I will never forget the day I learned I hated running.
It was one of those perfect fall days in northern Indiana – not chilly, but not humid.
A few dozen middle school cross-country runners had family cheering them on. My older sister was one of those runners.
Fulfilling my sisterly duties, I stood next to my mom and dad as we waited for my sister to crest what seemed like a mountain of a hill.
(There are no mountains in Indiana. There are barely hills, but leave it to cross country race directors to find the ones that are few and far between.)
“There she is,” my mom exclaimed when we saw my sister in her green jersey emerging from a tree-covered incline.
“Go Meggie!” I screamed.
I was so proud of my sister in that moment, but I couldn’t help being overwhelmed by what was welling up inside me as I watched her: fear. Her face was expressionless, but when she looked our way, her eyes conveyed intense pain. Her cheeks, never rosy under normal circumstances, were bright red. She looked like she was saying, “I want to quit.”
In fact, later that season she asked my dad if she could quit, and he told her the same lesson he would one day tell me when I wanted to stop playing sixth grade basketball – Kuzydyms don’t quit.
But the pain in her eyes was burned in my memory.
Why would anyone want to put herself through that kind of agony? Why would you invite that kind of pain?
So I answered my own questions with my fourth-grade-level analysis: Runners are crazy. Running looks painful. I hate pain. I hate running.
That mantra served me through mandatory miles in gym class and slow warm-up laps before tennis practice.
Sure, I ran a 5K twice. My sister even paced me through a 10K, but I finished second to last because I still hated running so much -- the act of doing it wore on me mentally, each step seeming harder than the last.
Then life really hit.
I fell in love with being a sports reporter and in 2015, it moved me here, to Houston. Then at the start of this year, I lost my job.
Depression hit hard. I didn’t talk to anyone except my puppy for a week. As he ate at his food bowl, I sat next to him with my back against my kitchen cabinets for support with yet another bowl of cereal. It was the least amount of effort I could put in to eating – but it took all of the energy I had.
Erick, a former sports editor of mine, knew I loved the swimming and biking facets of a triathlon, but, of course, not the running. He suggested I work on my run distance since it was January and great Houston running weather.
I had already raced two sprint triathlons, where I swam, biked and ran short distances, finishing near the bottom of the entrants both times because nearly everyone passed me on the run.
Erick thought if I set a goal of working on increasing my run distance to 6.2 miles, I could build up to an Olympic distance triathlon.
The thought of even running three miles sounded dreadful, so I tried to be positive. I read some motivational quotes.
“Keep moving forward.”
“Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. Small steps turn into miles.”
“You don’t have to be first. But you better be fearless.”
That last one is the one that pushed me out of the door.
I’m slow. I run a 11:30 mile on a good day. Being out of journalism made me feel like I had failed, like I had quit. My father’s words “Kuzydyms don’t quit” rang over and over again.
So I chose, for a couple of miles at least, to be fearless.
A goal would be good for me. I set up a training plan. Erick suggested signing up for the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in Washington D.C. as a goal. I could barely run three miles in under 35 minutes so 10 miles sounded like a definite challenge.
‘If you can run 10 miles, you can make it six after swimming and biking,’ Erick chatted me on g-chat one day.
He was right.
So I went on a training run and one day as I was running through my neighborhood, an older gentleman outside a property saw me struggling. I had a head cold. I was a mile and a half in. I was well behind my 11:30 pace. I just wanted to turn back and head home. He started clapping, cheering me on and shouting, "Way to go. Keep it up."
It made me feel like it was race day, which motivated me to make it to four miles without stopping for the first time in my life.
Then I became one of the crazy people.
On April 3, next to Erick, I completed the Cherry Blossom 10-miler.
On May 7, with my best friend since middle school, I finished the Indy Mini, my first half marathon.
I kept thinking, if I can do four miles, I can do 10. If I can do 10, I can easily do 13.1. And if I can do 13.1, I might as well double it and do the full 26.2 miles, a marathon.
I joined a training group of seasoned runners -- and to my surprise, they welcomed me with open arms.
My first day out I couldn’t even finish the training session, running the cloverleaves off Waugh. I got halfway through before I was gassed.
They never said it, but they didn’t seem to care that I was always the last one to finish our sessions. Just that I tried.
I made another goal. It didn’t matter how far behind everyone else I finished, but I would finish.
In the last 18 weeks, I’ve had great run days and awful run days. There have been dehydration issues, chaffing issues, you-should-never-eat-a-protein-bar-before-a-run-because-it-sits-like-a-rock-in-your-stomach issues and pretty much everything in between.
Some incredible people – who are the peppiest bunch for waking up for a 5:30 a.m. training – have entered my life. I’ve conquered miles with runners whose last names I don’t know, but I could easily spot them, even in the dark, by their running gait from 200 yards away.
I’m still not any faster. In fact, over a long distance, I’m probably slower, but I’ve turned into one of the crazies because I realized that when my life got unbalanced, the thing I wanted to do most was keep moving forward. At its most basic, that is running.
I didn’t think I could find joy in hitting the pavement, stride after stride, thousands a day. I thought that because I never needed it so much.
Seven weeks after I joined my training group, we ran the same training session we did on my first day: the grassy cloverleaves – better known as the on and off ramps to almost any highway. I finished by the time almost everyone else was drenched in sweat from the high humidity and was crossing the street to get our post-training Chippy, blue Gatorade with ice chunks. Waiting at the top of the ramp was a runner my age who crushes me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with her pace.
“Good job!” she said as she high-fived me. “Remember where you were the first day? You’ve come a long way.”
It made me smile. She was right, but she had no idea how much I’d changed in so many ways. I was no longer depressed or searching for answers I would never find. I was no longer hoping my life could have been different the last year. I was no longer that little girl that hated running.
In the last 18 weeks, I’ve learned a lot about running. I’ve learned a lot about who I am. I’ve learned from training runs in the pitch dark that you don’t always have to know where you’re going, but your feet will find the ground to take you on a journey you never expected.
On Sunday, I’ll run my first marathon: the Chicago Marathon.
I don’t have a time I want to finish in. It’s TBD. All I want to do is finish.
I don’t care that of all the runners I train with, I’m always the final one to finish.
I’m OK with not being first, as long as I am fearless.
Follow Stephanie Kuzydym's marathon journey on Twitter.
(© 2016 KHOU)