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Running Through Heartbreak: How Running Healed Me

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Just keep pushing, I muttered to myself as I shuffled toward the 12-mile marker of the Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half in Newton, Massachusetts, named for the Boston Marathon’s most notorious climb. I’d reached the slope in the final stretch of the half-marathon conceived for one sole purpose: conquering Heartbreak Hill.

It’s a moment many runners dream about—myself included. I’d envisioned confidently cresting the incline, my lungs bellowing in rhythm to my stride as I finally broke two hours. But what was supposed to be my fastest half-marathon quickly became my slowest. A cloudless, 80-degree day forced me to slacken my pace. And so I came face-to-face with the famed Heartbreak Hill, humbled and defeated.

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As I approached the incline, heartbreak was all around me. A sign signaled its start: Heartbreak. A man in a gorilla suit wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the word: Heartbreak. Spectators shouted: “Heartbreak Hill up ahead!”

Suddenly, it wasn’t only a physical obstacle. Out of nowhere, the major heartaches of my own life washed over me. Exhausted, dehydrated, and staring down failure, I couldn’t shake the experiences I associate with that word: growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father who drank himself to death when I was 25, battling a tibial bone tumor that left me walking with a limp and unable to run for over a decade, undergoing ovarian surgery at 16, temporary menopause at 20, and living with a diagnosis that meant I might never have children. My own heartaches seemed as endless as that infamous climb.

My throat tightened. I couldn’t breathe as I choked on tears. I slowed to a walk, gasping for breath as I beat my chest with my palm. With every step up Heartbreak Hill, I felt each of those experiences crack open again, inflicting their pain yet again upon my red, beating soul. The stitches bandaging my broken heart began to pull apart. As the heartache and emotion caught me off guard, I thought about giving up, sitting on the curb, head in hands and chest heaving—like world-record holder Paula Radcliffe did when she dropped out of the 2004 Olympic marathon.

But even though the desire to quit was overwhelming, something moved me forward, pushing me up Heartbreak Hill.

I came to the sport of running reluctantly—you could even say kicking and screaming. From the age of 14, running was the most painful thing I could do, thanks to that bone tumor. More than 10 years later and less than two months after my father’s death, I finally went into surgery. Then, all at once, the man and the impediment that once defined me were gone.

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On doctor’s orders, I started running. My well-worn hatred of the sport soon morphed into something else: joy. Step by step, mile by mile, I discovered that I loved running. I felt free—a freedom that both the tumor and living under my father’s shadow had denied me.

A decade later, I’ve run 20 half-marathons, seven marathons, and built a career around the activity I once dreaded. In the process, the sport became my therapy and my solace. My daily workouts were a channel for the sadness, anger, and frustration that plagued my relationship with my dad. Training gave me the time to work through my feelings once he was gone. I began to heal—30, 45, and 60 minutes at a time.

My third marathon signaled how much running has done for me. The 2009 Chicago Marathon fell on the sixth anniversary of my father’s death, in the city of my youth. I spent childhood weekends at work with my dad, and the marathon course passes his old office. I dedicated the race to him, and ran a personal best. When I wanted to give up, I thought of him. I realized I wasn’t angry any more, my ire dissipated into the air with my perspiration. 

In that moment on Boston’s Heartbreak Hill, I thought of the physical motion of putting one foot in front of the other, how it’s gotten me through the last 10 years of my life. Forward momentum became a symbolic and literal manifestation of how I felt.

And so I walked up the storied climb knowing that I’d get my sub-two hour half-marathon someday, if not today, knowing that each heartache is eventually outweighed by a greater joy. I calmed my breath and let my tears melt into the sunblock, salt, and sweat masking my face.

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Near the top of the hill, a woman jogged up to me. “Come on,” she said nonchalantly with a wave of her hand. “We’re almost there,” she said, snapping me out of my reverie.

Just keep pushing, I thought. I started running again.

“Thank you,” I said as I pulled alongside her. “I needed that.” We ran the last few hundred yards together, stride for stride across the finish line.

With Heartbreak Hill behind me, I realized that the struggles of my life don’t define me. But what I’ve done with them does. I could have sat down on the side of that course. I could have waved that runner away. But I didn’t. I pulled myself together and continued pushing, moving forward, in running and in life. 

Karla Bruning is a writer/reporter who blogs about all things running at RunKarlaRun.com.