How Has Running Helped You?

Dear Laura,

How has your running helped you in your sobriety and just generally in your life? I’ve been running since I was 14 years old. I could probably write a book on how much running has given me. These are a few things: positive body image, friends, a tribe, endorphins, competition, knowing I can push myself to the outer limits and make it, redemption and joy. How about you?



Hi, Runner.

I love this question because answering it allows me to consider a relationship I don’t think or talk about much, but is core to who I am. Like maybe your least outwardly interesting friend, perhaps a childhood neighbor, who’s witnessed more of your boring days than your big ones. It’s the relationship you don’t often talk about because it’s just there, sure as the sun or Sunday afternoon. Yet, when it’s subtracted from your life, you become unsteady and unsure of how to be in the world without this friend to bear witness.

I started running when I was 17. It was the spring of my senior year of high school and having been an athlete all my life, I suddenly found myself without a team or a sport as graduation drew near. I began running as a way to move my body – something I’ve always needed to do regularly – and also to stave off the nerves that crept up on me suddenly and hard.

I'd always been a team sport player, so running alone was new. I liked it – this doing something alone, just for me. At a time when I was literally going out into the world solo for the first time, I started to do this thing that built up my sense of confidence. Running pushed me, or I could push it as much as I wanted. I ran five miles, six, sometimes seven miles and with each new milestone I felt a sense of accomplishment at the simple joy of doing something new, physical, tough.

Running would stay with me through my college years, and in fact, my most visceral memories of college are of running the square path around campus. Down Laurel Street, up College Ave, down Prospect, and back home via Shields. I learned what paths were five, six, seven miles. I battled painful body issues throughout those years. When I started college I was a shell of myself, 115 lbs and starving; when I left I was 160, bloated and ashamed. But through it all, I ran. When I got pregnant unexpectedly my senior year and went through an abortion, running helped me digest those impossible feelings and the accompanying angst for the guy who got me pregnant and then wanted nothing to do with me. Right around the same time, I rolled my ankle while drunk one night and sprained it so badly I had to wear an air cast for several weeks. So stung with anger and rejection, I needed to run and couldn't. Well before it was advised, I took off my air cast and ran around the campus, absorbing brief shocks of pain each time my foot hit the pavement. I needed the pounding, the release, to leave that black energy behind me in a cloud of dust.

In hindsight I can see I’d developed two primary coping mechanisms at this age: drinking and running. They would dance with each other closely – alternating the tension of compliment and contrast – for the next fifteen years.

When I moved to Boston, a city I’d never visited before moving here, I learned the city, and my first neighborhood in Somerville, by running. I didn’t have a car so running was how I got my bearings, how I explored new neighborhoods, learned the streets, discovered my favorite secret spots.

In 2002 I ran my first Boston marathon, bandit-style (without a number), and I would do it twice again, in 2008 and 2012. When I started training for my first, I’d never run more than 8 miles, so each long training run – 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 miles – blew my mind. Like you, Runner, I discovered the surprise and pride of pushing myself to the outer limits. I gained new superpowers. I tested the strength of my body, my mind.

The primary reason I both did and did not want to train for a marathon was that it kept my drinking – at least on Friday nights before Saturday morning training runs – in check. I only made the mistake of going out the night before a 12 mile run once. Anyone who’s attempted to run a long distance hungover knows what special kind of havoc that wreaks on your body. In contrast, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and freedom after completing a long run and Saturday nights during training were a free for all drinking-wise. Who didn't deserve to blow it all out after running 16 miles?

In 2008, I ran my fastest marathon and took the training much more seriously. I raised money for a charity so I could get a real number and did the whole thing legit. I was newly married, pre-baby, and my social life was big and fun. But the drinking had started to take off at this time, too, because I was harboring big secrets about my feelings in my marriage and the drinking helped me both numb and feel my way into them. Again, running and drinking went hand in hand. Not always, but quite often, I ran to burn off big hangovers. I ran to drown out the incessant voices screaming in my head that this new marriage wasn’t right. I ran to deafen the noise in my mind with the pounding of my heart. And it worked. It always worked.

The 2012 marathon was hot and harsh. Temperature wise, it was one of the hottest on record at 88 degrees in April, a full 30 degrees above the average that time of year. My training that winter reflected my fractured marriage: I got a case of plantar fasciitis that kept me from running for six weeks at the most important training time, my hangovers started to overpower my will to run through them and I ran the race with a three week-old sinus infection. We’d endured three long, brutal years of struggle and as Liz Gilbert recounts the end of her marriage in Eat, Pray Love, “We were weary in the way that only a couple whose marriage is collapsing can be weary. We had the eyes of refugees.” That was us.

Finish line of the 2012 Boston Marathon. Wrecked and hot.
Finish line of the 2012 Boston Marathon. Wrecked and hot.
Post-2012 Marathon.

Post-2012 Marathon.

I made it through that marathon, but just barely. I finished it a full hour and twelve minutes longer than I had a few years prior – because of the heat, the sinus infection, the injury, the exhaustion. My husband waited for me with my daughter at the finish line and we struggled to find a place to sit afterwards for a bite, and eventually gave up and went home, grabbing Chipotle on the way. The drive took over two hours for some reason that night, and I cried most of the way. From hunger and soreness, from post-marathon nausea, from disappointment that something so big brought absolutely no relief, from knowing the inevitable was coming and we were falling the fuck apart. I tried to eat my burrito that night and couldn’t because the roof of my mouth had been worn raw from crunching on ice the whole run. This was a good metaphor for the way things were then. Nothing worked. Everything hurt.

The marathon that year was on April 18th and my husband moved out of our home on July 2nd.

So, Runner. I realize this is a winding response that sounds to be about much more than running. But that was the message in your question, wasn’t it? That running has taught you so much you could write a book about it. I can’t separate my relationship with running from all the other aspects of my life any more than I can drinking, or my marriage, or my daughter. It’s woven through decades now and has served as the plot, the supporting cast, the stage, and the moral of the story or the silent observer at various times.

There were two things at the end of my drinking that scared me to death. One was that I stopped being able to combat my hangovers with running; I couldn’t make myself run anymore, I didn’t want to run. The second was that I could no longer read. My mind was too scattered, too jumpy, my eyes couldn’t track the words and my brain couldn’t absorb the meaning of a sentence.

There were many, many things that were outwardly more fucked up, but these two shook me to the core. What would I have if I couldn’t run or read? What was left of me? I had one coping mechanism left and it was literally killing me.

I can say now that me and running are back on good, healthy terms. I enjoy my runs far more than I ever have because they’re not laced with the guilt and nausea of a hangover. My relationship with running is less pressured, needy, judgmental. I cry a lot on my runs, because I often run by the water and the contrast of how I felt for so long while running and how I feel now is so stark. I sometimes stop mid-stride and just stare at the vastness of the ocean and the impossibility of it all. Me. Here. Sober. Alive. Heart pounding. Sweat dripping. Not chasing anything other than the next step. Not running from myself or my thoughts. It is a relationship that has stood the test of time, and among my most profound.

Moving my body is one of my non-negotiables. And running is one of my two favorite ways to move my body (the other yoga).

I love that you asked this question, Runner. I love that I got a chance to answer. I love that there are people with whom I share this passionate, quirky and essential love for pounding the earth mile after mile. We are the luckiest, my dear. I wish you many, many more miles.

Post-run in Colorado

Post-run in Colorado

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