The sun has barely risen over the tree line by the time I’m on the road, sweat in my eyes and gasping for breath. The sound of my footsteps echoes through the empty streets. My heart pounds in my chest as I finish the last section of my run, giving it everything I have left. As I round the corner in front of my house, the wind howling in my ears, I know something is very wrong. My left calf feels like it has been ripped apart. 

Every step sends a dizzying pain through my whole leg. I look down hesitantly, expecting to see bone. But there is no bone. There is not much of anything—besides some inflammation—that is visible, despite the intense pain. It’s a common overuse injury, and it was only a matter of time before I got one.

Unexpectedly at home in Waco, Texas, for the summer, I wanted something that could bring a sense of routine back to my life. Since going to the public pool was, at a time of pandemic, no longer an option, I doubled down on a growing interest of mine: running. My mornings started early, often before the sun came out, to avoid the Texas heat. I quietly grabbed a glass of water and silently chewed through a chocolate-chip granola bar, attempting to not break the predawn silence in my house. Then, allowing enough time for my eyes to adjust to the lights in my room, I laced up my old running shoes and headed out the door.

Feeling the first rush of cool air on my skin became an addicting feeling for me. Counting the lines on the road, watching the houses scroll by, memorizing the road signs, and waving to people who became a familiar presence gave me something to look forward to every day. My legs developed muscle memory of the creek bend, the slight uphill at the house with the chickens, the sudden dip in the road at the house with the huge tree in the driveway. Turning on to the main road with the sun in my eyes, I hoped that the neighbor’s dog was not loose. When I wasn’t keeping an eye out for him, I spent my time watching the birds fly through the trees up the hill and listening for the quiet rustling of squirrels in the bushes.

That’s how it was at the beginning. It all changed when I got sucked into my fitness-tracking app. All of a sudden, my runs became races against myself. Running through the neighborhood, I ignored the early-morning passersby. The houses became a blur in my peripheral vision, my eyes locked on the road ahead. I replaced my alertness to the chanting birds with a metronome, to remind me that I should be keeping my cadence up. My pleasant thoughts were crowded out by replaying tips on how to be faster.

On the final stretch of road, from the creek until my front yard, I gave it everything I had left. Day after day, regardless of how sore or tired I was, it was an all out sprint to the finish line. That Sunday, my legs couldn’t handle it any more. The weeks of pushing too hard caught up to me.

While recovering, I had a lot of time on my hands to think about what went wrong. I educated myself on running sustainably and how to prevent injury. I added targeted stretches, a longer warm-up, and a proper cooldown to my daily routine. I fixed my running form to be more forgiving to my joints and changed my pace to prevent overexertion. I reconsidered my sleeping and eating habits, and even learned how to cook with my brother, also unexpectedly home from college. It was more than a month before I could put on my running shoes again, but I learned something that will stick with me the rest of my life.

Now when I run, I don’t even look at the pace. After a proper warm-up, I start slow to get my heart rate up. I never go faster than what my body wants me to, and I’m grateful to be on the road even if it is a very slow day. I don’t stare at the ground, or stress about a perfect sprint finish. I instead appreciate those things that made me fall in love with running in the first place: hearing the birds singing in the early morning, waving to the other runners, and finding some peace and quiet no matter how chaotic my world is. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast, or even if I improved from yesterday. The only thing that matters to me is that I’m taking it slow enough to enjoy what I took for granted before.

Bowman is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience.

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