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Running Made Me Mentally Stronger

I get teary at race finish lines.

I discovered it could be anyone crossing the finish line. Not just my daughter at her cross country meets, or my husband, family or friends. It became a family joke, reminiscent of how we used to poke fun at my mom for getting teary when the fire truck and police sirens close out parades. I have chalked this up as another one of the ways I have turned into my mom the older I have gotten. I haven’t thought about it beyond that.

It has been a minute since I stood, spectating, at the finish line of a race. Recently I was at one, watching total strangers as I waited for my husband to cross the finish. I kept having to hide my gaze as their friends and families came to greet them, breathless and worn out with effort, fearful I would look like a weirdo. I Wasn’t Always A Runner.

Maybe it’s what running means to me. What running has done FOR me. I still consider myself an unlikely runner. As an adult-onset runner, I came into the sport having never participated in competition. I had never run more than the miles for the Presidential Fitness Tests once a year, in Gym. I wasn’t inactive. I danced 20 hours a week, but it wasn’t the same as playing a sport to me. Runners felt like superheroes, the way they seemed to effortlessly stride down the street in the city I grew up in and then on the college campus I attended. The runners that I knew were pulled together, happy, and fit. Always unhappy with who I was, I wanted to be what I thought they were.

So, one day, frustrated with just about everything in my life, I started running one house at a time until I finished a marathon a few years later. And with that medal, I had become that ideal a little bit.

Finding Joy with a Run:

I have always felt like a failure - and I don’t say that to get sympathy or be a martyr. Objectfully, I have always felt like I am the queen of missed opportunities and poor choices. I focused on the wrong things and then always fell short of my potential. That isn’t to say I gave up - my dad still says that I just have to do things the hard way. I think that gave me grit and a work ethic that has kept me doing the hard things, but my default is to think that I am never good enough. That mindset had set up a pattern of bad relationships, self-harm, and has contributed to the ups and downs of my mental health. Running was the first thing that started chipping away at that. Doing something that I never thought I could do, alone, away from all of the proof that (I thought) showed everyone that I wasn’t worth anything. I started to feel better. Instead of practicing self-destructive behaviors, I took it out on myself on the pavement, wearing myself out until the thoughts were quieter.

Running Became My Superpower:

As a young mother running gave me alone time. It filled my empty space after my divorce, and it consoled me when my mom died. It got me out of the house and into the sun. I could drown out the thoughts with my music and when I got home, I had a fresh perspective. The physical activity was doing God’s work with my chemical imbalances, and it became my biggest coping mechanism when my world and my mental state would crumble around me. You never regret a workout. Even a bad one. You are always in a better place than you were before you started.

New running shoes and a cute pair of ⅞ length leggings are like turning the page on a new chapter. Making a new playlist becomes the soundtrack of a segment of my life that I am directing. The good times and the bad times. It evens out high highs and the low lows that always follow.

When I haven’t been able to see my self-worth, or feel happy or get my shit together, running has been the scaffolding that I could build myself around. The runners I saw may not have had those things, like I thought. Maybe the confidence and happiness and pulled togetherness were parts of myself that I never saw and every step of every run is like an earthquake getting rid of everything that isn’t strong so I can start over with what I am still learning, is true about me.

I am happy, pulled together and confident.

Maybe that is why I get teary. Seeing the exuberance on strangers faces after all of the hard work and miles they have put in. Making the choice to be healthy and not listen to the critics in their head and lives. One of the few opportunities we have, as adults, to be openly and gratifyingly proud of an accomplishment that no one questions.


By Alison Burke

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