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A year ago today I hobbled into the Atlantic Ocean. I had spent the last 99 days running, walking, or limping across the country. I had rolled under fences, hopped over gates, missed turns, and sobbed along the back roads, dirt trails, and highways of the nation. I had spent the majority of the time just wanting it to be over. And just like that, I was done.

Months prior, on the eve of the run, my running muse and guardian angel Anna had told me to find a mantra, and when times got bad to repeat that mantra over and over until quitting was no longer an option, until the pain and suffering abated just enough to let me press forward. She told me to make it personal, that chasing goals of community and inspiration, to run for the athletes, veterans, and gold star families would be enough to keep me going through any number of challenges, but once I got so far into my head, external reasons would fade away. My mind would play tricks on me and tell me all the ways I could accomplish those goals even after quitting. I had to have a core, something that would remain cemented in my mind, and my gut  when the haze of the pain and overwhelming confusion swirled, I needed a core to keep me moving forward, a desperate need that only the sweet salty Atlantic Ocean could assuage, something that could only be achieved through the journey.

Luckily for me, I listened to her, because she ended up being very right. In searching for my core, I kept coming back to this one idea - I wanted to be the girl on the other side of the run.

I didn’t really know what she would look like, or what was so special about her, but I wanted to be her. I wanted this journey in my memories, in my list of adventures, part of the fiber of my character. I wanted to be a woman who ran across the country.

When I finished I felt underwhelmed. I didn’t feel transformed. Coming out the ocean I felt happy, my face hurt from smiling so much, I felt relieved and grateful but I wasn’t sure that I was that girl. I sure didn’t feel different, but I was.

Change for me is gradual and comes only after both the work and the reflection. I can look back on big watershed moments in my life - where I chose to go to college, joining the Marine Corps, or certain relationships, and see them as major factors or turning points - but I’ve never changed in an instant. Those points, and this run, didn’t spur instantaneous growth. It was hard won over time and miles, words and thoughts. Slowly but surely, I got my transformation.

For one, I feel more connected. I have this memory bank, 2850 miles or so, of tiny details. When you’re covering that amount of mileage on foot, you notice the little things, turns out you also remember them. Something as simple as a wheat field reminds me of a mile in Texas. I had convinced myself that the blowing wheat was a line of cheering fans and I jogged down the road giving fives to the feathery heads.

I feel especially connected to cows. I won’t lecture you all on the evils of meat, but I feel a calm when I pass cattle along a highway, like I’m visiting old friends.

I’ve changed in less enjoyable ways too, I’m much slower and heavier. Running doesn’t feel like it used to, and maybe it never will. Often last year’s run feels like the life of another person. It’s not constantly on my mind, and I’ll go days without thinking about it, so it’s a nice surprise to be reminded that that woman was me and those miles were mine.

Despite being slower, I  feel more confident - like i have this little secret. I haven’t achieved zen by any standard, I still stress at little stuff. I still get nervous and overwhelmed, but I’m a bit calmer. I’m calmer because I’m confident I can handle even the really big risky adventures.

Most of all, I’m stronger. I’ve written about the utility of pain & suffering before, but back then I thought suffering made me stronger by making me toughening me up. It doesn’t. The pain and suffering of that run made me stronger, braver, not by making me tougher, but rather by making me softer. It didn’t build me armor, it let me take it off.

Brene Brown talks about the strength of vulnerability, and I cannot agree more. Brene talks about being vulnerable to others and to the world, but I’ll argue you should also be vulnerable to yourself, letting your thoughts move where you might not want them to go, acknowledging the dreams and ideas that scare you.

Going through those 99 days, running the gamut of physical and emotional sensations, taught me that I can suffer, that my demons may hurt, they may be as stubborn as I am, and they may never go away, but they won’t kill me. They won’t even beat me. Knowing that, I’m less scared of them. I don’t have to defend against them, I can stand there or even run straight toward them, unprotected and unafraid, because they’ve hit me before, and it hurt. It was terrifying and the memory still catches in my throat and squeezes my heart a bit. But I’m not scared of them. I know them well. They’re familiar, and it’s harder to fear the familiar. They’re mine and I know them as well as they know me. In a way, I’m even a little grateful for them.

They helped make me the girl on the other side of the run.

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