It took me 27 years to even begin to consider myself a runner.
Which didn’t make a whole lot of sense, seeing as I grew up a very active athlete. I played a handful of sports from a young age, and all but one (swimming) required running. But calling myself a “runner” always felt like a title I had yet to earn.
Part of that root cause was pretty easy to trace: I didn’t run my first 10K and half marathon until a few years out of college. I trained hard and loved the experiences, but it wasn’t like my time was super impressive or anything. It didn’t seem like enough to earn the distinction.
And then, just a few months later, I got hurt. In the year following my ACL and meniscus reconstruction, I began to doubt that I would ever get back to my previous fitness level, much less surpass it. This is your new normal, I thought. I didn’t recognize it as being negative; I simply thought I was being realistic. So, I had started to stop believing I would ever check the box on my bucket list labeled “Run a marathon.”
But the thing is, I’ve never been the type to sit on the sidelines. I wasn’t the most naturally gifted athlete, but that didn’t stop me from earning a D-1 collegiate lacrosse scholarship. I left my small Ohio town to pursue a career in the competitive magazine business, and I realized that dream—in cutthroat New York City.
In every area of my life—career, relationships, sports—I’ve done what Sheryl Sandberg asked of all women in 2010, in her TED Talk-turned-book-turned-social-movement: I’ve Leaned In. I’ve been confident. Except, that is, when it came to running.
That’s when it hit me: Knee surgery might have sidelined me, but it was my mindset that was keeping me there. Physically I had healed, but psychologically I was more bruised up than ever. Without ever realizing it, I had settled. I was still a glass-half-full optimist who believed anything was possible, but I guess somewhere along the way I started thinking that rule pertained to everyone but me.
When I was given the chance to train for my first big race, I knew I was willing to follow a tough training plan. I knew I had a great support system. Truly the only thing holding me back was the fearful voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘But what if you fail?’
Cue Sandberg’s belief that women underestimate their own potential. While athletic ability is often measured by how well our muscles, heart, and lungs function, what’s above the neck (a.k.a. our brain) may play a bigger role in both propelling and limiting performance. “Fear and doubt can either make us assume we aren’t capable of doing something or trick us into thinking we don’t really want it,” says Carrie Cheadle, co-author of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries. Why? “It can feel very vulnerable putting everything you have on the line and finding out it’s still not enough—so we hold back. We unconsciously set an easier goal to protect our ego.”
Those insecurities can spike when you’re two miles into a five-mile run and you simply Can’t. Take. One. More. Step. “Your brain is designed to play it safe,” says Timothy Noakes, M.D., a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “You may never know your true limit because your brain is that good at deceiving you into thinking that you can’t possibly go any faster, harder, or longer.”
When you spend time far outside your comfort zone, running becomes so much more than just exercise. Months of training definitely made a physical impact, and I won’t pretend that’s not a perk. But all I could seem to focus on was how it had affected my outlook, not my body. Every minute on the course I was in the complete unknown, but instead of feeling intimidated, I was energized. I was grateful. I was hopeful. As I crossed the finish line, I was hit with an indescribable surge of pride. Tears rolled down my face. I just did that, I thought. I can’t believe I just did that. I had been so worried about failing that I never considered the alternative: I might succeed beyond my wildest dreams.
“An ambitious fitness goal is really just the vehicle to show people how awesome they are,” says Robyn Benincasa, founder of Project Athena, which helps women who have had serious medical setbacks live out adventurous dreams as part of their recovery. “The thrill of accomplishing a physical feat that very few people are able to do inspires a confidence and satisfaction that spills over into every aspect of our lives.”
Crossing that finish line changed the way I looked at myself forever. It helped me win back my own confidence and prove I was still capable of anything I set my mind to. But it also made me wonder in what other ways I might be holding myself back. From that point on, running became a personal litmus test. I kept training, kept checking off races. I was never the best or the fastest, but each training block helped me find a better version of myself.
And just when I felt I was hitting my rhythm, 2020 hit. And, like many other runners, my big goals and plans were canceled. But without races and formal finish lines, I’ve realized even more how running isn’t about the accomplishment itself. It’s about pushing yourself just a little bit past your comfort zone. It’s about hearing “I can’t,” but showing yourself you can. Some days this year, that’s just a few minutes or a few miles. But it doesn’t matter.
Because this year has taught me that I don’t run to chase finish lines. I don’t run to collect medals or break records. I don’t run because it comes easy or because it’s what all my friends do. I run because it’s the one thing that continually and instantly renews my belief that no matter how I feel, I’m not stuck. That no matter what might be happening—in my life, in the world, or even just in those miles—I can always find a way to move myself forward.