There was a night in February where my life hit as close to rock bottom as it has ever hit. I was sobbing, curled as small as I could possibly make myself, on the floor of a tiny bathroom shower in a grimy hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, crushed with the heavy-handed realization that as painful as I thought ending my marriage was going to be, it was going to be 100 times worse. Those next 24 hours were a hazy blur of coffee shops and lines of code and wine in mason jars that culminated in crying on a random Russian Hill doorstep and wandering through the winter fog in Crissy Field, wondering how exactly I was going to recover from here and if that was even possible.
And then somewhere around 7am after a wake-up-every-hour half-sleep, I put on my shoes, a running shirt I’d bought the day before, stuck the hotel key in my pocket, and I ran. And ran. And ran.
I’ve run, in some form or another, since I was about 14, and while the extent and intensity of that running has ebbed and flowed over the years thanks to life and time and motivation, being able to run – and needing to run – has always been a constant. It was my outlet and my escape from the world, my 30 minutes of quiet where no one could bother me or talk to me, I could think or not think, I could breathe in the air around me and disconnect when the world was spinning too fast for me to keep up. Somehow, over the two months preceding that moment – where my world was spinning completely out of my control – I’d forgotten to keep steady.
As I tore through the city and Panhandle and Golden Gate Park and hit the ocean, the hazy blur was suddenly clear. This. This was how I recover from here. I will run.
My ex-husband never quite understood the compulsion, and running was always a source of contention, from our first dating anniversary where I’d left my flat bright and early on a Sunday morning to do a 2-hour marathon training run through the Scottish countryside (pre-cell phone era, of course) to return home to find he’d come round un-announced five minutes after I’d left, to the moment before Christmas where I’d gone for a short trail explore at a nearby park in our new Oakland locale and had a small anxiety attack while sitting at a traffic light on the way home that I couldn’t stop to wash the car, because if I was gone any longer, it was going to cause yet another fight and ruined Saturday. I think that’s subconsciously why I’d stopped running so much over the years – the inevitable day of fighting and passive aggressiveness weren’t worth the short high. That February morning though – that morning I knew I was actually free. Everything was over, and if I wanted, I could do this every. single. day. without judgment or anxiety.
Even at that moment though, I wasn’t prepared for the rollercoster that the rest of the year would bring. I wasn’t prepared for the gut-wrenching pain on a daily basis. I wasn’t prepared for the constant manipulation and spewed hatred. I wasn’t prepared to live out of bags. I wasn’t prepared to have my life and inner thoughts invaded and turned against me. I wasn’t prepared, and I couldn’t control it, but I could make it better. Running was the only thing that hurt more than my heart and my mind. Pounding on pavement and powering up hills burned, but the outward pain felt delicious compared to the constant inward stabbing.
It turned into a game I’d play every evening and every morning of where I could go tomorrow or today to get out of where I was, breathe the fresh air, and remind myself that despite everything out of my control, I was in a gorgeous place and with so little effort, I could take advantage of that. Running went from a necessity to an adventure, where ‘normal’ runs through the city became puzzles to seek out random places or draw GPS patterns and longer runs became multi-hour adventures on the Bay Area trails, where I embraced the adrenaline of getting lost on my own in some new place and climbing mountains at sunset and running through silence through woods and across rolling hills of dry grain. I could get in my car, drive a half hour, and drop myself outside and escape – truly escape – from technology and contact and, most importantly, my head. Where monotonous long road runs often required music and pre-planned world issues to think about (…or more commonly, mundane things, like what should I make for dinner this week or what outfits will I wear), avoiding tripping over loose rocks (or my own feet…) or falling off steep sides required concentration that left little room for mental cloudiness. The hardest part was not climbing hills or enduring miles, it was washing the dirt off after I’d abruptly re-enter reality hours later.
It’s hard to look at life and not play the rewriting and second-guessing game, and sometimes it’s hard to look my past year and get beyond the unpleasant parts and subjectively separate causation and correlation and declare that ending my marriage made me start running and that made me a happier person overall. But… in some way, it did. If a long series of events didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have seen what I’ve seen, breathed that air that I’ve breathed, made the friends that I’ve made in the San Francisco running community. I wouldn’t have caught those early morning sunrises and city views or evening sunsets. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to take spontaneous Sunday road trips to climb mountains I’d never heard of before. I wouldn’t have qualified for Boston or run a 50K with two weeks notice. And the best part of all of that? For the first time in my life, I have been doing something I genuinely love, that makes me happy in the purest sense of the word… and it is completely unnatural and unforced. It is completely for me.
There are many reasons this year happened like it did, with some that make sense and some that are confusing and don’t make any. It’s not over – growing with life is never over – but I unearthed the part of me that got lost over the years who sees the beauty in all things with the optimism and balanced c’est la vie attitude to tackle the bad, embrace the good and keep the perspective. My body can carry me places, and I’m excited with where that will be, how I can push myself, the people I will meet, and what’s to come.
** A very heavily edited version of this also appeared on TrailSisters.net, which is a great little trail running community. **