When you start a lifelong hobby at the tender age of sixteen, it’s virtually guaranteed to see you through a lot: various stages of awkwardness, confusion, frustration, epiphany, and change, for starters. It’s called growing up, and I toured those stages of adolescence and young adulthood quite literally on foot. For the past eight years, I’ve been a runner, each footstep carrying me though life as I know it. As you can imagine, I’ve worn through many pairs of Asics in the process.
As a sophomore in high school, I picked up the jogging habit that was already a constant in my dad’s life. Up until that point, my music knowledge had been gleaned from the same parental sources: I’d listened to a strange combination of Motown and classical symphonies forever, never really extending my own musical tastes past the edges of theirs. And while oldies and opera sufficed as the soundtrack for family car trips, my new running habit allowed for freedom of musical choice. Armed with headphones and a Discman, I added artists to my repertoire, slowly becoming enamored with the songs that propelled me on increasingly lengthy jogs. I discovered Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan a few years into my running career, at eighteen or nineteen, swam to the bottom of their discographies and drowned myself in sound. All the while, I was pounding pavement or snaking through wooded trails, running away from a few heart-ripping breakups and familial dysfunction, and towards new friends, new love, and eventual peace within my home.
So running has the power to propel me through all sorts of challenges. And during the hardest year of my life, the one spent staking my own claim in an unsheltered world, what did I do? I stopped running. Years of hard-earned leg muscle turned to mush, cardiovascular fitness turned to exercise-induced wheezing, and my goal-oriented resolve—once so fierce, having trained for all sorts of long races—faded into couch-potato indifference. And that was okay. I gave myself a break; life was throwing me too many exhausting curveballs to warrant withering self-criticism. But now, with most things humming along at equilibrium, I know it’s time to rebuild the dedication to running that used to be easy habit. Upon seeing my friend Tim a few weeks ago, he said with concern, “I heard you stopped running.” I knew, of course, that running had become inscribed into my DNA over the years. But until speaking with a friend, I hadn’t known that my time spent on the towpath at Georgetown influenced how others saw me, too.
As I haltingly make my way back from the layoff, my path has been studded with hopeful, gingerly starts, a few frustrating weather- and illness-induced setbacks, and reminders of what running is and always has been: the yarn that knits disparate parts of my life into a cohesive whole. It’s my time for reflection, concentration, and quiet inspiration. Recently, I’ve been happily surprised to turn on my familiar running playlists and feel all that youthful, positive energy rush back into my creaky knees. I hear the rambling poetry that fueled me—Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard” (“renegade priests and treacherous young witches / were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you”) and Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love” (“yours is the cloth, mine is the hand that sews time / his is the force that lies within”). And I shuffle my feet down the W&OD trail as the sun dips below the horizon, watching fireflies blip in the bushes like strands of Christmas lights, and remember again why I am a runner.