People who have met me within the last couple of years have a hard time believing I used to be someone else. Not that I was literally someone else, but the lifestyle I led and the things that interested me used to be so far from what they are now that I might as well have been another person.
Every runner has a story. There’s the story about running into a coyote on the trail, the story of getting clipped by that car that one time, the story of blowing up during that race. But a runner’s creation story is what I always find to be the most fascinating: how did a runner become a runner.
Here’s my story:
Growing up I was an active kid. Sure we had Nintendo, but in order to play it we had to be outside most of the day, doing whatever it was we kids would do: baseball, soccer, basketball, tag, kick the can, chase the girl! I grew up with a full house of siblings so we lived for good weather, exploring the neighborhood and bottle rocket fights.
My dad was a runner. Marathons, trail runs, 5Ks. I always had fun going to races and cheering for him in different events. When I was about 12 years old I started running with him in local short races. I didn’t particularly enjoy the running (it was hard!) but I did like the atmosphere and the eclectic group of folks who would get together and run around together for a couple hours. They’re crazy! I used to think.
I ran track in junior high. I ran the mile because it was the furthest distance offered and my dad seemed to like the idea of me running the longer distances like he did, so I just went with it. I wasn’t very good and I whined about how hard it was. I think my fastest time was 6-something. I was getting smoked.
By the time I reached high school I’d had it with track and had moved on to different things — music and theatre mostly. Dad continued to run and whenever I was feeling particularly out of shape I’d hit the road for 5 miles or so. But I didn’t enjoy it. I was used to being comfortable, and back then, for me, running was the absolute opposite of comfort.
In 1997, as a new freshman in college, I went for a run and quickly encountered the hill monsters of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Well, I’m done with this running shit, I thought. And I was.
Which is probably a good thing for the 18-year old me, because I quickly found other passions, like booze and smoking and chasing tail. My outta-this-world metabolism kept me from becoming Jabba the Hutt, so I ate whatever I felt like eating. I also drank and smoked, drank and smoked, drank and smoked.
Fast forward to December 30, 2009. The only part of my college lifestyle that had changed was that I wasn’t in college, and my metabolism wasn’t quite as efficient. I was constantly feeling tired (despite never having done anything), I struggled with severe bouts of depression and I was all the time coughing/wheezing/gasping.
Meh. This is my place in the universe, I told myself. This is who I am. I smoke a pack and a half a day. That’s just the way it is.
I was late for work and had about 4 minutes to catch the bus. From my place to the bus stop is about a quarter of a mile. If I walked I’d be late, so I decided to run.
Couldn’t make it.
About halfway through I stopped, keeled over onto my knees, gasping for breath. WHEEEEEEZE HUHHHH WHEEEEEEEZE HUHHHH. People were staring at me, kids were pointing, an old lady asked “Are you okay?”
I’M DONE WITH THIS, I yelled at myself. JUST STOP IT! THIS IS INSANE!
I was so embarrassed, so full of shame of what I was right then and there at that moment that I decided to do something I’d seemingly forgotten how to do: I took control of my life.
I quit smoking. That day. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since.
I quit boozing. I quit depriving my body of sleep. I quit filling my body with synthetic food stuffs, learned about basic nutrition and revamped my entire diet.
But most of all, I decided I wanted to be a runner again.
The first “run” lasted about 3 minutes. I didn’t get very far. But I kept going. I’d walk a little, jog a little, walk a little, jog a little. I made it a whole mile in about 20 minutes.
The next day, instead of quitting, I put on my shoes and went out the door again. Every time I thought about quitting, I saw myself keeled over, embarrassed by my lack of fitness, my lack of identity.
I’M A RUNNER GODDAMMIT. I’M A RUNNER.
I told myself this. I made myself believe it. And over the next couple of months, one mile became two, then two became three. I was feeling good. And most of all, I was HAPPY. I finished every run with a great big smile on my face.
Then, in the summer of 2010, a colleague of mine told me he was running a 5K sponsored by one of the museums we work with in Chinatown. He asked if I wanted to run it. A 5K? Me? My first instinct was to decline, so instead, I said yes.
Immediately, I wrote an email to my father, telling him as much. He seemed incredulous. In fact, to him, this entire “lifestyle transformation” of mine seemed too abrupt to be real. And considering how little attention I paid to personal health and well-being prior, I don’t blame him for thinking that way.
But I emailed him a copy of my race registration confirmation.
And a little bit later he emailed me a copy of his.
My dad traveled all the way from Houston, Texas to Chicago, Illinois to run a goddamn 5K with me, to show his support for my new direction, to pat me on the back for having the courage to finally change.
I ran my heart out in that race. I made my dad proud. And I never looked back.
I was a runner.
I am a runner.
And in becoming one, I found out it makes me the happiest me I can be.