Friday, May 15, 2015

The Trails of Our Lives: Jen

I am fascinated by people's life stories. I love that this group of people who took these vastly disparate paths through life somehow all ended up in the same place at the same time: on the beautiful trails of Rochester, NY. Getting to know these people has been the highlight of my adult life and so, with your help, I'd like to start a blog post series called The Trails of Our Lives to share those stories. If you're interested in participating, please email your story (how you started running, how you ended up on the trails, your struggles, your triumphs, your photos, anything you want to share) to

I suppose it's only fair that I start this thing off myself, though I feel like my own story is boring compared to all of yours. But I'm quite fond of how that story has turned out, so I'm infinitely grateful for every moment of it. Here we go. Warning: it's long. And sort of embarrassing. Maybe you should get a snack.

I was always outside as a kid: running around playing kick the can and hide and seek, climbing trees, swinging on and walking across the top of the monkey bars. But I didn't do any sort of organized running until my sophomore year in high school. For some reason, probably because they didn't have any cuts, my dad suggested that I join the cross country and track teams, so I did. At first I was terrible at it, but something made me stick with it. I liked being part of a team, even though that was sometimes stressful because I didn't want to disappoint anyone by running poorly. Somehow I made varsity that first year and even became a captain my senior year. I found track to be a lot more enjoyable than cross country. I liked interval workouts on the track and especially the 1500m and relay events. I started to win some races at our track meets, though I wasn't very fast. It was just big fish, small pond kind of stuff. I remember the first race I won was the 1500m. I had had a bad day at school. I forget what happened, all I know is that I had a lot of pent up frustration/emotions and when the race started my legs just took off. I had no expectation of winning, this wasn't even a possibility in my mind, it just sort of happened. I remember my dad saying "You looked like you didn't even want to win." I really didn't. Other than wanting to help my team score points and to improve my own times, I had no competitive drive. Something about running just felt like something I was meant to do, it felt like home.

I ran two years of cross country in college, then I lost too much weight and the doctors wouldn't let me be on the team anymore. I remember going into college I was worried that it would be too hard academically. Then when I got there, I found out that the academics was the easy part. I mean, it was challenging and I studied like it was my job, but I got insanely good grades. Throughout all 4 years of college, I only got As in 6 classes, the rest were all A+s. At the time I was practically despondent over those As. It wasn't about the actual grades. It was just that I had this drive to always do the best I could do, to put in all the effort, to attempt challenging things and prove to myself that I could do them. Anyway, I was lucky and school came relatively easy to me. It was all the rest of college that I struggled with. I had a hard time being away from home and I didn't feel like I really fit in anywhere. It seemed like everyone was drinking and partying and that didn't appeal to me at all. I had friends, I went out on occasion but for me college wasn't this amazingly fun party that it seemed to be for everyone else and that made me feel like there was something inherently wrong with me. Even if I had had the words to explain it at the time, I didn't think anyone else would understand. So I tried to exercise away the stress. It didn't work. No matter how fast or how far you run, you can't outrun your sadness. I stopped eating, I stopped taking care of myself, I wanted to be as invisible on the outside as I felt on the inside. My parents made me go to these eating disorder doctors. I hated it. It was the most humiliating thing ever, to be weighed and always found to be not enough. I hated that my parents made me go there. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to watch someone you love literally waste away in front of you, but at the time I just wanted them to stop caring about me because I had stopped caring about myself. One day I told my mom I hated her (I don't know why I said it, I didn't mean it and I immediately regretted saying it) and she said "Well I love you." That was the day I really understood what love is.

The doctors told me to stop running. But I would get up in the middle of the night and run anyway because no one was going to tell me what I couldn't do. Until one day, mid-run, I suddenly couldn't run another step. My body just didn't have anything left. That was one of the most important days of my life. It was the day I had to decide which side I was on and the day I chose running, adventure, life. The day I chose my side. I started eating again. I finally grew boobs at the age of 21. I went on to grad school. I didn't feel like Ivy League material but somehow I ended up at Yale. I'm glad I went. I learned an incredible amount of science and math. There was one day in 2004 that I almost understood quantum mechanics. But my heart really wasn't in it.

So I decided now that I'd really committed to this whole being alive thing, I was going to do that shit right. I was going to figure out what it was I did want to do. I got my Master's degree, left grad school, came back to Rochester and randomly got this job at a small executive recruiting firm. I started out making $9 an hour. My dad used to ask me when I was going to get a real job. I didn't know what that meant. A real job, as in one you hate going to every day? I didn't care. I liked it there. Funny and weird stuff happened everyday. But most importantly, they treated me like part of their family. Like at school, my hard work was rewarded there and I quickly became a full-time salaried employee. I started making significantly more than $9 an hour and getting a lot of sweet benefits and my dad stopped asking me when I was going to get a real job. I liked work, but it wasn't my passion. I didn't really know what my passion was, but when I turned 23 I made a list of 23 things I wanted to do that year. I went skydiving, I rode in a hot air balloon, I moved in with strangers. I started to figure out that my passions were adventures and people.

I kept running, though only by myself. One day my friend Adam asked me to go running with him and I was apprehensive because it had become such a private thing and what if I couldn't keep up with him? But I went. And I started to remember why I liked running with other people. Then when I was 28 I decided I wanted to run a marathon before my 30th birthday and I knew I was going to need a lot of help doing that. So I signed up for a half marathon training program at Fleet Feet and started going to the group runs there. I met Eric and Sheila and Chris and John and the RFP crew and running became not just a hobby but a lifestyle. I ran a half marathon, then another half marathon. I hobbled through a marathon, learned more about nutrition and hydration, then somehow ran a 3:49 marathon. In hindsight, I think that race was run mostly on negative emotions from my relationship problems. Once again I had to learn the hard way that you can't run away from your troubles. I had finally found a community of inspiring, supportive, amazing people who had the same drive and wanted the same things out of life that I did. But I was in a relationship that was forcing me to choose between them and him. And no matter what I chose I was failing someone. I didn't know what to do, so I chose the side that I thought needed it more and hoped that everything would work out in time. It didn't. But slowly I learned to choose my own happiness and well being. Lucky for me, my friends are the best, forgave me for my mistakes and welcomed me back with open arms. I am so grateful for past relationships. They made me who I am today. But they were not places I could stay. It's no one's fault but mine. I want a big, adventurous life. I want to go everywhere and be friends with everyone. Other people want different things and that's ok.

I wish that I had learned that lesson quickly, but would take 3 attempts and an injury that I made worse by being too stubborn to take the time off I needed. I tried to run another marathon on my injured ankle and made it to mile 22 before it hurt so bad that I couldn't even walk and I finally realized I was being an idiot by caring about one race when I should be taking the long view. So I DNFed and it was heartbreaking. But life went on and so did I. I took the time off I needed, I did everything I could to get healthy and back into running long distances. I started running trails with #TrailsRoc. At first I was terrible at it (story of my life). I was slow. I twisted ankles. But I loved it. And most importantly, it was far easier on my body. I gradually increased my miles. I met more and more awesomely badass friends who became my trail family. I met Pete and we ran across finish lines hand in hand. We ran 58 miles of beautiful Colorado trails in 3 days and slept in a tiny tent. I ran a 50K and I still can't believe it. It feels like something that happened in a dream. I cannot believe how lucky I am to have ended up here. I hope I get to keep running and traveling and hanging out with my people for the rest of my life.

Looking back I can see now that it was the struggles that shaped me, it was the dark times that brought me out into the light. And I think that running had a lot to do with that. It was my first raison d'ĂȘtre. It taught me to go on when I thought I couldn't go on. It lead me to so much love and laughter. It taught me that I am a runner at heart but I am so much more than that. Running doesn't define me, it just lets all the best parts of me out to play.

If you want to read more about the struggles, see also: Things I don't talk about

Lyric of the moment: "We've been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather. Long may you run. Although these changes
have come. With your chrome heart shining in the sun, long may you run..." ~Neil Young "Long May You Run" (I like to pretend this song is about robots running)

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