Recently, my family and I traveled to Kenya to volunteer at an orphanage run by my nephew, Brian Ash. Part of the journey included running a marathon with Brian to raise funds for the Arrive Kenya charity program.

Then about a month before we were to leave I injured my heel. I tried everything to fix it, but it didn’t improve. It continued to bother me on the trip, as my husband, daughters and I got to know the orphans in Brian’s care. Up until a few days before the race, I was still contemplating whether or not I should run. What runner wouldn’t want to be able to say they ran a marathon in a place so tied to the soul of long-distance running?

I have been running for more than 40 years. I’ve won races, reached the summits of mountain passes and peaks and qualified for and run in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. When I first started running, it was about escaping—escaping the trials of adolescence and life. But I quickly discovered how good running made me feel apart from any need to escape. I became addicted to that, and, in many ways, I’m still addicted to that feeling. I love how running creates a two-pronged sensation of being “in my body” and yet “separated.”

The author at the start of the Masai Mara Kenya Half Marathon in Nalepo Marathon village in the Masai Mara region. Photo: Courtesy of Vicki Hunter

I also love to compete, and I love to win. My competitive side appears when I least expect it; even seeing a group of fast-looking strangers on a trail run can spur me to speed up when I wasn’t planning on it. Because of this, I have often pushed myself too far. We occupy imperfect bodies, and they can break down physically, mentally and emotionally. This happens from overuse, fatigue, injuries, aging, lack of proper maintenance or some combination of all of the above.

This was a hard lesson for me. More than it should have, the idea of not running the marathon in Kenya rankled inside my mind. Then one day, I was out on a group run with my nephew and several kids from the orphanage. Just a short time ago, many of these kids were living a rough life on the streets, begging for food, sleeping outside, sniffing glue, barely surviving. Now, they exuded pure joy in every graceful stride. To say they “run” doesn’t do it justice. They glide. Following them up the side of a mountain—because following was all I could do—was a lesson in what it means to be really present in the moment.

Running with them, I realized it does not matter how fast I go or how far. On that day, I was the last one up that mountain. Once I got to the top, the kids were hanging out, climbing trees, smiling and waiting for me.

Speed doesn’t matter to them; they do not even own watches. They had no idea how far we went, how long it took, or when we’d get back. They didn’t care who got there first or last. They were just running for the pure joy of it.

As it turned out, the marathon was canceled and only a half marathon and 10K were held. No one felt disappointed. For me, running the half marathon was joyous. I ran because it felt good, not because I was aiming for any time or distance. I wound up being the only woman running in the longer race, although a few girls did the 10K distance. My heel still hurt, but adrenaline took over and I started to feel good. I even caught a couple of the boys from our group toward the end. (Competitiveness is a hard thing to shake!)

It’s taken time—my impatient and competitive side is strong—but I have accepted the imperfection of my body and re-connected to the real reasons I run. Like those Kenyan kids, I, too, run purely because I love it, and because it connects me to the world around me. Only through a combination of listening to my body and caring for it, along with making good choices, will I continue to be able to enjoy my love for running.

My experience in Kenya—running with the same pure joy that those kids did without question—inspired me anew and has helped put a fresh perspective on what running means to me.