Thank You, Running

We all love running, but for different reasons. And our interests within the sport vary: sprints, trails, ultras, city 5Ks and iconic 26.2s. Sometimes our passion for running comes and goes in seasons—an ebb and flow of intense love-hate. But at the end of the day, I think we can all agree on one common denominator: Running makes us feel alive.

It's true that running, however painful and terrible it might be at times, forces us to be more aware of the present moment. It asks us to be more hopeful and invites us to live beyond a mere existence.

Here are some of my most vivid running memories, all of which remind me why I do what I do:

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Born to Run

Alright, so not everyone is under the opinion that we were born to run. But we can all agree that it's the one thing our bodies innately wanted to do at a young age. There were no rackets or golf clubs, no balls or paddles, no nets or goals or bars. There were no rules. Just a simple one-two step; one foot in front of the other. Mechanical and natural. And we craved to take part in it.

We watched our parents walk gracefully through the kitchen, along sidewalks in the park, up and down stairs, and atop rugged trails, while our bright, young eyes just watched in awe(—normally from the seat of a stroller or the carpet, where we crawled around on our hands and knees). After a year or two, our itching desire to move like our parents increased. We were willing to take any risk just to be able to hobble our way from the kitchen counter to the living room couch. Our ongoing attempts resulted in face plants, bruises and scrapes, and many tears. Another boo boo! But we persisted. Until finally, one day, we did it: we walked!

Except, it wasn't a walk, was it? No. It was a run. An awkward, lopsided, totally giddy run. Think about it: many toddlers actually run before they walk, moving their legs quickly, as to not trip over their clumsy feet and wobbly legs. They speedily stumble their way from Mommy to Daddy's arms with a quick, tiptoed stride.

I'd be lying if I said I remember my first steps. But what I do remember is watching both of my parents run and wanting so badly to join them. While training for marathons, my mom would push me in a stroller through the park, beneath hovering oaks and maples, past honeysuckle bushes and tulip gardens. Her feet, a steady metronome, wandered far and wide throughout Louisville's most beautiful places. 

When I grew old enough to keep up for a few miles, I joyfully galloped beside her, panting and out of breath, but so alive. I zipped down hills, stopped to watch fluffy black caterpillars climb up branches, and ventured off-path to blow on fuzzy wild dandelions. The whole world seemed so much more exciting; so much more full of energy. Running with my mom quickly became the best part of my day—my life, really.

Not all of us can throw and catch a baseball or put our legs above our head or do a flip turn in a swimming pool. But we can all run.

I pretty much tried every activity imaginable as a kid: dancing; horseback riding (and owning a horse, which involved hours of care-taking); year-round swimming; tennis; harp and piano lessons; ballet; basketball and art classes. It was thrilling, but exhausting. And of all the things I did, running was always my favorite. (Plus, it was the only thing I could do. I quickly learned my inability to do anything requiring hand-eye coordination or flexibility.) Rather than being just another thing to put on the schedule, running was the thing that seemed to set me free. It was my escape. The thing I longed to do. My curiosity and wonder. My rush. Mine.

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Beauty In the Storm

I didn't want to go. It was cold and rainy—the epitome of a dreary December day, with muted clouds hanging low in the sky, a chilling breeze whipping through the trees and water sloshing through the cracks in the concrete. It seemed that the whole neighborhood had gone into hibernation. Small lights flickering behind sheer curtains and illuminated TV screens were the only signs of life on Ashmore Ave. Raindrops pattered on the rooftops, drizzling with the wind, sliding down windows and blinking on the pavement. It had been weeks since the last rainfall, and the town—which had suffered numerous wildfires throughout most of November—needed precipitation desperately. But that didn't mean I wanted to run in it. Sub-40 temps weren't my forte, and adding cold water to the mix was a literal nightmare. 

Yet, I found myself pulling up socks, zipping a raincoat, tying my hair into a tight braid and covering my ears with a thick headband, rushing around to get ready. I cursed my way to the front of the house, selected a serene playlist befitting for the winter mood, put my phone in a ziplock baggie and tucked it into my pocket, and flung open the door. Rain immediately spat in my face. A piercing wind bit through my jacket. I could feel my cheeks go numb, just as goosebumps rose on the skin of my arms beneath layers of clothing. I sighed—maybe even grunted—and sprung from the porch into the violent rain, like a kid diving into a swimming pool. 

Two miles in, I started to adjust. The rain began to let up, and I found myself sweating under the insulated "raincoat" (I'll explain the quotes later). My breath lifted into the air, warming my face and wicking moisture perched above my upper lip. By the time I reached the pedestrian bridge, a slit of sunlight had made its way to the horizon—a glowing bit of orange and yellow peering out from the dull charcoal gray. Just moments later, the whole sky opened up, and the expanse before me turned into crystalized pinks and reds. Rain fell quieter, lighter, eventually dissolving. All darkness moved behind me, and the most stunning sunset came to life in front of me. Swirls of periwinkle danced with glints of gold. Layers of electric orange striped the sky just above Lookout Mountain. Simultaneously, the voice of Sufjan Stevens hummed in my ears. Stricken by a sudden sense of euphoria, I stopped in my steps. I looked around me, twirling in dumbfounded circles like a clumsy ballerina, just trying to take in the 360 views. A gentle mist spritzed in the air and glittered in the sun.

I'm not sure how long I stood there. But what I do know is that I found myself in tears. Little salty bulbs dripped from the corners of my eyes, mixing with the thin sheet of sweat on my cheeks and neck. Admittedly I'm an emotional person, but I like to believe that even the most heartless of people would have been taken back by the scene's beauty—the way something so lovely conquered something so dreary and ugly and full of despair.

Let me be clear though: the picturesque landscape and oozing sunset was not why I cried. This was a release—a moment of calm in the midst of chaos. It'd been a tough week, full of discouragement and upsets. It was a week like so many of us have—one that flies by but at the same time seems to travel more slowly than an injured slug; overwhelmingly soul crushing. All I needed was a moment of clarity—a spark, a sign, something to tell me that it's all going to be OK. 

And that's why I run.

With every swing of the arms and each beating footstep, I seek that feeling. That slice of comfort and freedom and assurance. That liberation from the mundane. That moment where truth and joy and strength collide.  That feeling of being utterly alive. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it requires me to think of heartache. Sometimes it presses regrets and mistakes to the forefront of my thoughts. Sometimes I lose a toenail or twist an ankle or get a side cramp. Sometimes it bores the absolute hell out of me: the repetitive one-two step becomes inescapably rotten, and I find myself fighting to just get through. Sometimes it's an obligation—something I have to do as part of a training regimen. Sometimes it's absolutely, horrifically miserable.

But sometimes it is the most magical thing in the world. Sometimes it's the only thing capable of stripping away all stress and pain and hurt and anger. Sometimes it's my saving grace. The beauty in the storm. 

When I walked inside, drenched in rain (I found out that my "raincoat" was actually only slightly water resistant) and dripping in sweat, I felt a shift in attitude. Seemingly lighter than when I'd departed, I sensed a smile creep across my lips. The gloomy December day had transformed, and so had my heart.

Running is a rare sport. Simple, straightforward, easily accessible. But gritty and cumbersome. It is a challenge, for both the body and the mind that makes you more aware of yourself and who you want to be. It forces you to exist in the present moment, while also demanding reflection on the past and future. It's not always easy. In fact, it can be the hardest thing in the world. But it's also the most gratifying, nourishing, and necessary.

Listen to the rain calling to you. The storm outside summons the storm in your heart. Chase after it. Go. 

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The Grit of it All

The doctor told me not to race. Absolutely not, she had said. With bronchitis in my lungs and a case of mono, my body was utterly dilapidated. I was unbelievably tired. My voice was nonexistent. My body felt weak and achy all over. I had a pounding headache. My cough was filled with gunky mucus. My breath was wheezy and syncopated...

But I wanted to run. 

It was the weekend of the Trinity/Valkyrie Invitational at Tom Sawyer Park (in Louisville, KY, my hometown)—one of my favorite races of the cross country season—and I couldn't imagine staying at home on a couch, slurping chicken noodle soup. So, I insisted on going.

Much to my parents' chagrin, we drove to the park that Saturday morning with a bag of medicine, my cross country spikes, extra cozy layers of clothes to wear prior to the race, and a water bottle. I took my prescribed steroid with a granola bar and Orange Gatorade, just an hour before the start.

I wanted to prove myself. Not to others necessarily, but to myself. I wanted to do this. For me. 

A half-mile into the race, I started to feel my shoe loosen around my mid-foot and noticed the laces spiraling out of their little bow. A mile later (halfway into the 5K), my left shoe (or was it the right?) fell off. (I oftentimes duck-taped my laces, but I'd apparently forgotten to even tie a double knot that morning.) It was probably only 40 degrees outside, and my foot very quickly went numb, stomping on the damp, cool grass. 

Every breath burned. My lungs heaved on the cusp of explosion. My head ached, and I was dizzy. The blur of runners in front of me seemed slanted, and a strange feeling of vertigo shook the scene upside-down. I could just barely make out the finish line. The screams and shouts from the crowd became a stinging buzz of white noise in my ears. Somehow, with panicked, half-shut eyes, I stayed upright. When I regained a hint of clarity, the finish line was just 200 yards in front of me. Adrenaline took over, and I surprisingly was able to muster up a sprint. Legs kicked faster than my heart, and within moments, it was over. In the finish shoot, I stumbled, with volunteers holding me up on both sides. My foot was completely numb, and I was on the verge of fainting. Little black specks darted across my eyes, all feeling in my knees dissolved, and I fell to the ground. 

Some would call me crazy. Some would say, "I told you so". Some would shake their heads and call me foolish. Arrogant. Ridiculous. It's not healthy for you to do that to yourself. 

But I look back on that day with pride, thankful for the challenge. For the opportunity to prove myself to myself. For the grit.

Too often we are told we have limits, and that it's not safe or wise to go beyond them. That we should stay within our lines. But what if it's actually essential to test the boundary? What if you find out that there actually is no such thing? Sure, you aren't invincible; however, you are closer than you think. 

Today, a photo of me collapsing my way through the finish shoot—with a wad of spit in the corner of my mouth and a terribly sour expression on my face—is framed (thanks Mom), embroidered with my favorite Winnie the Pooh quote: "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." It serves as a reminder that we are capable of things we never dreamed of and that sometimes it's OK to rebel against life's boundaries. That life is all about proving yourself to yourself.

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The Mental Battle: Falling Helps Us Rise

After the worst bike ride of my entire life, I couldn't fathom running a mile, let alone a half marathon. Alas, I hung up my bike and laced up my running shoes. I sucked down a GU, turned from the transition area and hit the pavement. Despite tired limbs, I tried convincing myself I was capable. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. But my attempted confidence was immediately met with doubt. The first five steps were unbelievably painful. My thighs twitched uncontrollably, and my calves spasmed with a pulsing pain. I can't do it.

A 70.3 had never been this intense before. The swim was fine, but the bike? Pure crazy. 56 miles of brutal ups and downs. Non-stop, undulating hills throughout the entire course. My legs were totally fried. I knew this would be a long, heart wrenching, tortuous journey if I continued. I should quit now, before it gets worse, I thought. But, no matter how much agony surged through my lower body, my mind wouldn't let me stop. 

The entire 13.1-mile run segment was a mix of "running" and walking. I would jog for a bit, then be stunted by discomfort, and walk. Indescribable pain shot up from my Achilles to my upper thigh, causing a paralytic response. I hate to walk during any run—it's a pride thing, I guess—but on this particular day, I had absolutely no choice. My body had quit. My legs were done. Caput. Finished. 

But still, my mind wouldn't let me stop. 

The next hour or so was full of mantras: I can, I can, and Trust, Trust, Trust. I also prayed. A lot. God, please help me. Give me strength. Please help me. I trust you. Trust, trust, trust. I grunted in pain. I screamed. I cursed. I cried. But between temper tantrums and moments of fury, I always came back to positivity: I can, I can. Trust, trust, trust. 

And then it happened. With three miles to go, a feeling unlike anything I'd experienced in my life took over my left calf muscle. An instant throb in my lower leg snapped in my leg like a bullet had just shot through me; like a final heartbeat had just exploded inside. It was as though my muscle had been set to fire and then pumped full of concrete. Tighter, tighter, harder, and harder, my muscle expanded in my skin, seemingly about to rupture. I fell to the ground, terrified and paralyzed.  

I rocked back and forth on my back against the concrete footpath, holding my leg to my chest, wailing in pain, with tears pouring vehemently from my eyes, screams scorching my throat. I was certain my muscle was going to bust open like a volcano. I gently poked at my calf and was shocked at its incomparable stiffness. It was like someone had carved into my skin and loaded my muscle with rock. 

This was a relatively small triathlon, located just outside of Nashville, and much of the course had been isolated. It felt like an eternity since I'd seen another competitor, when finally a runner came up on me. I'd been laying there for at least ten minutes, gaping in pain and thinking I might actually die. Thank God. He crouched beside me, asking me questions that I physically couldn't answer, due to hyperventilating tears. After moments of moans and groans, I caught my breath. I don't know what happened. My muscle. It's so...tight. It, it...hurts soooooo bad. I think it might explode. I sobbed. He asked if I wanted him to try and find a medic for me. I said no. He asked if I wanted to stop racing; that there was no shame in calling it quits. I said no. And in that moment, I felt my muscle loosen ever so slightly. The smallest fraction of elasticity returned to my leg, just enough to let me stand. Crippled with pain, I held to the man's arm, as he helped me get to my feet. I slowly gained solid footing, gaining stability, but still experiencing insurmountable pain. I thanked the man and encouraged him to continue his race. Don't wait up for me. I can do this. 

My journey to the finish line was agonizing. I practically gimped the last few miles. Tears and snot flooded my face. My legs stuttered, with nerves tingling and pinching in my calf. My breathing convulsed, gasping for air. But...I made it. 

Running has taught me the importance of believing in yourself. It's shown me that any physical activity is actually 90 percent mental. If your mind can dream it, you can achieve it, my dad always says. And it's true. I've fallen down countless times. I've physically failed. But in every moment of weakness, my mind grows stronger, pushing me to go the extra mile. 

I can, I can, I can. Trust, trust, trust. 

 

By Olivia Harlow

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