I never ran. The PE department learned the hard way that running wasn’t for me. I would, without fail, end up in the nurse’s office laid out taking my inhaler, sitting on the floor with my head between my knees drinking coke, or wheezing into my school nebulizer (as distinct from the one I had at home that I took every morning before school). Even without running I had a hard enough time breathing and other activities would give me asthma attacks that prevented me from hearing or speaking, made my rib cage feel like it was about to combust, and occasionally sent me to the hospital.
My freshman year of high school I went to a JROTC marching competition and had an asthma attack but had left my inhaler on the bus. My heart was pounding so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t hear and when someone found me wheezing unable to find my inhaler on the bus I just eeked out “attack.” My friends told me later that an announcement had been made that a cadet from Denbigh High School was having a heart attack on the bus. Another time as I was preparing to march in a parade with band my breathing acted up. We were conveniently assigned a spot directly in front of ambulances, so I got taken to the hospital and hooked up to meds relatively quickly. My second year in China, we took a school trip hiking up a mountain and I only made it a quarter of the way before having an attack that sent me back down with a friend to wait for the bus to pick us up after everyone else finished. The next year, I had an asthma attack for 7 hours (I went through an entire inhaler and several cans of coke) before finally calling for a taxi to go to the hospital at 3 in the morning. Once in Laos after spending New Year’s Eve around smokers it took me 45 minutes to walk what should have taken 5 minutes home and I actually wasn’t sure I’d make it.
My lungs had tested at 60% of a normal person’s and the pulmonary specialist I saw said that even if I never smoked, my asthma attacks had done enough damage to my airways that by the time I was 50 it’d look like I’d smoked my whole life anyway.
Despite all this, in 2007 around Christmas time I got this idea in my head that I would try to run. I was living on a college campus with a track and started out small by walking with friends. When everyone deserted campus for Chinese New Year, I tried running around the track just once, then twice, and then wondered how far I could go.
With every pound of my foot against the pavement my thoughts worked overtime to convince me that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t a runner. I felt in a way that, rather than training my body, running had become about training my mind.
I had found a schedule online for running 10 miles and worked my way up through it one step, one thought at a time. The further I went, the less I believed the thoughts that ran alongside taunting me. I could do this.
I remember the day well that I finally ran 10 miles. I “ran” about a 14 minute mile and three PE classes met in the field in the middle while I circled the track. The teachers were confused if I was the same person they’d seen the last time they were there. A Chinese student approached me asking to talk and I told him if he could wait for me to finish we could. He must have thought I didn’t really want to talk since he had to wait for so long. He left but returned with a Sprite and a couple hours later when I finished he gifted me the Sprite as my reward.
I cried. Not because of the Sprite, but because I had done it. This thing that once seemed impossible. I, the girl who never ran for anything other than the bus, had run for myself and hadn’t had problems with my breathing. I did it.
The longest miles I ran were the ones I ran in my head. Along the way I learned to conquer those as well. I’ve come to think that the longest mile, the longest season, the longest anything we face are won in our minds.
This morning I ran ten miles again and just as before it was so satisfying. I also had the benefit of not having those same self-defeating thoughts in my head telling me I couldn’t, because I knew I could.