Orange streetlights cast littered shadows upon the already dark alley I hurried along. I had barely begun to make my way toward Union Square when I realized I had to pee.
The warm, illuminating glass window of a 24 hour Walgreens was a beacon among the unopened businesses crammed along the street. I opened the door and warm air rushed against the goosebumps on my bare arms and calves. Once my eyes adjusted to the whitewashed walls and shelves stocked with sedatives, I saw the No Public Restroom sign and ducked back out into barely-waking San Francisco. With my bladder working against me, I checked my phone and realized I had only 15 minutes to find my race corral. My notion that I’d be able to easily spot a starting line with thousands of runners proved ill-informed. I had flown across the country, suffered hours of hill training only to have my goals thwarted by my bodily functions. Out of options, I began to run.
This was the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon. I’d made it this far; I would find a way to make the rest somehow.
Months previously, I’d only entered my name in the race lottery out of wishful thinking. A California trip! A Tiffany’s necklace! San Francisco! After a year of student teaching and a month spent interviewing for positions, I made the anxiety-ridden decision to turn down all ofrees and stay home with my son. My future was suddenly untethered and uncertain. I could do anything I wanted. That kind of freedom should have inspired me, but I feared it instead.
The day I came across a Pinterest link depicting the sweaty ascent of thousands of women up the intimidatingly steep hills of San Francisco, I didn’t pause to think about it much. I entered my name with a prayer that I’d discover something in myself, a prayer that I didn’t dare take seriously. I figured my name would never be fished out of the sea of thousands of applicants.
But it was.
For the first time in my life, I departed from the paved road of expectation and started to make my own way. I trained for a race I had no real reason to run. I ran, despite the thoughts that there were hundreds of better ways to spend my time. I ran, even as I doubted myself every step of the way. I just ran because I could, and because I wanted to.
Marathons, both half and full, are mental races. If you train your mind to be resilient to pain and frustration, your body will follow. That’s why, upon the discovery of a place to pee and a sprint into my corral, I treaded the uphill climb along the dark streets of the city with my mind set. I could spend my energy mounting financial, practical and ethical arguments against what I wanted to do. Or I could just tell myself to go for it. Just do it, if you will. I just did it.
Thousands of women hauled themselves along the hip, character-filled parks, coasts, and city streets of a California dream. We didn’t know each other’s stories. Some of them were running for personal records, some running a double-digit distance for the first time. Many of them ran together with mothers, sisters, and friends. Alone, I found myself happy among them, feeling unrestrained for the first time in years. I was free of my self-doubt. Free from my constant debate over what I should be doing with my life. Free from facing judgement by anybody, including myself. In those moments, those two hours roaming up to the Golden Gate Bridge and back down again, I found that I could be something extraordinary.
I only needed to take a risk and allow myself to be.