I remember the first time we met, me and my running shoes. Them, small and purple. Me, eleven and nervous. I was going on my very first run with Dad — nothing special, just a mile-long loop. I remember feeling uncomfortable in the shoes. They were bulkier than I was used to, heavy on my feet. I took an experimental step, and then another, and then I started running. “Catch up, Dad!” I shouted excitedly over my shoulder.
I remember how it felt to finish that mile, wiping the sweat from my forehead. I’d run around before — as a kid, it was practically all I’d done. If I wanted to get somewhere in a hurry, I would simply burst into a sprint. If I was feeling energetic or joyful, I’d break into a run. I instigated games of tag at the bus stop, and I bounced in circles around my friends when they sat at lunch.
But this was the first time I had done an official Run. With Running Shoes.
I felt powerful. I felt like I could run ten miles more.
I remember starting other sports as I grew older. Gymnastics, dancing, swimming all cycled into and out of my life. I loved all of them, because they were all movement, but in the margins of my life, even packed with extracurriculars, I still found time to run. All of my others sports required me to be driven somewhere, to buy extra equipment, to work with other people. Running required nothing but my shoes.
The other sports came and went like seasons, piquing my interest, plateauing, and finally dipping off the horizon. Running stayed constant throughout it all, keeping me grounded. It demanded nothing of me, except what I demanded of myself.
I remember when I went on my junior year abroad in high school to Germany. I couldn’t speak the language, I had no friends, but by God, I could run. I ran nearly every day that year. I ran when I was happy, I ran when I was sad. I ran alone, at first, and then with others as we found commonality in the joy of running. Everything else in my life felt like it was out of control, but with running, if I wanted to go faster, I just had to try.
I remember one pre-dawn morning, I sprinted up a hill as the sun rose to surprise a deer and her fawn at the peak. We looked at one another for a long moment, mist rising off the grass, gilded by the glow of dawn. Then she bolted. I ran home.
I remember when my mind began to betray my body by insisting it was not good enough. My body felt so heavy and soft, all of a sudden. I wanted to feel smaller and lither, but my body insisted on remaining as it was.
I remember feeling like the only alternative to existing was to run, and run, and run. I ran mornings, evenings, longer and longer stretches. Even though I hated my body, I never hated running.
I remember my running shoes carried me through when a boy hurt me for the first time. I ran through my feelings, running through the song that played when we first met at a party, running through my emotions and sadness and anger. I can still listen to that song, now, years later, because it reminds me of running, not him.
When I was in my final year of college, isolated from my friends from the stress of finishing school, isolated by my partner by our first year of long distance, isolated from my own sanity, unknowingly depressed, I picked up my running shoes again.
I ran into town, I ran through the outskirts, I once ran so far I needed to get a bus to go back home. But when I did, I felt better. After every exam, I went for a run, my feet pounding to the time of the beat. Even though all I wanted to do was sink into my head and overthink everything I was sure I’d done wrong, my running shoes called to me with a promise of physical oblivion.
I’ve lived in many different places in my time. Each epoch of my life has come with its unique set of struggles, challenges, highs and lows. Throughout it all, my constant companion has been my set of running shoes. I’ve picked up and dropped half a dozen running apps; I’ve cycled through brands, colors, styles of lycra. But the first things I always pack are my running shoes.
Every time I’ve felt helpless or lost, the one thing that’s always put me back on my feet has been going for a run. My body gets a chance to remember that I’m strong. My mind has a minute to find space to breathe. As someone who’s suffered through mental health issues, body image problems, and a relentless brain that refuses to shut up, my running shoes have been with me through thick and thin.
Whether I had friends or not, whether I had a boyfriend or not, whether I was furious or ecstatic, healthy or not, my running shoes have always been the one thing I needed to feel alright again.