If someone had told me five years ago that I’d run a half marathon and finish fifth in 75:12—which would be the slowest time of my professional running career—and that it would be one of the most meaningful experiences of my running career, I would have laughed and told them, “No way possible.”

But that’s exactly what I did on June 17 at the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in my hometown of Duluth, Minn. Somehow, I’ve finally gotten back to what makes me happy.

A grateful moment before the start of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth: Photo: Tone Coughlin

My running has changed so much for me over the years. In the beginning, it was something I did on occasion. A couple of times a year, I’d slap on my Keds and go run as hard as I could in a local race. This would usually involve a ridiculous amount of nerves and a great deal of late-race panting. Pacing was something I wouldn’t learn until college.

When I started organized running at age 12, I ran because it made me feel free. After years of trying lots of other sports with no real success, I finally found something that came naturally. I didn’t have to think about any sort of technique—I could just run. When I joined the high school track team while I was in the seventh grade, practice was the best part of my day, my friends and me running along discussing the day, schoolwork, relationships. I looked forward to it all day. It was a chance to be with my friends and be 100 percent my authentic self. We would run along creek beds and on muddy trails, down to Lake Superior and sometimes take a dip in the lake.

By the time I entered high school, running was my life. My best friends ran, and I proudly raced for state championships for my school. We ran because we loved it and each other. We ran because it kept us real and honest. We ran because we needed it and each other. We were each others’ biggest cheerleaders and fans. We formed a bond that could never be broken.

College running was more intense. There were scholarships on the line and the constant pressure to perform. Everyone was a high school state champion in our program, and for us national titles were at stake. Amid those challenges, I blossomed as an athlete in that environment. If my coach believed I was capable, I performed. I trained harder than I ever had. I studied in class, and I studied the history of the sport—the legends who had come through the program at the University of Colorado. I wanted to be a legend. I wanted to deliver under pressure. And I did deliver, with three individual NCAA titles. But toward the end of college I started to feel a little extra weight on my shoulders. Expectations set in. I was happy to graduate, to move on, to become the young and inexperienced one again.

Contemplating the race while gearing up before the start. Photo: Tone Coughlin

And then I was truly living my dream. Running for a living! Working to make an Olympic Team! This is what I dreamed of when I won my first Minnesota state title back in 1993! But it wasn’t the glamorous life I had imagined. I couldn’t stay healthy. I trained by myself. I missed my tribe, my group of friends. I couldn’t get out of the injury cycle. I started to resent running. I told my family that the fact that I was once a good runner now felt like a curse. I knew what I was missing out on. After a few years, my husband, Adam, and I decided to move to Oregon. Join a team, get teammates. Start anew.

This is when the dream really came true. I finally got healthy (after a few more injuries). I started to put together months of consistent training. I started dreaming of wearing a Team USA Olympic uniform again. I started running fast times and establishing myself as one of the best in the country. I qualified for my first world championships in 2007, and got so excited that I drank too much and ended up sick in the bathroom. The rest was a whirlwind—earning a medal in the 10,000 at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, making the 2008 Olympic team in the 5,000m and 10,000m, discovering the marathon, making a second Olympic team in 2012—and it flew by.

But a few years ago I started noticing that my love for running had waned. It had become a job. It wasn’t done with passion or love; it was done with formality. I wasn’t excited to go running. I dreaded it. I wondered how long I could keep doing it. What was the point when the joy was sucked out of it? I knew I had to leave the environment I was in and return to Colorado if I had any hope of continuing in my career.

Fast-forward a few years and I ran a half marathon in my hometown while visiting my mom. The slowest half of my life. I mean, I beat Paula Radcliffe head-to-head running 66:57 in 2007, and here I am with my heart full, running 75:12. Friendly voices cheering me on through the streets of Duluth. I found so much joy on those roads. What happened? What had changed?

I have found my way back home.

A few days into running from my mother’s home in Duluth, I realized something. I was running on a gravelly rock road. I was running on a bumpy, overgrown golf course. I was running on totally uneven and rutty surfaces. This is not something that I do these days! I run on manicured trails, evenly groomed dirt roads. Heaven forbid I twist my ankle from landing in a pothole. But here I was, running on these crazy surfaces, the surfaces that I ran on as a teen when I fell in love with running. Instead of driving to a perfect surface to run, I was allowing myself to go where my heart went, where my legs took me. And I began to reconnect with my deep, deep, deep love for the sport, and to what it means to me.

When I was in the thick of my career, it was never enough. I was never fast enough, didn’t place high enough. I was so hard on myself. It has taken years, but I now look back and think, “Damn, I was good!” I always left it out on the track or the roads. I’m proud of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. But my love for running now is real and raw. I love lacing up. I’m not so structured in my expectation. I’m letting my legs lead.

I still have big goals. I’m hoping to do a marathon this fall. I am hoping to qualify for another U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. I want to wear the Team USA uniform one more time. But in this race in Duluth, the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, I found myself.

I found my happiness. I found home.

Finishing the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in my hometown will go down as one of the highlights of my running career. Photo: Tone Coughlin