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How Running Keeps Saving My Life Again and Again

Through grief and beyond, it’s the most powerful therapy there is.

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Rob And Julia Campbell/Stocksy
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I’m sitting on a plane, headed to Dallas for a girls’ weekend to celebrate my midlife birthday. I’m not sure I quite believe it, as I still feel like the 16-year-old girl who was scared of everything despite having experienced practically nothing.

By now, though, decades later, I can no longer say the same. In that time I started a career, abandoned that career, got married, became a mother of four, and lost a father and a brother within two months. I’ve experienced the most profound happiness and been devastated with pain that can still paralyze me, almost 10 years later.

When I think of the common thread that has sustained me through it all, it’s been running.

I started running track in middle school when my father volunteered to be the coach of a county team. I fell in love with it immediately — so different from the scary soccer fields where the angry coaches and aggressive parents yelled from the sidelines. Once I started high school, I began running cross-country. My brother, younger by a year, also ran on the team.

Running empowered me in so many ways, allowing me to be part of a team while simultaneously teaching me to rely on myself. For better or worse, it was me against me. It was exhausting and exhilarating and painful and cathartic, all at once. Most importantly, it gave me confidence as I navigated the inevitable angst of being a teenager.

In January 2015, my father passed away from a glioblastoma, a fatal brain tumor. He fought the illness for 15 months, and though I knew in my heart he wouldn’t survive, I was destroyed when he finally died.

I worshipped him.

My mother, brother and I were devastated but felt fortunate to have each other. Two months later, my brother had surgery for an aneurysm. A few hours after waking from anesthesia, he had a stroke and was removed from life support two days later. There was so much unsaid between the two of us, and due to the unexpected nature of his death, I never got to say goodbye.

He was only 35.

After his death, I entered a very dark period. Though I had my own family by that time — a husband and children — I was completely untethered. My brother and I lived within minutes of each other and saw each other constantly.

Of course, I knew however unbearable my anguish and disbelief, my mother’s was immeasurably worse. We leaned on each other during that terrible period, but every time I looked at her I just saw my own pain reflected on her face. The family I had always known had disappeared, along with the future I’d always expected would be mine.

One day, after seeing my red puffy eyes, one of my children asked me if I could please try not to cry in front of him. So, I did my best to put on a happy face. I stumbled through the days, longing for them to end, only to have a sense of dread envelop me once night finally arrived. I was tormented by my thoughts, sleeping in spurts or awake until dawn.

I’d go to the cemetery and sit on the grass for hours, in front of their gravestones, and one day, I remembered my sneakers were in my car. There, I switched shoes to sneakers and started running around the path that circled the cemetery. Everything changed that day.

The sound of my feet on the pavement slowly propelled me out of the sad stillness that had me stuck. Running allowed me to gain clarity on the loss of my father and brother. I found I was able to talk to them, and discovered, despite the chaos of grief, a sense of control I hadn’t felt in many months.

As I watch my own children grow up, I am intensely reflective about what I have lost. No one prepares you for this stage of motherhood — full of pride watching your kids ascend, yet wistful as you become aware that so much of your own life is in the rearview mirror. Witnessing my children achieve their goals has been a necessary reminder that I too have to keep moving ahead.

Starting to run again has been both a healer and a force. When I run, I feel like the best version of myself. Moving swiftly through the tunnel of grief, I am strong and sure.

The sport is my salvation, my refuge. I am grateful for all of it — the grueling hills, the suffocating heat, the leg cramps, the moments of gasping for air, the thinking I couldn’t possibly go any further. Of course, I could always go farther than I believed was possible.

Today, I ran through a canopy of beautiful trees with changing leaves, a new season mirroring my new season of life.

Do any of you run regularly? What has it done for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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