My older brother was the runner of the family.
While I participated in high school sports and would go to the gym growing up, I’d generally spend 30 minutes barely breaking a sweat and then use that as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted.
But Robert loved to run. He ran track and cross-country during high school, and as team captain, led the boy’s track and field team to win a state championship. His passion continued in college and after, and in 2012, he decided to run his first marathon. Since he lived in Colorado, he chose the 2012 Leadville Trail Marathon—a race that also happened to be the second most challenging marathon in the country. He placed 33rd overall, a feat he (and our family) was so proud of, considering it was his first race of that length.
Two months after that, though, at 24 years old, Robert was caught in a rockslide while mountain climbing and died.
I was sad and angry and confused. Most of all, I was overwhelmed. Robert was not only the best big brother in the world, but he was my best friend. I got the news two days before my senior year of college was starting. Ahead of me, I had a six-course workload, an on-campus job, and networking for my postgraduate full-time job.
That first semester back, all the stress was a lot to deal with. I needed to find a way to make space and time for just me.
One day, I decided to go for a run. A very short one—and not a fast one at all. But by the time I finished the three miles, I remember feeling so much less stressed.
That was all I needed.
These short runs became my outlet. Throughout the rest of the school year, I’d head out whenever I was feeling overwhelmed. I couldn’t run every day, but I tried to lace up twice a week. I slowly realized that after every run, I felt like a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders. If I was upset about Robert, a run would help me feel better. If I had a bad day, heading out would calm me down. If I was angry or upset, I would take everything out on my run. The feeling of being completely drenched with sweat, out of breath, and like I couldn’t take another step became the most relaxing thing for me.
For the first year, I didn’t really think much of it beyond it being my in-the-moment form of therapy. But the summer after I graduated from college—almost a year after Robert’s death—my parents and I went out to Leadville, Colorado to run the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon in honor of my brother.
To be honest, saying I planned to “run” the race is probably a stretch. I had about 25 extra pounds on me and I wasn’t in marathon shape, so my goal was to walk all 15.5 miles (the Leadville race is slightly longer than typical halfs). What mattered was honoring my brother’s memory.
I did end up walking a good portion of it—but I actually ran the majority of the second half the race. It took me five hours to complete with all the insane elevation gains and I was completely exhausted and sore, but it left me craving more.
When I crossed the finish line, I felt this huge release. Every bit of me that I left out on the trails during that race was for Robert. I was so proud of myself, I was happy, and I knew with proper training I could do even better. I made the decision then and there that I was going to come back the following year, but this time in much better shape.
Over the next six months, I ran four more half marathons, but I was still wasn’t as in shape as I wanted to be. I was definitely proud of myself for finishing and accomplishing those races, but I was envious of other runners who were faster.
So in January 2015, I decided to get really serious about training. For years, I set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, and I would lose 20 pounds, gain it back, lose 20 pounds, gain it back. But after I realized that running was becoming the best way for me to cope with Robert’s death, I knew I had to get serious about it—which meant training properly, and not just losing the weight, but actually keeping it off.
I created an Instagram to document my weight loss and training, and to connect with other runners to stay motivated. I registered for the Leadville Trail Marathon, the same one Robert ran in 2012. I knew signing up for one of the hardest marathons in the country would motivate me to stick to my goals. I could either stay the weight I was and suffer through the marathon, or get in serious shape, train hard, and show myself what I was really capable of.
I went with the latter.
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I got real with myself and took a long, hard look at not only the food I was eating but the times I was eating it. I realized it wasn’t just when I was hungry, but also (and more often) when I was bored, sad, stressed, and angry—emotions that surfaced often, especially after Robert’s passing.
Luckily, training brought structure back into my life. I am a very routine person, so I loved having a set schedule for training to look forward to every morning.
And that marathon on the horizon helped keep me motivated. Realizing you’re going to run 26.2 miles is a great motivator for eating well! I started using a smaller plate at dinner, packing healthy snacks for work, meal prepping, and focusing on consuming more whole foods like fruits, veggies, lean protein, and healthy fats, than processed foods. I also started eating smaller amounts of food more often throughout the day as opposed to three larger meals. This has helped me stay full longer and has helped with food cravings. Over time, I began to learn what foods fuel me best, whether it’s the day of a race or just a typical day during the work week.
A lot of the changes for me were mental. When I signed up for the marathon, I was also committing to trading “I can’ts” for “I cans.” I learned to use runs to calm my mind and help me handle chaos when I was upset or having a bad day. Running has helped bring me closer to my brother, not only because he loved the sport so much, but also because it has helped me embody the type of person he was, which is caring, kind, and loyal.
Sticking with my plan and training like crazy paid off—I lost the weight and improved my time over the next six months. Still, when it came time for the marathon, I was so nervous. But I thought to myself, “Go big, or go home!” I knew I could do things I once thought were impossible, and this was the starting point.
After crossing the finish line, I had the bug—I had become a runner.
Three years later, I’ve run around 30 races, from 5Ks to trail marathons. As time passed and I checked off more races, I continued to run all of them in memory of Robert. I still run in his memory today, but now races also signify my strength and how I’ve dealt with this tragedy.
Running tests every little bit of you—emotionally, physically, mentally—and it’s become a way for me to remind myself that I am so much stronger than I ever thought I was. I’ve proven to myself that I can do things I once thought were impossible. In 2013, I ran a 2:17 half and thought I would never get under two hours. Today my PR is 1:42. Just like there are hard times in everyday life, there are hard times in running, like running a race where you plan to PR but you perform nowhere near what you wanted. Running has taught me to face every challenge thrown at me, head on. It’s shown me over and over again that you must believe in yourself first before you can do anything.
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Running has really taught me to keep reaching with my goals. For the longest time, Boston has been number one. But after I qualify, I want to run a sub three-hour marathon. Maybe even faster. And after that, who knows.
Above all else, though, I love that running keeps me connected with my brother. I dedicate every single run—whether it’s a training run or a race—to Robert. Every finish line is for him.
Take one day at a time and have faith that little changes will add up to big changes. You won’t see these changes everyday, but looking back, every day matters. And be your biggest cheerleader, because if you truly believe you can accomplish something, you will.
Follow Elizabeth’s journey@elizabeth_healthy_life.
Source: Women’s Health Mag