“You should REALLY try long distance running, Erin,” my Marine sister Megan tells me after she comes back to the states from military duty in Romania. “It’s a challenge, and I think you’d be really good at it.” Usually I am the one giving my sister advice (as bossy big sisters do), but this time I listened and quit round 5 of P90X to run 6 miles with her. It hurt, like jumping into any new sport does. But two months later she had signed me up for my first half marathon with her, convincing me that if I could run 6 miles, I could totally run 13.1. Later, this crazy [lack of] training plan would take me to 26.4 miles for the Square to Square Marathon — double or nothing, right?!

While my tenacity has gotten me to the finish line of every race distance I’ve attempted, the minor injuries I’ve sustained adjusting to life as a runner set back my training more times than I’d like to admit. Black toes, missing toenails, stress fractures, micro tears in the muscles of my foot, tendinitis in my knee, plantar fasciitis… Add the number of times I’ve broken a foot by dropping a table on it or stepping on a rock, and, let’s just say, my training is not always the most consistent. But at least I can laugh about my own misfortunes and use them to become a PRO at cross-training to keep up my fitness level even when I can’t run. No doubt you may have seen me biking all over Bentonville and Bella Vista with my kiddos in tow, often wearing a post-op shoe from my latest fracture. Too bad the fashion trend never caught on…

While my tribe of loyal running friends know how prone I am to injury and my inclination to run distances I probably shouldn’t just for the heck of it, all with a big smile on my face (unless it’s above 60 degrees and sunny), many don’t know the role distance running has played in my personal life. I choose to be happy no matter what, and it brings me joy to make others happy. Yet, after 3 years of progressive emotional turmoil from betrayal, neglect, and verbal abuse I recently sustained, I found myself in the midst of a very real depression, being told by someone I loved that I didn’t need help and would be just fine.

For all the sunshine I’m told I exude, I spent almost a year struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. I wanted to hide from the world, do anything I could to stop the undulating onslaught of emotional pain inflicted on me. My running had been stagnant due to an injury, but once I healed, I determined that one thing I could control in the chaos of my life was my training. On a whim, I registered for a marathon with the intent of legitimately training for the race this time.

I knew from experience that you can’t fake your way to the finish line of a full marathon. Last time I tried, my 1.5 year old could outrun me two weeks after the race. That wouldn’t happen again. I would get out of bed, follow my training plan, and be proud of my finish. It was far from easy, especially the 22-mile solo run to my dermatologist appointment (which she still remembers me for). But I could control my own effort, my own dedication to a goal, and crossing that finish line having put in the work even when I got sick and no one was cheering me on or waiting to celebrate my accomplishment with me at the end was the reminder that I needed that I decide my own happiness. Nothing and no one could take me down unless I gave them that power.

I wish I could end the story with a happily ever after, but the next two years have been more like “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. While I had a renewed positive outlook that brought me out of depression, the situation worsened. I had to devote so much mental and emotional energy to save what was most important to me that I had nothing left to give to training. My focus needed to shift, and I had to learn that instead of pushing myself, I needed to give myself kindness.

You simply can’t train hard ALL the time in ALL things. I let go of the guilt that I was getting slower rather than faster and taking rest weeks instead of rest days. I exercised for fun, joining group runs, meeting runners who became friends and eventually supported me through arguably the most difficult year of my life. I took a much needed break from racing to give my body and soul permission to actively recover from ever-present stress. While I’m not winning any age group medals right now, I am having a blast cheering on other runners as they smash their PRs, pacing others with enthusiasm (or rather, talking to them for 3+ hours straight when they request distraction during the run), and joyously chasing runners at local races with the GoPro for my sister, Marine-turned-race-photographer. That BQ or Ironman I want will still be there when the dust eventually settles, waiting for me to tackle either one (or both!) with all the knowledge, confidence, and inspiration I’ve received from the struggles myself and others have overcome, on AND off the trail.

Happy running!