I didn’t aspire to be a runner.
Sure, I’d been active over the years…off and on…BeachBody’s Insanity, walking, weight lifting. I even took to running on occasion, usually on the treadmill…in a basement, facing a wall that badly needed fresh paint, next to piles of unsorted treasures I had yet to discard or find a permanent home for.
It’s no wonder I didn’t enjoy running.
In addition to how hard the physical act of running is, I was putting myself in a mentally stifling atmosphere. I couldn’t find my grit amongst the dingy walls and piles of junk. And as any runner will tell you, running is more about mental toughness than physical fitness.
The game-changer for me was taking it outside…and the incentive of a girls’ night out.
I was in the middle of a five-year hiatus from physical fitness. Working from home as a freelancer in rural Nebraska for several years left me with limited contact with people outside my home. The combination of limited physical activity and connecting with others left me feeling out of sorts.
Then one summer evening at my daughter’s 4-H horse practice, a couple of other moms were looking for motivation to get back into running. They decided to put a dollar in a jar for every mile they ran, then use that money to enjoy a girls’ night out. They asked me to join. I hesitated. I really didn’t want to run. I tried it before and determined I wasn’t very good at it and really didn’t find much joy in it. Not to mention I was 43 years old. Do people really take up running in their 40s? I told them I’d think about it.
The next day I laced up my best pair of sneakers and went for a run. Out of town. Where not many people would see me struggle. Because only in rural Nebraska is there a paved road leading to nowhere.
I ran. I walked. I ran some more. My pace was so slow I actually walked faster than I ran. But I covered four miles on that deserted paved road leading to nowhere. I did it again the next day, and the day after that. I told no one. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to commit. It was hard. I was in the worst shape of my life.
But I kept trying, and it did become easier. Slowly, I was finding my grit, out there, surrounded by cornfields, freshly cut alfalfa, and the steep canyons that you find only when traveling through the more rural parts of Nebraska.
I found myself looking forward to the time out of the house. I loved being in the sunshine and fresh air and really took the time to enjoy the beauty of my surroundings. A hawk sitting on a fence post. The smell of alfalfa. The deer running across the road in front of me. The giant owl that I thought was a lawn ornament until it flew away. The baby calves eyeing me suspiciously. The sandy cut-across road. The sun setting behind the gently rolling hills of a nearby pasture, glowing amazing shades of orange and pink. The stillness after a snow.
I began to see this as my time, with nothing else to do or think about other than how to finish my run. Stress from work? Gone. Dishes to do, floors to clean? Also gone.
Occasionally, a vehicle would pass by, and I would receive a friendly smile and wave. On a good day, I’d get a thumbs up—giving me a nice mental boost in the middle of a run when all I wanted to do was stop.
One day, I was running past a farmhouse on that road going nowhere. An elderly woman was making her way to her mailbox with the help of a walker. As I ran by, she stopped, threw her hands in the air, and cheered me on. It still makes me smile today, even though she is no longer there, and it helps me push on to finish out my run.
One day I actually saw another runner. It felt like I’d hit the jackpot.
It can be a little lonely sometimes, being a rural runner.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the same lonely as being at home all the time. I was actually beginning to experience runner’s high (it really is real) and was feeling really great physically and mentally. But all my running was done solo, and I rarely met anyone else running.
My phone has become my running partner. It accompanies me on every run. It is there in case of an emergency, and it tracks my routes, records my distance, and tells me my pace after each mile. It motivates me by playing my favorite songs and connects me to other runners around the world.
Six months after I began running, I joined an online community of runners that connected me with thousands of runners across the globe. I found my Facebook newsfeed full of inspiring stories of runners. There were new runners like me, ultra marathoners, high school runners, and runners in their 60s and 70s. There were runners battling debilitating diseases, injuries and depression. There were women running at eight months pregnant.
I suddenly had an entire community of runners to draw motivation from.
Seeing their stories on a daily basis gave me inspiration to get out and run.
A year later, I signed up for my first race—a 10K in North Platte. Other runners in the same race cheered and encouraged me. Most people don’t enter a race to win. It’s about coming together with like-minded people to encourage and maintain an active lifestyle. It’s about setting goals for yourself and having a reason to keep them. It’s about seeing your own improvement and progression over time. It’s about the sense of accomplishment you feel at the finish line…and later when you fit into those jeans you haven’t worn in five years and discover muscles in places you forgot you had.
I also found the change of scenery in races refreshing. I was bored of running the same route over and over. I got stuck in a rut. Living in a town of 600, there are no bike trails and limited sidewalks, so runs must be completed on the street. I had to get creative in finding new places to run…factoring in distance, wind direction, and traffic. Having a bathroom nearby is always nice, too (I’ve found tall cornfields work good in an emergency!).
Probably the strangest place I run is my local cemetery. There’s no traffic, and it provides a nice view of the countryside and golf course.
It’s now been two and a half years since I began my running journey.
I face new challenges now. I am learning to mix up my runs to become an overall better runner. Some runs are long and slow, others are short and fast. I continue to challenge myself to run faster, farther than I have before.
This fall, I ran my first half marathon (13.1 miles). And what do you know…I did it! I ran for close to two and a half hours without stopping, thanks to much encouragement from my online running community and a new local-based running group.
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be a runner in an urban environment. There are benefits, for sure, like established trail systems.
But I enjoy getting off the beaten path.
I also feel secure in my running environment. To be able to run solo gives me a sense of freedom and independence. There are dangers though, such as drivers not paying attention to the road and animals, including mountain lions. I do my best to stay away from areas that I think may be a problem.
Running outdoors in a rural area is a way for me to enjoy some of the best parts of Nebraska. It’s my way of stopping to smell the roses. I am investing in my physical health while gratitude fills my mind for the ability to run and witness nature up close.
I never did get my girls’ night out. For various reasons, the other two moms were unable to continue running, and I was the only one left standing by the end of that summer. But I gained much more than a girls’ night out.
I gained a stronger body and mind. And it feels amazing!
If your New Year’s resolution is to take up running or do more of it, find ways to connect with other runners to build a support system. Consider checking with a rec center near you. They will know if there are area groups promoting fitness. North Platte is 45 miles from me, so I occasionally participate in events hosted by Platte River Fitness. Use an app to track your runs (I use Map My Run), and check to see if they have any online challenges you can participate in or an online community to join. There are also virtual runs you can sign up for. Facebook has several running groups you can join. And if your community doesn’t have a local fitness group, consider creating your own. You may be surprised who you inspire to begin their fitness journey!
Oh, and next time you see a runner, give them a thumbs up. You’ll make their day.