I was a competitive runner from age 11-17. Running started as something I loved, eventually becoming a coping mechanism for the anxiety I felt in middle school. As an older teen, the onset of depression brought chronic fatigue and a loss of interest in running, until it became just another source of anxiety. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it since then, but with the pressure of competition gone, I have found myself occasionally seeking refuge in the familiar activity in times of stress as an adult. I wrote this while I was working at a hostel in New Zealand and began running as a way to cope with social anxiety.
I’m not going to lie – I feel a certain satisfaction walking around the lodge looking super sporty with my spandex shorts, New Balance shoes, and running watch, hair poking out at crazy angles, mud on my shins. It’s rare to feel good about myself in this hyper-social environment where I don’t quite fit. I let the picture my appearance paints go unaltered by specifics – like the fact that I am actually terribly out of shape, having battled and failed for years to ever run consistently for more than a couple of months at a time.
But it’s not really lying – no matter how few and far between the runs are, or how long or short of a distance I can manage, I do still feel like a runner, because I always run like I fucking mean it.
I check my arms for proper positioning. Elbows bent at a right angle? Fists loose and relaxed?
I pace myself and take small steps uphill, saving my energy to propel myself on the downhill.
I steady my breathing. I always try to finish strong, even if I only speed up a minute amount for the last 30 seconds.
I may not be racing anymore, but I hold on to this ritual because it gives me purpose. It helps me get more out of myself and replaces the other fuzzy, distracting thoughts constantly bouncing around my brain. Staying at the lodge in the middle of nowhere, “working” a mere fourteen hours a week, there is too much time for thinking. Discovering running again is like a revelation. Wasted hours boredom-bingeing on Caramellos and watching shitty movies on SKY are replaced with secret adventures down winding roads, soaring feelings, endorphin rushes, and satisfied exhaustion.
With the roller derby season now a distant memory, my endurance is shot to shit, so most of the uphill path to the gorge must be walked — an hour long warm-up. At first the path is just like the road to town: standard paved asphalt, houses, mailboxes, ferns. Eventually, pavement gives way to gravel, and gravel gives way to dirt. The road grows wilder. Tall trees line either side. Cars become fewer and farther between. The road curves, revealing the sound of the ocean waves, only to make a sharp turn and hide the sea again. Sheep and cows stop chewing grass and stare at me, keeping their heads up, eyes alert, until I pass them by. I can see the hills growing taller, until the mist and clouds obscure the peaks.
When I leap across the shallow stream running over the road, I know I am almost there. I walk faster, realizing every time that I have left later than I intended and stopped too many times to look at the waves. I begin to expect the gorge to be around each corner, until finally I am gobsmacked when I actually get around the bend and see the cliff overlooking the sea and the blanket of green ferns and trees sloping down the mountainside. I spare a few moments to stand at the lookout marveling at this place I’ve found, before I turn around and start running downhill.
I go slowly at first, savoring the scenery, thinking that this is the most remarkable place I’ve ever run. But then I speed up, the downward slope carrying me faster and further than I could ever make it on flat land. I pass all of the wild and lonely and mystical things that I saw earlier, but this time I’m flying. I feel alive and powerful, feelings amplified by the sudden appearance of rain and wind, strong enough to drown out apathy and tiredness.
When the road takes me back to the roundabout by the lodge, I stretch my muscles and am overcome with the most pleasant exhaustion, feeling like my brain is finally empty for the moment, and I can just exist.