” when sorry feels inadequate. I’ve cried more in front of people than I feel is ideal. I’ve simply cried more than I think is ideal. Like running with an injury, I don’t do this perfectly. Some days I still ignore what’s scary and messy and uncertain. But more often than not I find myself thinking, “This is important to me and I’m going in again.”

I write this because once upon a time I fell in love with words and I’ve learned to love something I once hated. But I also write this to be a girl holding up a sign along your path to tell you, “The voice in your head that says you can’t do this is a liar.” It might not be easy. You might fall. You might have to swallow your pride and ask for help. It might be scary. There aren’t gaurantees. Your heart might get broken. You might break someone else’s heart. You might cry more than you think is ideal. You might have to take two steps back for every step you move forward. You might feel lost and lonely at times. You might have to have hard, awkward conversations. You might find yourself too far in to turn back and have to keep walking into the unknown. It probably won’t go the way you thought it would go, but it will be okay. I hope someday you can look at the pain and say, “Worth it.” It won’t be perfect but it can be brilliant. And all you’ve gotta do is put one foot in front of you…

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