My love affair with running, began as a mandatory, unwelcome first date: middle school track. Track was supposed to be my training regimen for a family trip up Mt. Kilimanjaro summer of 2000. Never mind that running a few loops around a flat track in the piedmont of North Carolina isn’t really a great training regimen for ascending the slopes of the 19,341 feet high ancient volcano, but that was my plan.
Thanks mostly to our incredible guides (and maybe nominally to my efforts on the track), our trip up Kilimanjaro was a very successful. Wildly so, really. Memories of our time together on Kilimanjaro rank among my favorite family memories to this day. That trip was my first experience of going somewhere truly different from home, and of doing something that pushed me to my physical edge. I was fourteen years old when I stood on the summit of Kilimanjaro. And I was hooked. Hooked on experiencing different ways of being in the world. And hooked on finding my edge.
Beyond Kilimanjaro being the genesis for these important life quests, the preparation for Kilimanjaro was the genesis of what has become one of my longest love affairs in life: running.
I ran cross country in high school. The setting—southern California—was an idyllic place to fall in love with the sport. Perfect conditions were the norm. The avocado orchards in the foreground and the Pacific Ocean in the background made idyllic conditions even better. I was never was the best on the team. And in fact, I didn’t love the meets all that much. But I did come to love the long training runs during my years in California.
When I arrived to rural Ohio fall of 2005 to begin my freshman year of college, after a summer spent in my tent in the Rockies, I wondered at my haste in picking a school so far from the geography I love best. But while rural Ohio can’t boast any spectacular peaks, it is actually incredibly beautiful. Rolling hills, slow country roads, corn fields as far as the eye can see—it was in fact a perfect landscape for long runs. And so since I was missing the mountains, and coming off of a summer of long days of physical activity, I started to explore my new home by going on longer and longer runs.
My sophomore year, the athletic department in conjunction with the Environmental advocacy group on campus announced that they were going to host an Earth Day Kenyon College Marathon. The entry fee for students was $20. At the end of the race, you’d get a sapling to plant instead of a medal. Without much forethought, I signed up.
My longest run before my first marathon was 15 miles. A marathon is 26.2 miles. It is ill advised to have those last 11.2 miles be new territory on race day. It’s being generous to say I was not prepared for the marathon. In addition, the race started at 10am, in late April, and the course largely followed a converted rails to trail path that was in direct sunshine. At mile 17, I felt a little bit like I was dying. I was dehydrated, overheated, and bull-headedly determined. I drank a cup of the sports drink they were passing out at the aid station and plodded on. And on. And on. My friends were working the aid station at mile 26, just before you turned onto the school track for the final .2 miles, and I started to cry openly when I saw them. I finished that race in 4 hours and 22 minutes (exactly 10-minute miles on average). I was destroyed. Sun burned. Sore (for days). And I had immediate race amnesia: I was ready to sign up for another marathon hours after I crossed the finish line.
The next year, I was studying abroad. During our orientation, we went around the room and shared what we were most nervous about for the year ahead. My fear was not being able to run. My trip leaders assured me, that if I got creative, I could make running part of my life abroad. And so I did. I ran through the streets of Dar Es Salem, where smog no doubt did more damage to my lungs than the run did them good. I ran through the winding streets of Arusha. I ran on the beaches of Zanzibar.
My homestay mom in Zanzibar was an elderly woman who was worried about me and my friend, Tarini, running alone. So she asked her friend, a local fisherman to be our chaperone. We’d go with our homestay mom to the beach and meet our chaperone and run along the shoreline at sunrise as fishermen were preparing their nets for the day, and we’d come back sweaty to find our homestay mom floating out in the gentle surf, her black burka blooming all around her.
We left Tanzania after two months and landed in India, and I ran through the most gorgeous Indian countryside with cows and farmers as company. Then it was through the twisty, fern filled roads of New Zealand, and finally through the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Every place I've traveled since that year abroad, I've gone on runs without maps or a plan, as a way to start to get to know the place I've landed.
When I finished college and I took my first job teaching at a little outdoorsy school in the mountains of North Carolina, I used to go out into the forest and trail run on my days off. My “weekends” at that point were on Tuesday and Wednesday, so often I’d have the mountain to myself.
Don’t you get nervous? People would sometimes ask. Isn’t it dangerous to run by yourself in a place you don’t know. Isn't it dangerous to run in the woods where your cries for help would be muffled?
No. No, was always my resounding reply. I don’t get nervous; I get free.
I will never be a human gazelle. I’ve run nine marathons total at this point in my life and my pace has always hovered around four hours and twenty minutes (plus or minus about fifteen minutes), regardless of how I train. I’ll never win a tangible award from my running or bring home a prize. And that’s just fine.
Because running for me is more about finding peace than it is about my pace. Running is my consistent meditation practice. It’s the best way I know for letting the internal noise get a little quieter.
On my 30th birthday, I decided to celebrate by running my first “ultra-marathon,” a self-designed 30 mile run that began at my doorstep and ended in the nearby national forest. Friends and family and my beloved dog joined me for legs of the race. It was my perfect way to usher in my next decade. Over the last two years I’ve completed two more official ultra-marathons—a 31 miler and a 32 miler. At some point on those runs, you start to laugh at the absurdity. You are already a marathon in, and you still have miles to go. And it’s ridiculous and wonderful.
I have friends who think a jog down the driveway for the Sunday morning paper is a drag and I have other friends who think a twenty-mile run up a mountain is a casual start to the day. I live somewhere in between, which is fine by me. Someday maybe I’ll push myself even farther, or maybe not. One thing that feels certain though is that I’ll never voluntarily quit running.
This month, I was invited by a dear friend who is on the board of the The Nyaka Aids Orphan Project, to join their NYC Marathon team as a charity runner. Nyaka is doing the work of bringing education, healthcare, and community development to rural areas of Uganda. I happily, immediately signed on. I don’t need a higher purpose than the pure goodness of running to run, but pairing running with such a forward thinking, necessary, and hopeful, project like Nyaka makes the miles even sweeter.
Most of my friends have incredibly deep hearts, but those with deep pockets are few and far between. When I shared this concern with my friend on the board, he replied, “It’s okay.” Part of the fundraising mission is simply sharing the story of Nyaka.
The story, is told best by the people who are writing it. But in short, I will say, it’s a story of unimaginable hardship, incredible resiliency, deep courage, and boundless ingenuity and compassion. The emotions that you start to access in a real way when you are pushing up against your own personal edge, are the bedrock of Nyaka.
To those of you who read this blog, a request: if you can contribute, either financially* (every little bit helps) or by spreading information** about the project, please do. And if you’re in NYC on November 4, 2018, I’ll be out there in the sea of humanity, weaving through the city, making my way towards the finish line of my tenth marathon.