Any scroll through your Facebook newsfeed can show you inspiring and transformative journeys people have experienced through running. Most recently circulating the interwebs has been the story of two women who went from strangers to friends as they finished the Pittsburgh Marathon together, hand in hand. I own a running store and have been a run coach for the past two years. It is a joy and privilege to witness and encourage the inspiring stories of overcoming addiction, weight loss, coping with anxiety and depression, and building self-confidence through running. I am frequently in awe of those I encounter who have recently discovered or even re-discovered the precious gift of running.
Running started early
I don’t have a life-changing story about running because running has been with me since I was a child living in the suburbs, wreaking old-school havoc around the neighborhood with the dozens of other kids on my street. It is woven into the fabric of every phase of my life. Running has held different meanings to me throughout my life, but it has always been there in different forms. Most of the time it has been a physical release from stress and anxiety. In high school, when my mother and I would butt heads, she would wave her white flag and exhaustedly tell me to “Go for a run!”
I also used it as cross-training for my main sport of tennis, vowing to myself that I would never lose a match from being fatigued. Running was my fuel during my teenage years. Throughout my twenties, it evolved into being a fun part of my daily routine, no matter where I was living. Being a bit of a transient until I met my husband, running was always my way to get my bearings in the city or town where I lived. I could watch people, discover cool stores and restaurants, and understand the maze of streets.
Step-family life and running
In my mid-twenties, I moved into the house my husband had previously owned with his ex-wife. I felt like an outsider trying to fit into the area that was two hours from my pre-established life. During that period of my life, running was my outlet for stress while I navigated uncharted territory as a stepmom. As I approached my thirties and had a baby, it became my saving grace from losing my identity. Between blended family conflict and a shiny, new, screaming-with-acid-reflux baby, running helped both physically and mentally. Sometimes I ran by myself, which would be minutes or hours of glorious quiet time to think or not think, and without someone touching me or talking to me. Sometimes I would join my local running club for a loud and boisterous group run followed by breakfast at a local spot. These group runs ended up turning into deep friendships with both men and women.
Running as self-care
Every time my feet first hit the pavement or single-track trail, I feel a deep connection to my childhood. I remember the bliss I felt running through the streets and into the one coveted section of woods that we had. Running is my link to happiness. When I run on the trails, I take in the sights and sounds. The elusive heron by the water and the rustling of the trees in late spring and early summer, the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet in the fall, the glimmer of the icicles dangling from the trees in winter, and fresh buds of green, purple, and red in early spring. It is delightful to bounce around on the trail, hopping over roots, not knowing if a rock on which I land will be stable or not…nothing but beauty and the unexpected can be expected on the trail. The hike up to a summit, the thrilling, fast, heart-racing descent, the attention-getting crack of a twig or branch to see what animal may be near, the breathtaking vistas, the challenge of winding, seemingly never-ending switchbacks. It gives me a sense of grounding to the earth.
When I run on the road, I feel the calm sense of routine similar to folding laundry that I love (but not the putting away part!). Just one foot in front of the other. Most of the time my road runs are in familiar places. I prefer to run those when I feel stressed. The road gives me a sense of predictability during tumultuous times. I know where the road will bend, where the potholes are, the house that is always seasonally decorated, the barking dog in the window, the friendly gardener, the dangerous intersection where I need to look and listen many times before crossing. If my life is feeling too out of control for my liking, I may choose to approach a run on the road like an observer of life instead of an active participant.
My running has also evolved into social connections to others and my community, which became the largest part of my self-care. I now take yearly trips with my trail running friends. Last May we went to the Catskills in New York and this past April we went to Shenandoah National Park. We hiked the White Oak Canyon Trail and then Old Rag the next day. Old Rag is one of the top hikes in the world and it was easy to see why. We had two miles of climbing switchbacks and then the fun began- one and a half miles of scrambling up, over, under, and around boulders. Then lots of false summits, but beautiful vistas, until we reached the top with a 360 degree view of the thousands of acres of Shenandoah National Park. My heart always feels full when I reach the top. Gratitude for the physical ability to do and see these experiences. Gratitude for having access to these beautiful places.
Some days I don’t want to run. I may feel tired, run down, or just not in the mood. I check in with myself to see if I’m on the brink of a physical issue or not and then make my decision. For over twenty years, I have embraced the Steve Prefontaine quote of “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” Twenty years ago I interpreted that as giving my all, all the time, every single time. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I learned that similar to my blended family, “best” is fluid in every sense. On a run-down day, in order to prevent or lessen an oncoming illness, my “best” may mean a cup of tea and a nap instead of my previously scheduled five miles.
When my day becomes a dumpster fire, I cling to the fact that I accomplished at least one thing. That one thing may have involved a mismatched outfit and some grumbling as I laced up my shoes, but it’s an achievement.
Jenn Soisson is an outdoor enthusiast, wife, mom, and stepmom who loves to run, coach runners, and sell running shoes at www.runhikeplay.com and at her brick and mortar store. She spent years overwhelmed by blended family conflict until she decided to become the creator of her own life.