I’ll never forget the very first time I laced up my running shoes. It was a few weeks after my mom and I had participated in the Detroit Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure 5K walk. It was an emotional, beautiful day that I’ll never forget. In addition to the numerous families and breast cancer survivors, I remember seeing waves of runners flying past us walkers, healthy and smiling and determined to make their 5K PR (personal record) or first-ever finish.
I was a regular exerciser, religiously working out to old DVDs in my one-bedroom apartment and walking around my neighborhood most evenings. It was during one of those nighttime strolls that I decided I would try my hand at running. I made it a block, sprinting (at least, that’s what it felt like), and when I reached the end I was panting and thinking “How could those people at the race make it look so EASY?” I walked/ran for a few more blocks, and a week later returned to my regularly scheduled “Denise Austin 30 Minute Abs/Butt/Thighs” collection.
Flash forward a couple of years to the summer of 2008. I had found myself in a circle of friends through a college course I’d taken that spring, and two of the members happened to be training for an October half-marathon. Around the same time, I began dating a guy who was a seasoned marathoner and who was training for a marathon in the fall, as well as for a triathlon. The power of suggestion was as heavy as the thick humidity in the air, and I decided now was the time to try again and become a real runner.
My girlfriends had planned on a six-mile training run one lovely Sunday morning, and, humoring me I think, invited me along. They knew I was dating a runner and assumed this new interest was to keep up with this guy. It had been the sort of relationship where I was on edge all day until I got a text from him to make plans, so their assumption was about 80% correct. I laced up my old Reebok athletic shoes and joined them at a park with long, winding trails, where I kept up with them for six miles. Afterwards, one of them remarked snidely that I was a ringer, and the other, more supportive friend congratulated me. I felt proud and accomplished, until later that evening when one foot began throbbing. I’d made the error of wearing shoes not made for running, and I had injured my foot during my inaugural full-length run. On the advice of marathon guy, I drove to the local running store the next day to get fitted for my first pair of very cool-looking and very expensive running shoes. At the time, I was heavily into the show “Sex and the City,” and to me this was akin to Carrie buying her first pair of Manolo Blahniks. I felt like I was entering some sort of secret club as I handed over my credit card and walked out, eager to get in my first run with them.
I started slow, one mile leading into a mile and a half, never adding more than a quarter mile per week, just as the experts recommended. I wanted to sign up for a race but also wanted to figure out what I was doing first. That was another thing to get used to – the girl who actively avoided gym class, who always had “female problems” during any kind of sporting lessons, had taken on a sport!
I went on a trail run alone during a camping trip with marathon guy, not realizing that later that month when I cheered for him on the sidelines it would be the last time I did so. We broke up a month later, but I didn’t let that cast a dark shadow over what would become a lifeline to me over the next 11 years. Running and I have had our ups and downs (I took a break and switched to walking when I was five months pregnant, and 2017 was a particularly tumultuous year in my running world), but it’s always there when I am ready for it.
I never would have thought that night on the breezy spring evening when I tried running for the first time, how exhilarating it would feel crossing that finish line. It was a 4k before a St Patrick’s Day parade – rowdy revelers, green colored everything everywhere, a parade! As I made my way through a crowd at one bar, expertly holding a pint of Guinness in each hand, a man saw the racing bib on my shirt and asked if I’d won. I smiled. I was a real runner at last, and if this guy wanted to believe I had won, who was I to contradict?
These days, I fight depression with my runs. I get much-needed relief from the daily grind, I keep some heredity health demons in check, and I am an example to my daughter who thinks it’s cool that mommy runs. She has no objections when I ask if I can sign her up for kids’ running events, but still says “Eww mom, you’re sweaty” when I ask for a hug after a run.
Slipping on the purple-flecked pair of Brooks running shoes I purchased this spring from a Fred Armisen lookalike at the local running store helps me deal with mental health challenges. When the meds aren’t working, running is how I cope. My husband notes that when I’m on a hiatus from running, my mood gets darker quicker, and I take that as a sign that it’s time to get going again. I often wonder how my then-undiagnosed anxiety affected those early days of running. At times, I felt like an impostor, but mostly, I felt like a badass.
I’ve gravitated more toward the feelings of badassery, even as I read blogs of 2:59 mom marathoners. Instead of beating myself up or worrying I’ll never be good enough to reach those levels (spoiler alert: I like wine and chocolate chips smothered in peanut butter way too much to have the physique necessary to achieve that gazelle-like speed), I take it all in and still feel part of a community. Since I’m living in a town where I don’t socialize much, it helps to feel that I belong to something even when I’m just reading on a computer screen.
Then, I ease into those well-worn shoes, head outside or to the guest room that holds the treadmill, and I move my legs for as long as I need to. I’m sweat-soaked, accomplished, and my breathing slows to a regular, manageable pace. Most of the time, so does my mind.
April Newell is a 41-year-old wife (and mom to one human and one polydactyl cat) residing in Wisconsin by way of Detroit She loves going to concerts but only if they end by 10:00 p.m., eating greasy egg rolls as she buys buckets of bok choy, cilantro, and strawberries at the farmers market, and texting random cat gifs to her husband just to annoy him. She has run a total of 11 half-marathons and three full marathons, and her favorite pump up song is obviously Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” You can find her on Instagram here.