How I Became a Runner

I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife—and a runner for life

The year was 2000 and I was a sophomore in college. I had in the prior year gone from a size 0 to size sweatpants-only. The words of my roommate’s mother played over and over in my head: If all you wear is sweatpants, one day that’s all you’re going to be able to wear. 

I knew I didn’t like where I was at physically, but I also just didn’t like where I was at period. What started out as shyness my freshman year developed into full-on social anxiety. I’d drink to melt away the worries, to melt away the voice that constantly asked, Why did you say that? The voice that told me, that was a stupid thing to say, now they aren’t going to like you. Drinking worked for a bit but inevitably made my anxiety worse. I’d wake up hungover, unable to remember everything I said the night before, and I’d let my mind run away with worry. 

Social anxiety kept me from being able to walk into the gym, a place I desperately needed more so for my mental health than anything physical. The lack of a nutritionally sound diet, coupled with little to no exercise and social anxiety became the perfect storm in my life. I didn’t value myself as a person. Not loving myself led to decisions that weren’t the greatest for my mental or physical health.

My life became a never-ending downward spiral, a spiral I felt helpless to stop.

While at home one break, I decided to weigh myself, something I hadn’t done in a very long time. The scale showed a number 20-plus pounds higher than what I had been on my first day of college. The way I remember it, I collapsed crying. It felt like rock bottom.

My mother and father, desperate to have their happy daughter back, offered to help. They signed me up for a couple of sessions with a personal trainer to help ease my gym anxiety. If I knew what I was doing I could at least head to my collegiate gym armed with a plan. They also offered to pay for anything running related, whether that was shoes, clothing or a race entry. I didn’t like running at the time, so this didn’t seem like much of an offer, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky about the type of help someone was willing to give me.

When I went home on breaks, my parents would drag me out for “family runs,” which mostly consisted of them running up ahead of me cheering me on, and me attempting to keep up. I was 19, and both of my parents were fitter and healthier than I was. This struck me. I had a choice. I could let all the nasty things I thought and said to myself run my life, or I could try to take back what little power I had and chip away at finding some sort of physical health, with the hopes that the running would improve my mental health.

While back in college I had friends that would go with me to the gym or jog with me. Little by little, run by run, I felt happier. The post-run endorphin high became something I craved.

I remember vividly the time my mother, who at the time was working at a local running store, hosted a party at our house on the same night I was having some of my old high school friends over. My non-running friends and I eavesdropped on their conversations about long runs, pooping and fartleks. Who were these people? My high school friends and I joked that we were glad we weren’t like them, but secretly inside I wanted in on that world. I wanted to be the person turning down a drink because I had some “serious mileage” to do the next day. I wanted to know what a foam roller was or why someone would name a run a fartlek.

When my mom suggested that maybe I’d want to get a summer job at the running store with her, I said yes.

That summer I ate Clif Bars for snacks, ran track workouts with a local training group, and wore my Nike watch at all times. I trained for and ran a half marathon. The more I ran, the happier I felt, and the happier I felt, the more I ran. One of my co-workers, knowing I attended a small D-III school, suggested that I look up their cross country program to see if they would accept walk-ons. I researched the team and emailed the coach and just like that, I was part of the team.

I wasn’t fast, but that didn’t matter. With every passing day I looked at myself in a different, more positive light. I might not have loved myself but I didn’t hate who I was anymore.

I kept at the running thing my entire senior year. I loved it when someone called me a runner, a title I still struggled to fully give myself until the day I crossed the finish line of my first marathon. As college was coming to a close, so was my parents’ marriage. When I went to school in the fall of my senior year my family was a six-person unit; when I returned home from college my mom had moved into an apartment and my dad was in the process of selling our home. He later moved to a townhouse where he lived with my siblings, while I went to live with my mom. It was a rough time not only because of their divorce and the split of our family, but because I was also in that post-college stage of life where you are asking yourself, What do I want to do with my life?

My mom suggested that I should train for a marathon with her. She told me it would change my life. Having nothing to lose and everything to gain, I said yes.

For what felt like an eternity we would wake up day after day and run mile after mile. While my friends were out socializing on the weekends I was home sleeping getting ready for 16-, 18- and 20-milers. Running did nothing for my social life and everything for my real life. On Oct. 26, 2003, I crossed the finish line of Marine Corps Marathon—I was forever changed. In that exact moment I became a runner in earnest. (Although, truth be told, it probably happened somewhere along the way while training for that marathon.)

Fourteen years and 32 marathons later, I can say that running can change anyone’s life if you let it. Long gone are the days of extreme social anxiety. While I still have my fair share of ups and downs, I know that running will always be there for me. It has become a part of who I am. I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife and a runner for life. 

There isn’t one way to become a runner. There isn’t one story. We become runners at different stages in life, in different ways and for different reasons. At one point I might have felt embarrassed at my rocky start into the world of running. Now I love it. It’s my story and no one else’s. 

Dorothy Beal
Dorothy Beal became a marathoner in 2003 and hasn't looked back since then. She's run 33 marathons, including the Boston Marathon five times. A self-professed lover of all things running, she is the creator of the I RUN THIS BODY™ and #IHaveARunnersBody MOVEments and the writer behind the popular Mile Posts blog. Follow her at #irunthisbody and @mileposts.