This series was originally published in September 2013. Please contact us if you’d like to write an article about exercising helping your grief journey!
Our series of fitness and coping officially ends today, but we’re always looking for new articles. Please write us at email@example.com if you’d like to share your story about how fitness has helped you on your grief journey. Today we meet Rachel, whose father died while on a run and how she continued to move forward.
“I can’t do this.”
My face was flushed, my lungs gasped for air, and my legs felt like bricks.
“The first mile is always the hardest!” my Dad shouted back to me, slowing his pace and looping back to run with me.
I had stopped playing organized basketball and switched to cross country running the summer before my sophomore year of high school. To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking when I casually told my Dad to sign me up for summer running instead of basketball camp, but I am certain it was the excited glint he got in his eyes when I mentioned running that kept me going to camp.
I never realized how passionate a runner my Dad was until the summer I began to run with him. He taught me everything there is to know about cross country when we ran together, from pacing to spikes. He told me about his first marathon and his old training group. Running was our special thing to do together. It really strengthened our relationship and I couldn’t wait until he could start coming to my races that coming fall.
Unfortunately, that just wasn’t to be. When my Dad laced his running shoes up one hot July day it was his last run. He suffered a massive heart attack; our neighbors found him on our route, and he passed away that same day.
I continued running in high school, but it wasn’t something I ever thought much about. I liked to keep busy to ignore any feelings of sadness or loss. I worked hard and put a lot of effort into my running, but I was still surprised when I was recruited to run for a small school in Wisconsin.
As I packed up my spikes the night before I left for college, I was a giant swirl of emotions about leaving the comforts of home life behind. I was pretty introverted in high school, but I had formed strong bonds with my teammates and coaches to build a robust support system. I was leaving people who knew my story and immersing myself in a group of people who didn’t, which was both terrifying and exciting. For once I could choose who knew my story; I could be whoever I wanted to be.
The first semester of college was one of the most difficult times in my life. It was a hard adjustment socially, I was very withdrawn and not my typical self. The worst part was cross country season wasn’t going well at all. I was running more slowly than I did in high school.
I struggled to find the drive to go to practice and constantly wanted to give up. I was one of the slowest people on my team and it seemed that I got slower each week. I retreated into myself, rarely talking and skipping runs. I stopped smiling and cracking corny jokes. I believed that Dad would be disappointed in me because of my slow times.
I was so relieved when the grueling cross country season finally ended. Although I was still frustrated with running, I made the difficult decision of opening up to my teammates, which created a stronger sense of belonging as they in turn shared their struggles. I still hated myself and my lack of motivation for running, but I had at least begun to build another support system away from home. However, I constantly felt like I was letting my Dad down because my race times were so slow.
After season ended, I returned to my lazy “stay in bed because it’s cold outside and I feel sorry for myself” state of mind. One morning, in early January, I rolled out of bed and made a decision to actually go running.
This surge of motivation was followed by immediate regret when I stepped into a typical sub-zero Wisconsin weather. I started my run not expecting to go far. It was freezing outside and my legs moved slowly and unwillingly, but as I ran along Lake Michigan I realized it was actually still sunny and beautiful.. Looking at the lake again, I thought about how much Dad would love this route, as it sure beat our boring three-mile route through the suburban sprawl. I wondered why I had never appreciated this view before.
I knew there was a path that lead to a lighthouse, but it would involve adding an unplanned extra five miles. Somehow it seemed worth it, and I convinced my legs to continue moving after the one-mile mark. Slowly but surely, my feet began landing in a nice rhythmic stride, my lungs naturally breathed the cold morning air in and out. I turned my thoughts off and tuned into the thumping of my heart.
As I made my journey back to campus, I realized how proud Dad would be in this moment. During this run, I had finally reconnected with my passion for running and appreciated the beauty in the small things in life. It was like the initial struggle I had when I ran with Dad. Running is about convincing your body and mind to keep moving forward, even when you want to stop. It wasn’t about how fast I went; it was about finding the strength to keep going.
Things improved after that. I finally opened up to my coach and she was so supportive. Together we decided that I should also attend therapy sessions to help deal with my pent up emotions. With the care and support of my teammates and coach, my racing also improved. After an indoor meet, I called my mom in tears because I finally ran faster than I did in high school. One of my teammates saw this and asked me if I was alright, probably fearing for my sanity since I hadn’t won a medal or even placed at an event with only five teams competing.
“Sometimes you just need to run a personal best time,” I said with a smile – but it was so much more than that. For the first time in a long time, I felt strong and unstoppable, not small and overburdened with grief. I felt joy in what I was doing, not shame. I was finally free and living passionately again and doing what would have made my Dad proud.
Records and medals will never bring Dad back. I’ve accepted that. However, living life to my greatest potential and sharing his stories will keep Dad’s memory alive – and that is a beautiful thing.