My friend and years-long running partner, Leigh, and I coined a phrase one cold Saturday morning as we ran intervals along the American Tobacco Trail here in North Carolina. We called it “frantic running.” A safe word of sorts, it clued the other in if one of us was feeling that panicky heart-racing, can’t breathe, “I think I’m going to die” feeling that often accompanies the work that results in…well results.

At that time, Leigh and I were runners. I mean we both still run today, but we were nothing but runners. We spent our workdays talking about where we were going to run, how far we were going to run, and what we were going to eat afterward because we earned it.

I started running in late 2014 because of my sister. She discovered the 2015 Disney Princess Half-Marathon coincided with my 25th birthday and convinced us both that would be an ideal excuse for us to book a trip to Disney World as neither of had ever been.

I continued running because of a joke made by someone whose opinion I then held in high-esteem about what running had done to my appetite and how I would have to keep running in order to keep up with my eating.

For the better part of three years, being a runner gave me an identity. It grounded me. It provided me with uninterrupted pockets of time with my mentor. It provided a community for me in my neighborhood after a failed relationship. It gave me confidence that I hadn’t felt since I was 16 and not worried about what someone else thought of my legs, abs or arms. Running was my therapist, and I would do anything to avoid missing an appointment.

Once Leigh got involved, my training program turned into running three miles at 5 a.m. with my mentor and meeting Leigh after work to run three more. We planned work trips and weekend getaways around what races promised the most fun and the biggest medals. Instead of shopping for new work clothes and summer sandals, we found the best deals on our favorite running shoes (Brooks for her, Asics for me) and bought nylon wings to lace onto the sides. We built medal holders and earned free workout gear from whatever competition we could find on our favorite fitness app. We signed up to run 2016 miles in 2016 and 2017 miles in 2017.

Our running endeavors became increasingly outrageous going first from running half-marathons to running half-marathons on back-to-back weekends to running an ultramarathon consisting of 10 5Ks in the sandhills and pine straw of North Carolina’s beloved Pinehurst.

Then Leigh introduced me to my now-husband.

Now don’t get me wrong. My husband encourages my running. He holds signs at races. His mom was my support crew at the ultra when he had to work. He even ran a half-marathon on our honeymoon because I asked.

But what he doesn’t do is tell me that I need to run in order to be loved, to be adored, to be attractive. He loves me for me, warts — and jiggly legs — and all. He didn’t marry me because I’m a runner. He married me because I’m Leah.

That rocked the foundation I built running on. I thought my running was rooted in self-love, self-care, and wellness. It turns out, it was built on admiration from others, feeling superior, an unhealthy body image, and an ugly craving for attention. If I ran three miles before work every morning, I felt better than the person sitting in the office next to me. If I ran long runs on the weekends, I could be the dream girl who ate cheeseburgers and milkshakes and never gain a pound.

If I had proof I could do something hard, I was deserving of someone’s time and attention. My self-worth hung from pretty ribbons, and my value was as fake as my gold medals.

It’s been a year since we ran that brutal ultramarathon. I took some time off after that race because my body and my mind couldn’t handle the thought of running for a while. It was during that time that I realized my husband didn’t care about my running regimen. He only cared about my well-being.

Now, when I lace up my running shoes I feel that heart-racing panic again. I’m running frantic because I’m having to hit the pavement for myself. And let me tell you, it’s harder than any race I’ve ever run.

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