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For three years, I’ve struggled to reclaim my identity as a runner after setting it aside for nine months on doctor’s orders.

I’ve made a few paltry attempts to get back on track. I signed up for and briefly attended running night at my local mommy group; halved my regular route and peppered in extra walking breaks; registered for a 15K, in hopes it would serve as a carrot. But nothing worked.

Meanwhile, I created lots of good excuses to stay inside while my Pearl Izumis collected cobwebs in the garage. Lots of these profound reasons centered around my new identity as a mom (when I was nursing, I worried she’d get hungry while I was out; back at work, I felt guilty for spending my free time away from her; too, I changed physically– and if I couldn’t perform at my best pace and distance, what was the point?).

Being a mom shouldn’t conflict with having a hobby or taking care of my body. But I let it. It’s as if my brain decided I couldn’t be two versions of myself at the same time. My heart was engaged in an uphill battle.

And yet on those scattered occasions I found myself running outside, my heart would fill up, and I would ask myself, “Why don’t I do this more often?” I’d stagger into my house afterward, red and sweaty, vowing to make this consistent. But there was always a reason—good or bad—not to go for run number two. Bad weather. Icy sidewalks. Too late. Too early. Work. Project Runway. Lack of energy. Boredom.

This summer—living in New Jersey away from our typical routines—looked like the perfect time to start a new habit. Our building had a gym, we lived near a quiet residential neighborhood, we didn’t have many distractions or commitments, so why not rededicate myself?

In our two months on the East Coast, I ran three times. My excuse had something to do with working lots of hours coupled with the dread of climbing heartbreak hill. (Illinois is known, with good reason, as the Prairie State; we Midwesterners consider even the slightest rise in grade as a cliff face deserving of billets and figure eight knots). I took a picture of the behemoth, but it does no justice. Every time I mounted that hill, I was reduced to breaking down and walking halfway.

The bottom of Heartbreak Hill in Clifton, NJ.

The bottom of Heartbreak Hill in Clifton, NJ.

The first time I ran the route, my endorphins kicked in immediately. I am a runner, I said to myself. I’ve run races of every distance. I’ve run eight miles in Kansas City on a bum knee, 10 miles along South Beach. I woke up before dawn to run 12 miles along Tampa Bay in 100% humidity. I finished the Chicago Marathon the year it was canceled, even with the pain of tendonitis crushing the bones in my foot. I ran a 200-mile relay in Oregon, scoring my fastest time completely alone on a country road in complete darkness, racing away from a faceless man screaming threats at me about staying off his lawn. I’ve run through pain, thirst, hunger, baking heat, biting cold, loneliness and fear. That makes me a runner.

Back home in Illinois, Spring has officially arrived. The weather gods are still putzing around with wind chills and snow, but the promise of warm weather is upon us. And every day, there’s another reason to get out of the house. This week, I ran three times in the span of four days. And for the first time in three years, I felt great. Not, I know this should feel good, so I’m going to say it feels good and trick myself into believing it’s true. I mean really, honestly good.

And natural. Like I’m meant to be doing this. Like I’d rather do this than sit in my warm house, curled up on the couch watching re-runs and drinking Coke Zero on ice. I run my last mile in a zen state, my legs carrying me, pumping on their own. I get to my house at the end of thirty minutes and consider turning around and completing another two miles just because. That’s what it is to be a runner. It’s finally sinking in: how much of myself I’ve missed.

A couple years ago, I found myself telling someone that I used to be a runner. But that’s not true. I’ve been a runner ever since I slogged through my first 12-minute mile on a treadmill at Bally’s nine years ago. Sure, I’ve hit a few speed-bumps along the way (or, speed-humps, as they’re called in New Jersey). I won’t always be in top shape. I won’t always run long distances. I’m never gonna enjoy fartleks or sprints. I’ll never cross the finish line first. But I’m staking claim to my identity. There’s plenty of pain and sweat ahead, but my heart won the opening round. This is who I am.

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