female runner sketch illustration

I started running the summer after college graduation. My recent expulsion from my little cocoon coupled with an impending move to graduate school led to some introspection about the kind of person I wanted to be in the “real world.” Over the previous twenty-one years, I had not so carefully crafted a reputation of being kind of quiet, a little sassy, intellectual, serious, and a bit of a tease. Now here I was about to move across the country. There, I could be whomever I wanted.

I had an idea of this new me; a driven, successful, intense, desirable winner. Of all the people I knew who fit this description, they all had one thing in common, they were runners. Working backwards, I figured that if I started running, I could become the me I wanted to be.

It was painful at first. I didn’t like running and on some level, I still don’t. But I reveled in the reaction I got from people when I told them I had started running. That attention drove my first few months. When an acquaintance told me “I saw you running the other day and you were going so fast!” it became a mantra that saw me through the end of the summer.

Then I moved to the East Coast and it was more stressful than I had anticipated. Would I make friends? Was this really what I wanted? Would I be good at this? Who knew, but I moved anyways. This choice was a step toward something.

I moved into an apartment building for transfers and grad students who didn’t want to brave the Craigslist minefield. I found that my status as “runner”—even better, a “morning person runner”—had the desired effect. The boys down the hall we’re impressed, my roommates were intimidated, and I felt like I was becoming the powerhouse I had envisioned. To be honest, my runs at this point lasted about twenty minutes, included a fair amount of walking, and occurred maybe twice a week. But my tenuous runner status was enough to bond me with another girl in my cohort who was an actual, mileage runner.

This pattern continued for a few weeks until my professor handed back a paper and told me he wouldn’t grade it until it was rewritten. I panicked. I wasn’t used to negative feedback and this was the manifestation of all of my pre-move fears.

That’s when the shift happened. When I began to feel anxious, my heartrate increased, my entire body tightened, and I couldn’t catch my breath. When I ran, I felt those same feelings, but they were normal responses to running. Of course my heartrate spiked and my breathing quickened, I was working it like Usain Bolt. And miraculously, those anxious feelings went away in the flood of post-run endorphins.

This fed a new pattern: feel anxious, start running, feel better. As school ramped up and a misguided crush started to tailspin, I ran more and I ran longer.

The summer after my first year of grad school, I moved to South Dakota for an internship. In a town with an average population age of fifty-five, my social life was non-existent. Running became a respite in that hot, humid, place. It was a way to avoid my awkward living situation. It was a way to burn energy after sitting at a desk nine hours a day. It was a way to fill my time so that I didn’t fixate on how much I did not like that place.

South Dakota was also the site of my first foray into competitive running. Granted, it was only a 5K, but it was an important step in my evolution. I like having goals. Working toward a test or a diploma or a race came with a clear plan. During a time when I felt emotionally adrift, I clung to training like it was a life raft. My time wasn’t great, but I was proud of myself and I spent the remainder of my summer literally running away from depression.

I couldn’t outrun it for long. That wet blanket of blues eventually caught up with me and brought his jittery friend anxiety with him. When things were the most bleak, my running shoes sat in the corner, laces gathering dust. In that mindset, nothing was ever going to get better. All I could see were my failings and those sneakers came to symbolize everything that I wasn’t—I wasn’t smart enough, or thin enough, or talented enough. If I couldn’t even go for a run, how could I ever amount to anything?

As I began to step back into the emotional sunshine, running was still there for me. It didn’t judge that I had taken some time away. It was kinder to me than I had been to myself. Now, I say that I enjoy running. It is a respite from anxiety, a source of strength and accomplishment, and a reminder to keep striving. While I am not the fastest or the strongest, I am grateful—grateful for every run.

Rachel Peterson is a historian from the great state of Minnesota. She likes old houses, hiking, and Halloween. You can find her on Instagram @rjpetes.

[Image via iStock]