How running taught me to live in the moment
I was born into a house of marathoners. My dad has been a runner for his entire life—through high school and college, career changes and divorces, loss of siblings and the arrivals of six children. When he married my mom, he not only gave her his last name, but also his love of running. She quickly matched his daily runs, and had even completed a couple of her own marathons by the time I came around. The red triangular jogging stroller they purchased when I was born, an attempt to keep up with their training plans while struggling with a colicky baby girl, is still wedged in the back of my dad’s garage, a mark of a time gone by but a hobby important enough to keep its long unnecessary souvenirs.
When I was six, I was deemed old enough to start traveling around the Pacific Northwest with my parents for their marathons. These trips are some of my earliest vacation memories: standing in the whipping Portland wind, trekking up and down the dusty Moab trails, and peering out across the finish line in the pouring Seattle rain. I loved these little vacations and constantly asked for more of them. At that age it wasn’t the race or the physical accomplishment of finishing a marathon that interested me. Instead it was the backpack full of carefully chosen library books to pass the car ride, the huge pre-race spaghetti feeds, the delight of being the first to spy my dad as he crossed the finish line, and the copious amounts of chocolate milk at the celebration after the finish. It wasn’t until junior high that I even noticed the feat that running a marathon actually was.
We started running the mile in gym class when I entered sixth grade. I was a competitive gymnast then, and had been for all but a couple of my eleven years, so I thought that this would be an easy requirement. I was so sure I would be able to just breeze through that little mile that I bet my best friend I would probably be able to finish in around four minutes. As we took off around the track I realized how horribly mistaken I had been. This was impossible. After one full trip around the track I was ready to collapse, and informed my gym teacher that this was actually torture and not, in fact, gym like he seemed to believe.
I finished that mile in sixteen minutes— four minutes per lap. I remember going home that evening, and telling my dad at dinner what we’d done in gym that day, so sure that that mile would be an impressive distance even to him, after all, a marathon couldn’t be that much longer, could it? He got that familiar tickled crinkle in his eyes as he tried his hardest not to laugh at me, and explained that a marathon was actually 26 of those horrible miles. The next time I waited for him at the Portland finish line I was a little more impressed with the runners reaching the end. They had done in a few hours what my class had taken months to complete. And they did it willingly. No one was forcing them to run, they weren’t even going to receive a grade for this, they were just doing it because they liked to.
It took finishing P.E. classes and having to quit gymnastics to start running for fun myself. Each week my dad ever so graciously gave up part of his Saturday morning run in order to struggle through a couple of miles with me. At first it was slow going. I played volleyball and basketball now, sports that required a little more endurance than gymnastics had, but my lungs still weren’t up to running long, uninterrupted distances. We started running at whatever pace I could maintain; 15 minutes crawled to 12, then sped down to 10, then settled out around 8. Every run finished with pink frosted donuts and chocolate milk, canceling out the hard-won health benefits of these runs, but ensuring that I would get up and try again each week, no matter how difficult the previous one had been.
We eventually started signing up for 5K races together, choosing all the themed ones we could find, like the Santa Run, or the TD5K on thanksgiving morning, or “Beat Coach Pete,” where we raced the head coach of the Boise State University football team. It was something we could do together, just the two of us, and it was something easy. It didn’t have the pressure of competitive gymnastics, or the overblown intensity of high school varsity sports. It was just relaxed and enjoyable; the results didn’t matter
As high school went on, life got tougher, and running became my solace. I cherished lacing up my lime green Asics each evening. Heading down the canal bank, I’d watch the sun set over the distant cornfields as I logged my miles. I’d have to step around the snake holes and hiss the geese away, but listening to rush of the water on one side and breathing in the scent of the mint fields on the other was cathartic. I stopped signing up for races then, too. I no longer wanted my runs to be anything competitive or social. I needed to run just for myself and with myself. It allowed me a space to not think about things, to just put one foot in front of the other for as long as I could, and then when I couldn’t get any farther, to turn around and head back home. By the time I’d get back and climb into the scalding shower, I would have a renewed sense of peace and clarity. Running filled a different need then in my life then.
When I moved to New York in college, running introduced me to my quiet little Brooklyn neighborhood. It was a totally different atmosphere than I was used to; the geese were replaced with people, the smell of mint with the smell of garbage, and the view of corn with the view of skyscrapers. I took to running on the Brooklyn Promenade, picking my way among the tourists, and then down the path that went along the piers, past pick up soccer games and the weekly farmer’s markets. I would find my way back home through the tree-lined streets among the cars and historic brownstones. New York City was a far cry from my 200,000-person hometown, and running helped me adjust to the wildly new by means of something comfortingly familiar. It helped me form the grid of my new hometown in my head: avenues run north to south, the highest numbers on the west side, and streets run west to east, the highest numbers in Harlem.
My daily runs also helped me to see parts and pieces of the city that I may not have ever found otherwise. There is so much here that it can be easy to just always stick to the most well-known landmarks and areas, missing out on the smaller more hidden ones that offer just as much, if not more. My favorite bookstores and bars in the city have all been found on slow Sunday morning runs. Running in New York gave me a new confidence, too. I reasoned that if I could find my way out and back without having to consult Google maps, or make it through an entire run without stepping in dog poo or any unidentifiable liquids, then I could probably figure out just about anything in this city, an argument that I’ve found mostly to be true.
So, I believe in running. I believe in running to celebrate the good days and calm the bad. To make plans and to daydream, to think through things that have no solution and to come up with answers for those that do. I believe in running to build relationships, to settle you into new places and always connect you with the old, to work through the hard moments and rejoice fully in the good times. I believe that running helped grow me, and shape me and change me as a person. I believe in running.
Maddie Troyer is a native Idahoan and a transplant New Yorker, who loves long runs, thick books and Gilmore Girls. You can follow her on Twitter at @maddieshea7 or Instagram at @maddietroyer.
(Image via Shutterstock)