“I’m a private runner,” I told my sister when she invited me to the first annual Steps for Sarcoma 5k. She had signed up to walk the three-point-one-mile course in memory of her daughter, Jamey, who died at twenty-four of osteosarcoma. The race raised money for cancer research. I hung my head as I declined, but the thought of running “in public” turned my stomach.
I’d only recently begun slow jogging the quiet streets of our suburban central Ohio neighborhood after a high school friend posted her interval workouts on social media. The thought of my neighbors watching me haul my flabby, overweight body down the street so terrified me that I leashed up Morgan, our yellow Labrador dog, for emotional support and headed into a wooded ravine where no one could see. It took several sessions before I summoned the courage to leave the ravine and jog in front of houses from which my neighbors probably weren’t watching anyway. I couldn’t possibly take part in a race.
A friend also suggested a charity race after she learned I was running. She told me how raising money for an important cause, this one breast cancer research, warmed her heart.
Again I refused. “This is something I do for myself.”
I don’t think of myself as selfish, but chronic depression, anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks made it difficult to focus on anything beyond my symptoms. Running at all felt like enough of an accomplishment.
But I couldn’t shake the image of my niece in her hospital bed. She had been a runner and mistook the pain of a tumor in her femur for athletic aches. By the time they found the cancer, it had spread to her lungs.
Meanwhile, my sister kept asking.
During one workout, I consulted Morgan. Did he think I should do the race? He nodded or perhaps shook a bug off his copper-colored ear. He wasn’t afraid. Perhaps, with him as my example, I could face my fear and run in public.
I told my sister I was in.
To reduce my anxiety, I researched race etiquette and learned that the race number (a.k.a. “bib”) goes on the front of the shirt, not the back. I also discovered I should line up toward the end of the starting group so faster runners who cared about more than just finishing wouldn’t have to dodge me. The day before the race, my husband and I drove the course. Because of this preparation, on race morning I woke more excited than afraid.
When we pulled into the parking lot and I saw the crowd, my anticipation flipped to stomach jitters. I closed my eyes and remembered Jamey’s smile. I was there to honor her. We found my family and friends and soon, the festive atmosphere felt welcoming. Sarcoma survivors, their friends, and family members gathered for a survivor photo. A volunteer offered signs for us to fill out. I penned “In Memory of Jamey Ax” on one and my sister pinned it to the back of my shirt while I pinned my race number on the front.
Once I crossed the start line, my remaining fear vanished. I started out too fast—a typical rookie mistake—so a hill toward the end challenged my fitness. When my mind spun with negative self- talk, I remembered Jamey. Through five hundred days of treatment and illness, she had remained strong.
I finished, proud, tired, sweaty, and not quite last.
I meant for that first 5k to also be my last. I’d signed up to remember my niece and raise money for research hoping other families might be spared the grief our family will live with forever. But I hadn’t known that a 5k is like a party on foot: race signs, cheering fans, flying flags, music, and laughter. Plus, I had run in public! Not only had no one laughed, but complete strangers cheered! Infected with joy and excitement, I couldn’t wait to do another.
The following year, I joined a running group and found a community I hadn’t even realized I was missing. Before the pandemic, we traveled to races. We continue to raise money for causes of all types, and support each other through the joys and losses of life.
Since that first 5k, I’ve run three full marathons, twenty-seven half marathons (in eighteen states), and more than 100 shorter races. I participate in the Steps for Sarcoma 5k every year. While I don’t always run for charity, when a race support a good cause, it fills my heart.
I still take medication and go to therapy to treat my mental health issues, but running eases my anxiety and enhances my self-worth. I was able to reduce the amount of medication I need and haven’t had to change medications in several years.
If not for that charity race (and my sister’s nudges), I would have stayed in the neighborhood, running the streets near our house with only the dog. There’s nothing wrong with “private running.” Running of any kind improves fitness, boosts mood, and increases self-esteem. But if I hadn’t risked running that charity 5k “in public,” I would never have experienced the community, the celebration, and the joy of doing something for others. I would have missed some of the most fulfilling days of my life.
Doing good for others ultimately did good for me.
A version of this article originally appeared in Brokeman’s Blog. For more about Nita and Morgan’s running, see Nita’s mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink.