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I have a distinct memory from when I was in fifth-grade: the fitness exams were in full swing, and we had just been asked to run a mile. As a kid, athletics and I had a strained relationship. My sports mostly consisted of gymnastics and cheerleading—even then, I struggled with many of the techniques. Throw running into the mix, and I loathed having to do it. Partly because I had been trained to see it as a punishment, partly because I lacked stamina, endurance, and speed. Annoyed at being forced to participate in an activity I hated, I told my friend, “I don’t know why I have to run; running is never gonna be a part of my life.”
The Freshman of high school version of me laughed at that. Who would’ve thought the girl who hated running would end up on her high school cross country team. But the journey started even earlier: in seventh grade, per my dad’s request, I finally joined a soccer team. I knew I didn’t have much of a talent for the sport, but my coach reassured me of a different way I could contribute to the team: be the fastest on the field. He put an emphasis on fitness and speed; his favorite saying being, “What’s the point in having all these fancy moves if you can’t get to the ball?” Something awakened in me, making it my goal to be the fastest and the one who lasts the longest on the field. And I was.
As you can imagine, cross country running is very different from soccer. The distance comes at you all at once as opposed to short sprints, and there are no outside distractions such as a ball or responding to a play. It’s primarily you and the course—and of course, the other runners. I fell in love. More than two days without running, and I’d see a difference in my attitude. Running was and still is, my therapy.
I didn’t qualify to run in college—injuries kept me on the sidelines during my crucial junior year and while I made a recovery for senior year, it wasn’t good enough to compete at the collegiate level. Nevertheless, I made it a mission to continue running on my own. I participated as an assistant coach over the summer for two years; and planned my class schedules to include time for runs. Unfortunately, I didn’t think college would have a plan of its own.
My junior year I began commuting from Orange County to LMU. On an average day, the drive would take about an hour and a half; on a bad day, I’d be sitting in traffic for two grueling hours. In addition to school, an internship also took up the majority of my mornings. Running went from being a top three priority, to top ten—and some weeks, it wasn’t even up there.
How could I call myself a runner if I was hardly running anymore? The question plagued me for three years—the final two of college and my first year as an alumna. I’d run on and off, but I’d easily become discouraged at how much strength I had lost. Going from being able to run an average six-minute mile to a nine-minute one, punches your self-confidence hard. Coupled with graduation and grad school around the corner, running became both a desire and distant dream.
Grad school can eat you alive if you’re a woman of color. The constant defending of your work, trying to validate it and yourself, reminding yourself you earned your spot—it’s all exhausting. Half-way through my first semester, I found myself in need of something that would remind me of my strength and worth. Upon reflecting, memories of how I’d feel during and after runs flooded my memories. Both the good and the bad, the beautiful and ugly; the injuries and healthy moments. Running once taught me I am capable of more than what I initially think. Despite all the mental obstacles I put for myself, I can easily break them down if I push forward. One leg in front of the other.
I can win.
If running once taught me this lesson, maybe it could teach it to me again.
So I laced up my Mizuno’s and took to the pavement, the trails, and the track. Even on my most exhausted days where my anxiety and depression seem to get the best of me, running pushes me out of myself. It reminds me of the times I have felt strongest because that is what I am: strong. A love-hate relationship, it builds me into a better me.
But it’s complicated because I often compete with my younger self—the one who could push that six-minute mile. The one my coach once nicknamed, “a bat out of hell” when the starting bell went off during a race. While it’s good that I remind myself of my own potential, running has taught me to be kind and patient with myself. After all, I didn’t get to my high school best right off the bat; it had taken a few years of conditioning. That’s where I am again: in the conditioning phase; regaining my running legs and pushing to be that powerful person, not defined by the time of her mile or 5K, but by her perseverance and determination.
With each step forward I take, I make sure to never look back.
Have you ever found confidence in a sport or activity? Let us know your journey in the comments below!