Sophie Henry

One day, I decided to start running.

 As a kid, I tried my hand at a bunch of different sports — soccer, track, swimming, dance, taekwondo, etc. — but none of them really stuck. In high school, I honed in on music and academics, so exercise just sort of fell into the background of my life. Was this the healthiest option? Definitely not. By the time I hit college, though, I knew that exercising regularly again was probably something I should do.

I didn’t at all really know where to start though — no one in my family is an athlete. So, I just put on my sneakers — yes, I did in fact own a pair of sneakers — and started running. I figured that was the simplest thing I could do, requiring no expertise or equipment. And I am not joking when I tell you that I can vividly remember that first run.

It was in the dead heat of August 2020, a week or two before returning to Yale. I had decided to circle around my block, which is a mile long. Easy enough, right. 

I didn’t even make it half a mile before collapsing onto the grass in a combination of bodily, cardiovascular and a little bit of mental exhaustion. I remember a couple walking their dog passing by asking if I was okay. I could barely get out a measly “yes.” This was easily very high up on my list of embarrassing moments. And so, from that moment on, I vowed to get in shape. I vowed to become a runner. There was no one I wanted to best, no one else I was competing against. I only wanted to be able to run for my own personal gain. Every achievement from that point on was like a burst of excitement that would push me to challenge myself further.

Now, don’t get me wrong — it’s definitely been a love-hate relationship with running since the start. I took some short breaks and one really long break from running. Still, over these last two years, running has been my savior and my therapy. And now, I’ve raced a half marathon. 13.1 freaking miles. It’s mind-boggling to think back to the time, not too long ago, when a half mile was a hurdle I couldn’t even jump over.

 After that initial run, I made it my goal that when I went to college, I would run every day of my life. That obviously didn’t happen, though I did maintain it for quite a while. I know now that it was clearly an unrealistic and senseless plan, but it motivated me at the time. I managed to extend my stamina a little bit more at home before heading to Connecticut, but not by much. The day I got to Yale, I went on a run down Hillhouse Avenue — where better to start my journey than on that beautiful — and uphill! — street?

I managed to make it 1.5 miles at a 12:30 pace. Not that fast right? Well, believe it or not, that was my fastest pace for a while. The next few weeks were solid 13:30 paces and up. I think I attribute that first run’s pace to the adrenaline of running around Yale for the first time. At the time, I also knew I’d be locked up in my residential college for two weeks, so it kind of felt like the last run. I quickly learned that the main Branford College courtyard can serve as a pretty decent track, though.

Over the next few months, I ran every day. Slowly, yes, but every day. I mostly stayed between the 1.5- and 3-mile range, occasionally branching out past 4 miles. The first time I ran more than 4 miles was probably one of the highlights of my fall semester. I couldn’t stop smiling when I got back to my suite that day. For the first time, I think I felt that runner’s high that everyone’s always going on about. It’s funny, though, because the only thing that kept me going on that run was fear — on a whim, I went down an East Rock trail and managed to get very lost. It was frighteningly exhilarating.

The weather started to get colder, something I had never experienced growing up in south Florida. The leaves were changing colors, and my daily runs became not just periods of meditation, but also of scenic appreciation. My camera roll quickly filled up with panoramas of East Rock and snapshots of Long Wharf. However, running everyday was quickly taking its toll on me as I developed incessant shin splints. There was a point that semester where it hurt less to run than to walk, something that my suitemates were very concerned about. Yet having online classes and being contained solely within my residential college for a semester lent itself to severe boredom. I figured I had so much free time — why not spend it running?  

Sometime in mid-October I hit 5 miles at a 12:10 pace, and this was a game changer. Back then, 5 miles felt like such an incredibly long distance. And for a while, that was my peak. I continued running between 2 and 3.5 miles most days. The day before we left for Thanksgiving break, knowing it would be 9 months before I’d be back at Yale, I ran almost 5.5 miles with my suitemate, hiking up East Rock to finish it off.

When I got back home to Florida, I tried to keep up my running every day. I started naturally speeding up a little to a 10:45 pace, but I wasn’t very consistent. Some days were upwards of 12:30, others almost at 10:00. But there was something holding me back … the heat. Now, I know this sounds like such a whiny thing to say, but heatstroke does indeed exist. And the hot Florida sun does take a toll on you when you’re running. Yes, I could have sucked it up and adapted to running in the heat. Plenty of people do it with ease. I decided, instead, to stop running altogether and take up kickboxing.

 At the time, this was probably the most spontaneous decision I’d ever made. I figured it was both a great way to release my frustration about being remote and to exercise with air conditioning. For about three months, I didn’t run a single day. It was a big change for me, but I think it helped in the long run. I ended up learning some pretty important shit — notably that stretching and recovery days are a thing.

At the end of the semester, I started running again along with kickboxing. I’m not really sure what motivated me to start again. Maybe it was that I had more time on my hands after finals. It’s not like the weather was any cooler in May, quite the opposite in fact. And then, over the summer, I got it into my head for the first time that I wanted a larger goal. I wanted something I could work towards. I wanted something that would challenge me. I began to train for a half marathon.

 In a way it felt like I was starting all over again, but I managed to up my distances and pace very quickly. Though I began running on the treadmill solely for air conditioning purposes, I transitioned to running outside again, heat be damned. Also, I loathe treadmills with a passion that cannot be overstated. I was following a Nike training plan that gave my weekly running schedule structure. Each run felt like a new accomplishment. Over the weeks, I increased the distance I could comfortably run. I ran all over Saint Petersburg for the first few weeks, and then all over New Haven for the next few. I did recovery runs, speed runs, long runs, tempo runs … I did it all.

Over the summer, I ran my first 10K. Sometime in August, I managed to run 8 miles. Granted all of the runs were at 11:30 paces, but still, I felt good about myself. And feeling good about myself was all I really wanted from the start, anyways. Shortly after, I ran a 15K. And at the very start of last fall semester, I ran 10 miles for the first time in just under two hours. I stopped multiple times on that run — and on many others — but I made it. 

Then, for some reason, I stopped the 14-week training plan with only six weeks to go. If I’m being honest with myself, I think I chickened out. The 10-mile run took a lot out of me, I didn’t feel particularly good during that run. Doing it again, or even more mileage, was daunting to say the least. So, I stopped the plan, but I kept on running a few times per week, gradually quickening my pace to somewhere between 10:00 and 10:30 and keeping my distances between 2 and 4.5 miles.

 This past New Year’s Day, I was introduced to my new social media app of choice: Strava. A place for all types of athletes to record and post their workouts. Scrolling through Strava is, I admit, equivalent to Instagram for me. Originally, the idea of other people seeing all of my running data was never particularly appealing to me, given the unintentional social pressure it produces. When I first got the app, I didn’t want to look slow, so I forced myself to speed up. My reasoning behind getting faster was not at all sensible — you should always work out for yourself, not for others. But I did increase my pace to 9:30 in only two weeks … so maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to have a little push. Regardless, this phase of “I need to get faster because people are looking” faded. I was now comfortably running between 4 and 5.5 miles every other day. I would go on long runs once a week that were anywhere between 7 and 9 miles in distance.

Feeling confident in my running skills, I decided to take up my summer goal, again. I wanted to run a half marathon. Through Yale Club Running, I signed up to race the half marathon along the water at the annual Newport Rhode Races, scheduled to happen on April 16. The challenge? Well, other than the fact that I had never run 13.1 miles before and that I had only six weeks to train, my knee was royally screwed up. It was probably overuse or just worn-down sneakers, but trust me when I say it did not feel good. I had to take an entire week off of running at one point in the semester.

The weeks and the days before the race passed by faster than I anticipated. And though I was continuously running longer and longer distances — even a full half marathon a week and half before the race — I was still secretly dreading it. This was something I had been working towards for, when I really think about it, two whole years. But still, I was scared. A race, compared to a regular old run, is a completely different beast. There are no intersections to take a brief 10-second rest. There are no distractions to take you out of the running mindset. It’s just you and the road. And the 999 other people racing alongside you, of course.

Flash forward to the morning of April 16 at five in the morning. It’s the day of the race. Yale Club Running had traveled to Newport, Rhode Island the afternoon before. The second we arrived, we scoured the town for carbs and went right to bed in a nearby hotel. When my alarm went off the next morning, I felt a strange combination of excitement and fear coursing through me. After downing a bowl of oatmeal and peanut butter, it was off to the beach. Having the rest of the club team with me only added to the thrill. We were all in it together — or more accurately, we were all putting ourselves through the ringer together. 

We arrived at the beach more than an hour before the start of the race, so we had a fair amount of time to stretch, warm up, and lock up our personal items. As the clock winded down to 7:45 am, my fear turned into a state of incredulity. 

I stood there and said to my friend, “13.1 miles is … a lot.” At that moment, the mileage I was about to tackle started to weigh on me. It wasn’t doubt, just more of an “Oh my God” moment. But I didn’t have time to simmer with that feeling for long. The race began and I was off.

That one hour, 58 minutes and 30 seconds went by in a flash, yet also at the pace of a snail. For the first 2 miles, I was cruising, running faster than I had planned. By mile three, I got smart and paced myself a little better. Wind in my hair and rocky shores surrounding me, I kept on running and running and running. The mile signs were my light in the dark, my compass in the open sea. At mile nine, I told myself, “You only have 4 miles to go! That’s nothing. You do 4-mile runs all the time.”

Doing a 4-mile run after running 9 miles is another story, though. But I didn’t stop, even though I wanted to. What I didn’t realize was how much of a mental challenge the race would be, more so than a physical one. Yes, I was physically tired, but I was still capable of running. It was a deep internal exhaustion that sought to break me down. Running for almost two hours straight is taxing in ways that I can’t even comprehend. 

That last mile, I sped up a little bit. I could feel that I was close to the finish line, and when I crossed I felt an inexplicable rush of joy and relief. And for a second  — just a split second — I wanted to keep on running. And that’s the beauty of running. It can sometimes feel a little bit like torture in the moment, but once you stop, all you want to do is run some more.

So, I finished. I got my medal. The locker truck lost my personal items — they drove all the way back from Boston to return it, thankfully. I went to Wendy’s with the rest of the club team and we all ate an insane number of calories. And for the next few days, my knees were very broken. My whole body was arguably broken. But I was happy and accomplished and already looking forward to my next half marathon.