In college, I lived along the main street in a very small town. Every morning, I looked forward to taking my coffee out to my miniature deck filled with Target plastic furniture. As this became my routine, I noticed someone else’s: a young woman who used the endorphins from running to jump-start her day instead of getting energy from caffeine in a cup.
I admired her effort and her dedication to staying active, while silently guilting myself for barely making it to the gym. I kept thinking: “I wish I could be the type of person who just got up and went for a run like it was no big deal.” It seemed unfathomable to me at the time, not only because athleticism wasn’t a big part of my life, but running? Well, it was hard.
Three years later, I was sitting on a different porch at a Mexican restaurant in my hometown, drinking a margarita, when my father told me that he had colon cancer. A retired fireman, my dad was always a superhero in my eyes, incapable of failing or being weak. While he had battled other minor health issues over the years, hearing the C-word in relation to someone I loved so dearly took my breath away.
It also inspired me to put my own well-being smack dab at the top of my priority list. Though I had attempted to run short distances before then, his diagnosis pushed me to sign up for my first half-marathon, in support of cancer survivors everywhere.
As I trained, I thought of my dad, unable to ride his bike like he loved or eat the kind of foods that he was so great at making. The very thought of him being held back by something potentially life-threatening would get me through long runs and unforgiving hills. If all he wanted was to walk without his stitches pulling at his stomach, surely I could make it through an elective run on a Sunday afternoon.
I finished my first half-marathon in Central Park in two hours and 12 minutes. I couldn’t believe I had successfully lapped my favorite park in my favorite city… twice. I also couldn’t wait to call my father to tell him that all of that hard work had paid off. But even better news came months before I crossed the finish line: The surgery was successful, and my dad was cancer-free. That day was so full of inspiring, emotional energy that I decided I wouldn’t stop running.
I ran some 10Ks. A few 5Ks. I did an obstacle race. I got into a marathon but chickened out. While I still thought of my dad often throughout my runs, I also couldn’t shake the way my passion for logging miles was waning—and more importantly, the way my body was responding.
Running started to feel like something I had to do to stay fit, and not something that relieved my stress.
My legs were always stiff and tired, and I had gained so much muscle that some of my clothes simply wouldn’t fit anymore. Running started to feel like something I had to do to stay fit, and not something that relieved my stress. I would blow off friends to make a daily run because I felt like if I didn’t, I wasn’t living the kind of life that I believed I owed my dad: one that was healthy and active and positive.
I didn’t end up listening to the red flags, and I paid for it, dearly. At mile 12 of my second half-marathon, I paused for water and when I started to run again, my left knee couldn’t handle it. Stubbornly, I made myself finish the race and went straight to physical therapy afterward.
For five very long months, I basically couldn’t do anything that put demands on my body. I grew frustrated, became slightly depressed, and turned to food for solace, ultimately gaining 20 pounds. I couldn’t find anything to replace the feeling running gave me or the message I hoped it sent to my family and friends (and myself). That is, until I discovered a new way of working out that didn’t involve endlessly pounding the pavement.
I started taking fitness classes—no, Richard Simmons wasn’t there, and they weren’t anything like the cheesy group aerobics you think of—and I fell in love. I went to a boxing class and learned how to throw a punch. I tried my first outdoor bootcamp class, and although I felt like crying halfway through, I made it—and have never felt more empowered. I started going to yoga and discovered that I was more flexible than I thought.
Taking classes helped me realize I didn’t have to run a certain amount of miles per week to stay in shape. I didn’t need to have medals hanging from my dresser to show my dad that I cared about my health (and that I cared so much about him too). And even more than running, classes gave me a mental clarity that I needed: For one hour (and one hour only) every day, I had permission to just focus on being active and happy.
A year and a half, two rounds of Whole30, and five classes per week later, I’m 25 pounds lighter. I can do a yoga headstand. My right hook is mighty powerful. And when I do run—which is rare these days—my average pace is more than a minute less than it was when I ran every single day. I’ve found a confidence in class that I never had while on the road or the treadmill, and my body is happier without the constant stress and fatigue that running left me with.
The best part? I’m no longer trying to be anyone else but myself. I don’t have to measure up to that woman jogger who woke up at dawn to run. I can just be me. Plus my dad was just as proud of me when I called him to let him know I made it into the intermediate boxing class as he was when I finished that half-marathon. Maybe even more so, especially since he’s challenged me to a match when I’m home for Christmas.