Six years ago, I reached a very low point in my life. I had just quit gymnastics after being in the sport for 10 years and striving for a college scholarship, and the reason behind my departure is still difficult to talk about. While I loved gymnastics more than anyone can imagine, my last three years in the sport were spent battling an eating disorder and a serious bout of depression.
My life feels very much split into “before gymnastics” and “after gymnastics.” The first few months of the “after” were spent in a clouded haze, as I attempted to transition into a normal high school student and conform to a life that I had never known. With serious mental health issues and all my formative years spent in the gym, I felt disconnected from the world. The future was a black hole of uncertainty, and my identity was lost to the sport I had given up.
After everything I had endured, both physically and mentally, I had no idea how to heal myself.
We all have those defining moments in life that we don’t realize are a big deal until after the fact. That moment came for me in February 2012 during seventh period math class: Someone took a chance on me.
A friend I had known since elementary school asked me to join the track team with her. I can’t say for certain, but I think she saw that I was struggling, that I was lost and needed something to grasp on to.
And grasp on to it, I did. After all, I had nothing to lose.
It was raining, and I stood timidly in the corner of the track unsure of what to do. My friend stuck by my side and introduced me to the long-distance girls, those who participated in the endurance events rather than the sprinting races.
It’s hard to describe the overwhelming amount of encouragement and acceptance I received that day. Even though it was wet and overcast, the group and I set off on our 60-minute long run across the fields of campus. We ran, talked, and jumped in puddles. We laughed, shared stories, and stopped to catch our breaths. While my legs ached and I gasped air into my lungs, I felt invigorated for the first time in a long time.
I experienced my first runner’s high, endorphins coursing through my veins.
That first day was something magical. It offered me a hope for the future that I never would have imagined. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t felt inside of the gym. Running brought me back to the things that made me happiest in childhood: running barefoot through the grass in my backyard, chasing my classmates while we played capture the flag at recess, lapping the baseball field with my gymnastics teammates under the summer sun.
I was hooked.
Running helped me find myself again and become the best version of myself—both mentally and physically. It has improved my life in many ways, but mostly by teaching me valuable lessons.
- Mindfulness: As someone who suffers from anxiety, running is the one thing that forces me to be completely present. All of my worries get shifted aside as I focus on the simple task at hand: Breathe in, breathe out. Push, then fall back.
I can narrow in on each sensation in my body and then respond to it. There is something so rewarding about it—so instinctual—that no other sport has given me. Each day is different, and I can tune into what my body needs.
When I’m feeling anxious, I like to push the pace and find some hills to work out my tension. When I’m feeling calm or joyful, I like to soak up the outdoors for as long as possible, leisurely making my way around my favorite running routes. I love to feel the sun on my skin and immerse myself in my surroundings. Everything else simply melts away. I always come away feeling centered and self-aware.
- Body Acceptance: Coming from a sport that was subjective in nature and cared a great deal about aesthetics, running has offered a fresh perspective on how to view my body and nutrition. My disordered thoughts around food turned into ones of intention.
Running demanded fuel, and I found immense value in nourishing my body rather than running it down. Instead of being immersed in a diet-obsessed, calorie-filled world, the running community encouraged me not to focus on size, but instead pay attention to my energy levels and ability to recover after a tough workout. My thoughts shifted from caring what I looked like in a leotard to wondering if I had eaten enough spaghetti to provide glycogen stores for my next long run.
- Community: I’ve gained some of the most valuable friendships through running, as it provides an incredible opportunity to bond with others. The running community is incredibly supportive and encouraging, embracing all runners regardless of shape, size, or skill. The level of sportsmanship and integrity I have witnessed has had a huge impact on me and inspired me to embrace a new attitude towards sport: winning does not have to be at any cost.
- Perspective: My biggest takeaway from doing hundreds of long runs is that perspective is key. You cannot get through a 15-mile run if you aren’t in the right frame of mind. I’ve learned how to reframe my thoughts and avoid getting ahead of myself. I’ve learned to ‘settle-in’ (a mantra I like to say in my head at the beginning of every long run) and train my brain to focus on the present moment rather than getting wrapped up in the end goal.
Instead of being deterred by thoughts of “How will I possibly get through that many miles?” or checking my watch every few minutes to see how much time has passed, I have learned how to find the right pace and get into my zone—something which has benefited many other areas of my life.
- How to Love Myself: Before, my worth felt so tied to my identity as a gymnast. The lessons I’ve learned through running have shown me that I am more than a runner, because running is about more than, well, running. It is about being mindful of myself and my body, intuitively listening to my needs and pushing myself to do things I never thought possible. Running is a tool that allows me to live my values, and it supports me in being the best version of myself. It helps me focus on making the right decisions for my overall wellness and not getting caught up in comparisons.
Today, as I head out on my run, it is raining. It brings me back to that very first day I showed up to practice and laced up my gym shoes. It reminds me of where I came from and where I still need to go from here. I know that wherever it is, I will embrace my mantra and settle in for the long run.