After seven years of smoking (at times, more than a pack a day), one runner opens up about how she put out her last butt for good.

By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan

I don't remember the first cigarette I smoked, but I know that by the time I was a senior in high school-and was battling an eating disorder-I had a penchant for, well, the cancer sticks. I wasn't even 18, so my girlfriend had to purchase my packs of Parliament Lights. I'd end up smoking them alone in my VW Bug. What's worse was how sick they made me feel. I was dizzy and light-headed to the point where I'd skip meals. That's really why I picked up smoking in the first place-to suppress my appetite. But as I found out, that side effect was pretty bogus anyway.

It Made Me Feel 'Cool'

When I headed off to college, I packed on the Freshman 15, or admittedly, more like the Freshman 30. But I was still smoking. In fact, I'd increased the number of cigarettes I was smoking. I had needed to hide my habit when I was still living at home with my parents, but now that I was at college, there was nothing to hold me back. Before I knew it, I was up to a pack a day, overweight, and legitimately addicted.

I had this constant, driving urge, almost like something was dragging me to have a cigarette. Also, as embarrassing as it is, smoking made me feel cool. I don't know why because there's actually nothing "cool" about sucking away 11 minutes of your life at a time. It also made me short of breath, always lagging behind my friends. I never felt confident in my own skin. And I never went to the gym.

The Moment That Things Changed

After I graduated, moved to New York City, and landed my first magazine job, I decided it was time to get my sh*t together. Commuting every day was exhausting, and climbing several flights of stairs felt impossible. At just 22 years old, I was moving so slowly it was like I had an injury. And I guess I kind of did-you just couldn't see it. Still, embarrassing was an understatement.

So I quietly started to work on my vice. Instead of grabbing a drink with a colleague or friend for happy hour, I made a beeline to the treadmill and starting running past my cigarette cravings the best I could. At first, it was a slow mile or two-and I huffed and puffed the entire way through it, with the reddest face ever. Man, I was really out of shape.

Which was in and of itself kind of embarrassing. I was young. I was supposed to be in my prime, right? I knew cigarettes were holding me (and my lungs) back, but I just wasn't ready to quit entirely. However, I was ready to cut back. First I got rid of my morning cigarette. Then the 10:30 a.m. coffee break cigarette with coworkers (which I missed for the social aspect, but not during a New York winter, to be totally honest). So I hadn't quit, but I was just smoking less because I was seeing the payoff in more ways than one: I was slowly but surely running faster and longer, and, not to be forgotten, I was actually saving a lot of money, too.

What Finally Made Me Quit

After a year of limited cigarettes and five days a week on the treadmill, I had seemingly hit a plateau for my both my mileage and pace. (I don't have the science to back it up, but I couldn't make it past the 60-minute mark no matter how slowly I plodded along.) Then I heard about the New York Road Runners, a community running group, through a friend, who also gushed about how running the New York City Half Marathon was the most special moment of her life. I knew it was finally time to quit for good.

It was a Sunday night, and I had just gotten back from a trip. While I was away the cigarettes I'd had were strong, I had smoked too many, and I felt gross. I had a run planned for the next morning, and I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. So I decided that was it. It was March 2009, and I smoked my last cigarette ever that night. To remind myself of why I made the decision, I found the timeline of how one's body repairs itself after quitting smoking. (See it for yourself below.) The hard evidence was inarguable, and something a stubborn person like me needed. I printed out 100 copies and taped them everywhere: Inside my cubicle at work, on my refrigerator, in my to-do notebook, on my coffee table, well, you get the picture. But perhaps most importantly, I put one in my workout clothes drawer, as it reminded me every time I laced up that I did this for my body, my running, and my health.

Eight Years and Zero Cigarettes Later

I can truly say since that night I have never puffed a cigarette again, and by 2010, I was running 5 miles a day, five times a week. I felt incredible! I even decided to join the New York Road Runners and run a few local races. I completed a 5-miler here, a 10K there, and then in January of 2011, I ran my first half marathon. The high of crossing the finish line was far better than any buzz I ever got from a cigarette.

Let's face it, being able to breathe well is pretty fundamental when it comes to running, and smoking was holding me back from reaching my full potential. Now, with clear lungs, I can say without a doubt that if I hadn't quit smoking, I never would have been able to run that half marathon, any of the other dozen half marathons, or the New York City Marathon I've completed since.


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