For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a runner. My big thighs could carry me fast in school and I loved sprinting hard and fast down a straightaway and around the curve of a track, building momentum and feeling my the muscles in my body work in harmony to push through my limits.
I dream about running—high on a ridge overlooking the sea, through wood-shaded paths, away from danger—in my dreams, I can run long and easy. I stop and see how far I’ve come, I look at the places my feet can take me.
I ran a bit in high school, but not much. I told myself again and again that I wasn’t an athlete. I thought my body was grotesquely oversized and hated putting on clingy exercise clothes. When I ran, it was early in the morning, or late at night, or on back country roads, and it was never as easy as it was in my dreams. But I held out hope.
One day, I ran for what seemed like an eternity. When I got home, I jumped in my truck and followed the route, watching the odometer tick off the miles. 5. I had run five miles without stopping, without walking. I was ecstatic. My freshman year in college, battling depression, I would slog my way up Queen Anne hill in Seattle, waiting for the endorphins to kick in.
When I got married and depressed and started to work full-time, I stopped exercising. I joined a local fitness center with an indoor track. Ten laps around equalled one mile. I went two or three times, hoping for the endorphins, disappointed when they didn’t come. I moved to Track Town USA and committed to walking a marathon in a city where the employees at the local tire store run to and from your car. I walked sixteen miles one day. My feet were blistered and raw when I stopped and called my mom to ask for a ride the rest of the way home. I bought books on running for beginners, started and stopped a million training programs. But my mind wasn’t my own. I quit every one, because when it came to exercise, that’s what I was: a quitter.
Then I quit my marriage. Quit my job. Quit school. Quit Track Town. Quit eating meat. Quit hoping things would get better.
But I started to run again. A little at a time. Slowly. My friend and roommate would be gone for 20 minutes and come back having run three miles. I couldn’t keep up, not by a long shot. But I trudged around the neighborhood, slicing through the Florida humidity with my body, and started to hope a little again.
I entered a 5K with my friend. I walked a bunch of it, but it felt pretty good. I entered another one. The Blue Angels whizzed overhead before race start, setting off car alarms. It was a hot day. I ran alone, in a sea of people, trying to find my pace, wanting to finish faster than the first race. I tried to keep up with a group of cadets running cadence, but fell back after a few minutes. When I saw the finish, I dug deep to find a bit more energy and sprinted to the finish, crossing the finish line feeling triumphant and alive.
I started sneezing.
My skin started itching, and my eyes started to water. Not exactly a new sensation for this gal, who grew up in pollen central and is allergic to basically everything outside.
I went inside a massive building and walked down a long hallway to a women’s restroom, where I stood in a stall blowing my nose, trying to stem a sudden tide of mucus, and sneezing. At the sink, I splashed water on my face a few times and reached for a paper towel.
When I saw my reflection in the mirror, I knew something was terribly wrong. The soft flesh around my eye lids had swollen and was starting to bruise. My lips were swelling. There were red bumps all over my neck, chest, and arms. I turned to the woman next to me and said:
“I don’t normally look like this.”
She held my arm and walked with me back down the long hallway and found the medical tent. My eyes had swollen shut. I was raspy, wheezing, and my skin burned. Not a calm person by nature, my heart raced and I barely kept panic at bay. A very attractive young Navy doctor gave me a shot of Benadryl, in my thigh, and circled a couple of my hives, to keep an eye on them. They paged my roommate.
Half mortified, half terrified, I waited. My breathing started to return to normal. The circled hives became simply circles. But my eyes were still swollen shut. They gave me a bit more Benadryl, and sent me home. I slept for two days, and my eyes were bruised for a week.
Banking on the 5K being a fluke, I ran through a beachy park a few weeks later. I sneezed and wheezed on the drive home. A cold shower couldn’t stop the attack. Four more Benadryl. Another weekend of sleep.
It happened again on a treadmill run at a local gym. And again. And again. But sometimes it didn’t happen. Sometimes, my runs were without incident.
On and off through my twenties, I tried to run. My energetic friend Tamara would meet me in the wee hours of the morning and we would run through our Norfolk neighborhood. The night my dad called me to tell me that he and my mom were divorcing, for real this time, I ran to my friend Bill’s house and cried into his dog Simba. That night, at least my run was good.
Perhaps, I thought, if I just take a long time to cool down, “it” won’t happen. But it did. Perhaps, I thought, if I run inside, “it” will be okay. But it wasn’t. Feeling particularly good one day, I worked on treadmill sprints. So, on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean, I had to jet back to my cabin and down a couple of antihistamines.
I described my symptoms to an allergist. “Exercise-induced anaphylaxis,” he said. Get a medical alert bracelet. Use an inhaler before you run. Get an epi-pen. Never run alone.
I stopped trying to run. My body was *litrally* allergic to it.
But I still ran in my dreams, the air flowing easily through my lungs, powering my muscles and clearing my head.
So it was with a bit of trepidation and a healthy dose of doubt that I entered the lottery to run ten miles with 40,000 of my closest friends. “Yeah, I’m working more than full time, writing a book, trying to be a decent mom, and barely keeping my head above water, but I think taking this additional thing on is exactly the ticket, especially since running races has been such a kick in the pants in the past!”
I signed up for a training program. The first night of practice, I was terrified I would be the slowest runner there. I wasn’t, but I never saw the two gals who were slower than me again. At practice, I’m often the last to arrive, held up by work or poor planning. I’m the last to finish a mile. I’m the last up a hill. The last.
But I put one foot in front of the other. I keep showing up. Yeah, I want to push myself. I want to run faster, harder, I want to win. I’m competitive—ask anyone who’s played a game of Trivial Pursuit with me—but that part of myself can’t set the pace. Running isn’t—can’t be—about winning for me, it isn’t about beating or competing or proving myself to anyone.
I’m learning to listen to my body, to honor it, and to love it. I don’t need to beat it into submission. I don’t need to shame it into doing something it’s not ready for. I listen to my breath, I feel my heart. I check in with my legs and feet. I go a little faster. I listen to my breath. I feel my heart. I check in with my legs and feet. I go a little slower.
My training hasn’t been perfect. I got wrapped up in my head one Sunday afternoon on Kelly Drive and forgot to listen to my body. Giehl had to come pick me up, my eyes swollen. I sobbed in the shower, dying to know why I couldn’t just run like normal people. I signed up to do a 15K earlier in the spring and had to drop out after the fourth mile, my face again a swollen mess. “Maybe I can just walk the rest of the way,” I thought. “I can still kind of see.”
My new routine is Zyrtec an hour before a run, Benadryl at the start. Go slow. Try not to worry. Keep extra Benadryl handy, just in case.
So when I lined up at the back of the pack on Sunday, at the far north end of Broad Street, I didn’t know what to expect of the day. I didn’t know if I’d have to call Giehl at mile two because I’d started too fast, or if I’d be swept up by a golf cart three miles from the end because I was just going too slow. I just wanted to finish.
It was a hot day. I should have eaten breakfast. I should have hydrated better. I should have worn a hat and sunscreen. My 13:20 minute miles turned into 15 and 16 miles rather quickly. I kept looking behind me, sure if there were even a hundred other turtles back there, I wouldn’t be forced off the course. And I hit a wall around the seventh mile. I just couldn’t run any more.
“Come on, Sarah, push yourself,” I said.
And then, “Wait a second. I’ve run seven miles. It’s blazing hot. I’m exhausted. I’m already pushing myself by not giving up. Back the fuck off.”
So I walked. And walked. And shuffled here and there. A quarter mile before the end, I stopped to loosen my shoelace, which had become unbearably tight. I walked a little more, and then I saw the finish line, and jogged towards it, the best I knew how to do.