Running Away: Running Through Grief

Me after the Eugene Marathon

Running is the perfect metaphor for life. We have tremendous hills and long miles to battle, blistering sun and wind and rain, days where we just don’t feel like it but power through anyway, and days where we’ve done everything right to train and still have a really bad run. Life is so unpredictable in the same ways.. so frustrating and infuriating and beautiful and amazing all at the same time. It’s always more about the journey than the destination. So when you are going through something that resembles grief, there’s something so magical and scary and everything in between when you run through it.

While I was training for my first marathon in 2006, my decade-long relationship imploded. I came home from a business trip, and before I had even unpacked my bags, he was telling me that he “didn’t want to do this anymore.” It wasn’t a newsflash that our relationship was awful, that we hadn’t even had enough passion to FIGHT in months, but I kept thinking we would work through it. I was completely shocked to find out that he didn’t WANT to work through it. He was just done. And for the first time since graduating high school, I was alone and looking at 30 and wondering how I was going to do it alone.

I was so angry about so many things, but one of the things that made me the most upset was that he shattered the world I knew the night before a marathon training run. I was already planning to struggle that morning after coming home from a grueling trip the day before, but a night of crying and lying awake wondering what in the hell I was going to do with my life now certainly wasn’t going to make it any better.

The next morning, I got up and went on that training run. I cried so many times and it was likely one of my worst runs ever. But I did it, and when I got back to the apartment I shared with him, I took a shower and immediately went hunting for a new place to live. I put a deposit down on a one-bedroom apartment that day and began planning my future.

Some people asked how I could get up and run that morning. But I never once questioned skipping it. Life wasn’t going to stop for a break-up and that marathon was going to come whether I could do it or not. So I chose to look forward and to keep moving every day towards the race. I don’t think I would have had the strength to move on so quickly if I hadn’t had something else to focus on. My racing mantra from that day forward (and for many other things in life) was, simply, this: “You. Can. Do. This.”

You could say I was “running away” from my problems, but running saved me. I’ve always felt a tremendous sense of release and calm after a run, especially when times are tough. In the rollercoaster of life, running has always been the one thing that was constant, even though every run is different than the last. I can be having the worst day and the energy of putting on running shoes feels like the hardest task, but as soon as I get going, it’s like I can BREATHE again and everything slows down and I can face life with much more strength.

Here I am now, 11 years later, having just run another marathon through grief. My life is different now. I have a wonderful husband and two adorable children and a job that I love because I make people healthier. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my whole life. However, I am running through uncertainty once again. I don’t have the death of a 10 year relationship to “get over” this time, but instead the impending demise of a parent to prepare for. Mortality is something we all must face several times in our lives, and the death of a parent is an eventuality, but I wasn’t ready for it to happen so soon, before my kids were even in elementary school. They should have memories of their grandfather and now I fear that they will not remember what he looked like outside of photos, what a good father he was, how funny he could be, or how wise or how stubborn, or even how much he completely and totally adored them. It’s not fair to lose your dad when he’s only 65, but it’s never fair, no matter the years you have, because it’s never enough.

Late last year, I decided to run the Eugene Marathon and the plan was to bring my family along to cheer for me and then we could all stop over in Coos Bay where my dad lives for a few days. He’s been in failing health for years but I always shrugged it off, ignoring how much weight he was losing, forgetting how it was getting harder and harder for him to do all the things he had always done, telling myself it was going to be fine.

Except it wasn’t. It was finally apparent that his health had gotten so bad that showering now took too much energy some days. This was a wakeup call to the daughter who had rarely seen him sit down in the almost 40 years she’d known him. He had started coughing up blood, he wasn’t sleeping, and he couldn’t keep food down. He was under 100 lbs, and that “cowboy” mentality he’s famous for meant he refused going to doctor or the hospital. He also wasn’t up to a weekend visit with two rowdy grandchildren under the age of 6, which was heartbreaking on so many levels for all of us, but my husband and I knew we still needed to make that trip, and the sooner the better. So we opted to leave the kids behind with my mom and stepfather and we just kept our fingers crossed that he’d make it that long.

May came and the next thing I knew, I was standing at the starting line of the Eugene Marathon. I was nursing a hamstring injury that radiated pain through my left heel, but I felt pretty strong overall. The notion that I could do this while my dad could barely leave the couch was not something I could forget and I didn’t feel right about complaining in the grander scheme of things.

Many people have tricks to get them through the long and painful miles in front of them. One runner once advised me to consider something you are grateful for at every mile, and to reflect on that thing while you run that mile. I wasn’t in the right mindset for that during this particular voyage, but I did think about how thankful I was. I felt thankful for the strength in my legs and what they could do, thankful for my lungs in my body to carry me through this, thankful for the beauty of the course and the weather that day. And I was thankful for all the people around me battling their own mental and physical battles of endurance that I knew nothing about, and I felt some comfort in knowing that we were all here together. And finally, I felt thankful for all the spectators, out there cheering for us when they could be a million other places. I owed this run to all of them as well as my father. He couldn’t do what I was doing. Having the energy to drive to the store and back for a simple errand was a marathon for him on his best day now, and that’s why I had to finish.

That day, I realized how much I am like him. He’s too stubborn to go to a doctor or to let death take him on anything but his own terms, just like I wasn’t going to let an injury stop me from putting in my 26.2 miles that day. My body was telling me to stop at mile 20 and going another 6.2 miles seemed impossible. I knew I had to log every mile, even though each one was more difficult than the last. My dad had to keep facing every day with increasing pain, so even when the marathon felt unsurmountable, I kept moving. My feet got slower, but they were still going forward. When I finally got to the finish line, there were tears behind my eyes. My journey was over that day but he still had an unknown road ahead of him.

We wasted no time getting out of Eugene despite the fact that I just wanted to lay down and rest. We still had pavement ahead and the fact that my stomach was in knots and my legs were sore and slow didn’t matter. When we arrived in Coos Bay, he didn’t look great. He was understandably weak and had aged a lot since the last time I’d seen him. The irony, of course, is that he was worried about me, as I was not my usual self either. I got a lecture on how I was too skinny and I was doing too much and that my body was obviously depleted of the energy necessary to carry me. Let’s forget the fact that my dad had never in his life completed a marathon himself, and never mind that I had just run for 4 hours and jumped into a car right after. Tell me how many people would look their best after that.

The next day, my legs were sore but I felt human again. My dad was doing his best to carry on the way he always did. We talked about his impending death and nothing was hidden, but it was something he could joke about when the moments were right. We made the most of our time, because we knew it was valuable and that this would likely be all we had. We Skyped with the boys every night so my dad could see them from the comfort of his home, and we talked and talked and talked. Some things were not important at all, and it was just as it had always been. Other times, things were heavy and the room felt thick with it. We talked about regret and forgiveness and the past and what it had done to shape today. He said he was proud of me and that he was at peace and grateful that he could leave this world without feeling like he owed anyone anything.

Me and my dad. Can you tell he loves getting his picture taken?

The morning we left was a hard one. When it was time to say goodbye, he held me for a very long time. The strength in those brittle bones was astounding and I felt his shoulders shake as the tough man I’d never seen cry broke down in my arms. He told me he loved me and that he was sorry he wouldn’t be there to protect me anymore. Letting go of my father that day was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my whole life.

When I got home, I wasn’t myself. I went for a run. I was tired and shaken and not all there, but I couldn’t let the walls around the house contain me that night. Most people who aren’t runners don’t understand. But most runners, I think, do. Am I “running away?” Yes, but hopefully toward something good. There’s always a finish line at the end of every journey.

About Nikki Mueller (564 Articles)
I'm the owner of Healthy Girl Fitness and I'm a personal trainer, certified AFAA group exercise instructor, and an RRCA certified running coach in SW Portland. I am also the mother of two young boys and am on the board at my youngest son's school. I led a relatively inactive life throughout my 20's until I discovered the world of fitness and running. I ran my first marathon in 2006 and haven't looked back since.

1 Comment on Running Away: Running Through Grief

  1. deborah wagner // May 24, 2017 at 11:44 AM //

    Yesterday, I thought that you just sent the pix, but today I saw and read your article. Well done “Grasshopper”.

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