In high school, the end of field hockey season meant giving back my comfy pair of maroon sweatpants among other borrowed apparel, and a personal meeting with my coach. As I walked into her office my junior year after our season was over, I braced myself for what she might say about my playing. It wasn’t always bad, but I also knew I didn’t play perfectly.
“You need to get faster,” she told me. “Run more over the summer.”
Okay, not bad, I thought as I exited. It could’ve been worse.
But as I started training for preseason (seems a little redundant, right?), I noticed I still couldn’t bring myself to run more than two miles at a time, or three on a great day. So nothing really changed. Yeah, I got a decent mile time during preseason that year, but something was holding me back. It was extremely frustrating; I kept feeling like I was having writer’s block, but for runners…until I started college.
Freshman year by definition is exciting. Every experience feels so new, such as meeting different types of people or taking classes that actually interest you. But with all the exhilarating highs come responsibilities and stressors you never knew you’d have to deal with. In the beginning of the year, you have to solve problems on your own, like getting a D on an exam for the first time of your life, without the assistance of your parents or your closest friends. You truly have to be proactive about your education—no professor or advisor will spoon-feed you information or advice. These struggles inherently go along with the fun of college. You can’t go out on weeknights without possibly bombing your 8 a.m. quiz, for instance. That’s adulting, people.
Like any college student, stress invaded my life at times, thanks to the above. Since I no longer played any sports (not skilled enough for club field hockey, oops), I turned to running. The only child in me enjoyed the time to myself. The only sounds I listened to included my quick breaths, the thud of my shoes on the ground, the music in my right ear and my own thoughts. It was a time for me to process things, or just not think about anything at all.
For the first semester of my freshman year, my running habits were hardly any different than the ways I ran at home. I ran short distances, and not that quickly, either. Literally and figuratively speaking, I ran in circles when it came to my exercise habits. If anything, I was becoming more and more out of shape. How did I know this? What used to be a breezy walk up University of Maryland’s infamous hill next to the Stamp Student Union soon turned into an arduous climb. With every step, it made my heart nearly beat out of my chest.
One day, I met my friends for breakfast at the dining hall. They walked in after their four-mile run, faces flushed and sheen with sweat. They look tired, but rejuvenated. Suddenly I thought back to those strenuous field hockey games and practices from high school. I missed the feeling I got after pushing myself past my limits in order to snag the ball or score a goal. That always made me feel so revived and tenacious.
I wanted to get back into shape, so I decided to run with them the next time they ran around Lake Artemesia, which was off-campus. Until then, I had never ran more than about three miles at a given time in my life. The four mile route we did together was definitely arduous and compared to my running partners, I struggled a bit. But despite feeling sick in the stomach and weak in the knees, I felt amazing and unstoppable afterwards.
Running soon turned into my favorite past time. Funny, right? Because believe it or not, I used to associate cardio with literal death. I started to wake up well before my classes every other morning to the chiming of my phone alarm to go on a lake run with my friends. While four miles used to be a stretch for us, it soon because the norm. After that, it turned into the minimum mileage for our runs.
During the second semester of that year, my group of friends and I collectively decided to sign up for a half marathon, something I never dreamt of doing. My high school self would’ve looked at my college self and thought my college self was absolutely insane. But it’s not like I hadn’t prepared; at that point we worked our way up to running six to eight miles a few times per week.
Summer break snuck up on me and I parted ways with Lake Artemesia for a few months and reverted back to hilly New Jersey paths. Fortunately, the route for the Super Hero Half Marathon that I signed up for was generally flat. I felt pretty prepared, but I was also nervous because I only ever worked up to 10 miles with my running buddies, and that was once. Regardless, I knew I would have my friends beside me.
For the beginning of the race, I ran steadily with them. Naturally, however, our paces didn’t always match up so after mile five, I found myself on my own. Oh boy. At first I couldn’t help but think, How am I going to do this by myself? Can I put one foot in front of the other for eight more miles on my own? What if something bad happens to me?
The only thing I could do was push through, so that’s what I did. And, surprisingly, it turned out to be one of my easiest runs. Adrenaline-driven with music pulsing into my ear, I felt like the superhero on my shirt, Wonder Woman, as I worked my way up to mile 10, 11, 12 and so forth.
During the last mile, I experienced pain in my joints like never before. I wasn’t winded, but my legs felt achy and creaky, like rusted bike pedals. But my favorite pump-up song, “Something Just Like This” by Coldplay and the Chainsmokers, then came on and I knew I couldn’t stop.
Before I knew it, I reached the finish line. In that moment, I realized I was the only one that led me to mile 13.1. For the longest time, I’d thought I’d only started running more because I had my friends running alongside me. After all, I’m a secretly competitive person, so naturally I wanted to keep up. But in fact, thinking that my body was not made for running had been proven false, along with the notion that I could only run with my friends alongside me for support. No, it was all me: My body, mind and soul had brought me to this point. And that same sense of control that I found as I ran around Lake Artemesia all of those early weekday morning has helped me navigate college without fear.