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Great Escape

How I Learned to Run Away From My Problems and Like It

A 2016 Hillary Clinton speechwriter recalls what saved her

Illustration: Rob Dobi

“You should just run a marathon.”

I don’t remember who made the suggestion, just how hard I laughed. I didn’t even like walking. I was the kind of person who stood still on escalators and moving sidewalks at the airport. (That’s what they’re there for.) I figure skated in high school, but that was 10 years and 40 pounds ago. And despite the signs posted around my office — “The 11th Floor Gym Is Here for You!” “Join the Healthy Snack Initiative!” — I was not making time for wellness.

Instead, I was working long hours as a speechwriter at a women’s health organization. My cardio was frantic typing, and I raised my heart rate by thinking about the fact that states across the country had enacted more abortion restrictions in the past year than in the entire previous decade. On top of everything else, I’d just gotten dumped. Running a marathon may not have been the most obvious solution to these problems, but suddenly I needed to prove I could do it.

That’s how, on a rare Saturday off, I found myself sweating on a treadmill in the middle of the running shoe store. I tried on one pair of sneakers after another until I turned to the hapless salesclerk and wailed, “I don’t know how they’re supposed to feel! I’m not a runner!” Finally, to put us both out of our misery, I picked the ones that came in the best colors and hightailed it to the train.

A friend suggested I start with a half marathon — a little over 13 miles — and take it from there. It was miserable. I sweated in places I didn’t know it was possible to sweat. Every step felt like work. No matter which route I took, they all seemed to be populated with Olympic-caliber athletes whose eyes widened when they realized that sound behind them was me, gasping for breath. The runner’s high I’d read about online was nowhere to be found. The first time I made it a full mile, I texted my friend triumphantly. “That’s good,” she said. “Just 12.1 to go.”

I tried to figure out whether it would be better, from an electrolyte standpoint, to throw up or cry.

Coming from hectic political campaigns and nonprofits, adulthood, for me, had always been less about “self-care” and “work/life balance” and more about “80-hour weeks” and “sleep when you’re dead.” Carving out time to do something just for myself — something that had nothing to do with saving the world or electing the right candidate — seemed selfish.

But one day, as I debated whether to order dinner from Seamless or make my third cup of vending-machine coffee, I decided it was now or never. I changed in the office bathroom and took off, leaving behind half-read articles about the 72-hour waiting period for abortions in Missouri and the women’s health centers closing in Texas. As I ran down the West Side Highway, I did feel a little selfish. I also felt free.

I started to look forward to my daily escape from the office. I went from being too embarrassed to tell any of my colleagues what I was doing to telling everybody, once I realized how willing they were to help hold me accountable. “Don’t you still have to run tonight?” my equally beleaguered boss would demand. “Get out of here!”

Work wasn’t the only thing I left behind when I ran. As a teenage figure skater, I had obsessed unhealthily over every calorie in every meal. Now I was ending my runs fantasizing about what I was going to eat next. When my first 10-mile run left me both thrilled and nauseated, I learned about Gu, those little packets of sickly sweet gel runners consume to make sure they’re getting enough nutrition. I had found myself in a sport where the focus was on eating enough. I stopped counting calories and started enjoying food.

The same way I loved checking projects off my to-do list, I loved knowing that if I ran three miles this Saturday, I could do four next week. And then, around the five-mile mark, something magical happened: I stopped having to think about every step. Maybe it was the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground, endorphins, practice. Whatever it was, running became my time to daydream, plan my life for the next five years, or just listen to music.

When I got writer’s block, instead of staring at my laptop screen, I left my desk and ran. Why not try it this way? I would think as I reached the top of the hill in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Running unlocked a part of my brain I wasn’t using. It was like releasing a pressure valve. “I solve a lot of the world’s problems while running,” a friend’s marathon-running dad told me solemnly. Instead of looking at him like he was insane, I nodded.

When Trump suggested women should be punished for having abortions, I clocked my fastest mile ever.

The morning of my first half marathon, I woke up at dawn and took the subway to Central Park. Standing at the starting line with hundreds of other women, I pushed aside the panic in my stomach and took off like a shot. Within a couple miles, my face was beet red and there was a stabbing pain in my left knee. I had made a rookie mistake: running too fast for the first few miles. I pulled off to the side and tried to figure out whether it would be better, from an electrolyte standpoint, to throw up or cry.

Right then, a middle-aged woman passed me. She was wearing a “tougher than cancer” T-shirt. A few paces later, she looped back alongside me. She stood next to me until I started slowly jogging with her. It wasn’t pretty, but I finished the race. After collapsing into my friends’ arms and drinking at least two gallons of water, I pulled out my phone and signed up for the marathon. If I could get through that, I could get through anything.

Training for a marathon, it turns out, is the same as training for a half marathon, just longer. Runs were even harder to squeeze in, as evidenced by the day I got stuck running my 20-miler in a torrential downpour. “Sore” became a default state. And the chafing — oh God, the chafing. But it also gave me an outlet for my stress, frustration, and, when the midterms that year turned out to be a bloodbath for Democrats, my disappointment. Crossing the finish line of that race, 26.2 miles and one election officially behind me, was the best feeling of my life. Somehow, improbably, I had fallen in love with running.

I ran my next two marathons while working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. As work and life — now indistinguishable from one another — got more hectic, running became something of a survival tactic. The team spent 12-hour days packed like sweaty sardines in an office piled high with pizza boxes and Diet Coke cans. Every night for 40 minutes, I would burst out the door in a blur of anxiety and spandex to reclaim my sanity. When Donald Trump suggested women should be punished for having abortions, I clocked my fastest mile ever. When the Access Hollywood tapes came out, I ugly-cried while sprinting past the Statue of Liberty.

Nothing tested my faith in people like the 2016 election, and nothing restored it like running.

Kathrine Switzer, one of the first women to run the Boston Marathon, said, “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” Nothing tested my faith in people like the 2016 election, and nothing restored it like running. I watched strangers in parkas cheering for runners in the Wisconsin snow.

When I ran a race in New York’s reddest county covered in Hillary Clinton stickers, a woman with a Trump yard sign offered me an orange slice at mile 16.

After the worst day of my life — November 8, 2016 — the first time I felt human was when I dragged myself out of bed and went for a run. If I hadn’t, I might have missed the messages kids from our adopted neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn left on the sidewalk in chalk: “Keep fighting!” “Girl power!”

And one Saturday in Brooklyn, I planned a long run to end at a jewelry store so I could buy an engagement ring for my girlfriend, Liz.

Running has brought more than escape to my life. It has brought me joy, painfully tight calves, a left knee that aches when it rains, and a perpetual sock tan. It also taught me some valuable lessons: Do explain to your co-workers why you’re going to leave every day and come back sweaty. Don’t try to check your work emails during a race. Never put “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” on your running playlist unless you’re ready to cry about how much you miss Barack Obama. Most of all, even if you can’t run away from your problems, you can definitely run through them.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Katherine Switzer was the first numbered woman to run the Boston Marathon.

Speechwriter, Badger, reformed figure skater, slow runner. Proud alumna of Clinton 2016, Planned Parenthood, Obama 2012, & UW-Madison.

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