Hard Run: One Runner's Surprising Discovery During a Crisis

 Ever head out the door for a hard run in the middle of a crisis?

You know...one of those "life moments," that seems to overshadow everything.

When you're in the middle of a crisis, even a few miles can feel like a hard run.

And it's all too easy to let those emotions consume you...fear, worry, doubt, anger, frustration.

When Brynn Cunningham left the house after some intense weeks of "life," she wasn't expecting a few familiar shoreline miles to turn into a hard run.

But that's what happened. And she made a surprising discovery along the way....

One Runner's 'Hard Run' Discovery

Recently, Weeviews colleague Evan Jensen asked what the most difficult run of my life has been.

  •     I told him about a time when it was negative four degrees.
  •     I became disoriented on a trail covered in a foot of snow.
  •     Snow was still falling, covering the blazes on the trees. 
  •     My hands became paralyzed, completely frozen, leaving me unable to call for help. 
  •     My phone was frozen, unresponsive anyway, due to the sub-zero temperatures. 
  •     To boot, my youngest son was only eight months old, and I was breastfeeding and needed to return to him, waiting in the vehicle at the end of the trail where my family was picking me up.

In hindsight, that was not the hard run that stands out the most to me.

The most difficult run of my life was not during a blizzard, or in any form of extreme weather.

It wasn’t an ultramarathon, FKT or DNF. 

It wasn’t even in the woods.

It was short, only 2.7 miles.

It was July, and the sun was shining, but not too hot.

It was familiar and safe - I ran from my house and made one lap around the lake we lived beside, a route I ran hundreds of times.

Brynn Cunningham with sons, Avie, age eight, and Grey, age four.

The most difficult run of my life was the very first run I took as a mother and without a father.
My first son, Avie, arrived four weeks early, at 36 weeks rather than the typical 40, on June 28, 2013.

He was born naturally, in our home, with the assistance of two midwives and was a teeny, tiny five pounds, 12 ounces.

Ten days after giving birth, I became restless.

I needed to sweat, move, get outside.

At first, the freedom from the hunched-over breastfeeding posture and 24/7 holding and cradling felt invigorating.

Rapidly, though, things began to fall apart.

The Physical

My hips were wonky, thighs weak, glutes blah, knees unstable, calves burning and feet aching with a sharp sensation shooting up one heel.

There was zero rhythm, zero flow.

Joints felt nearly disconnected and wobbly, like a marionette puppet. 

A heaviness tugged my legs downward.

Too much effort was required to put one foot in front of the other. Something that once felt weightless, easy, mindless, became absolutely arduous.

What was happening?
I had only gained 22 pounds in pregnancy, and that weight was nearly shed.
Soon, I learned, it wasn’t so much about weight. It was the fact that the human body changes after pregnancy and childbirth for every woman in innumerable subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The Mental
To compound the situation, my mental state during those 2.7 miles was worse than my physical state.

My heart ached in a powerfully charged, unfamiliar way capable of making me sick to my stomach.

This run was the very first time I spent any amount of time away from my new son. He slept with me, I held him while I used the bathroom, I cooked and cleaned the house with him wrapped in a carrier on my chest, and he lay on a baby pillow at the top of my yoga mat while I practiced each morning.

I yearned in ways I never longed for anything or anyone before. An incredible urgency to return as quickly as possible propelled me forward, but I couldn’t move fast enough.

Worries mounted, some based on substantial fact: he was a preemie, after all, and I his only source of food.
Some worries were kind of rooted in fact, but a bit unrealistic, riddling me with anxiety nonetheless: he needed my warmth, my heartbeat against his, to keep him strong, alive even! 

Though his father was with him, no doubt holding him the entire time, this thought plagued me.

Some worries were completely unreasonable based on nothing concrete: 

  • What if something dreadful happens while I’m gone
  • What if I never see him again, and here I am a million miles away, or just a couple miles, what’s the difference?!
  • What if he were kidnapped? 
  • What if he starves to death because I didn’t pump breastmilk for him, because that’s just something I chose not to do? 
  • What if he cries for me? 
  • What was I doing out here?

Then the Grief
Not only was this my first run as a mother.

It was also my first run without a father.

He had died on June 1, four weeks prior to Avie’s birth. He fell sick two weeks before I became pregnant, and I watched him suffer in the hospital for most of my pregnancy, and then die, while I was 32 weeks pregnant.

He was 61 years old. I was 30.

Between the worries that rolled in with new motherhood during this run came the despairing thoughts that came with his death.

My dad was my biggest running fan. In what I would describe as a once tumultuous but repaired relationship, running brought us together, and now, that connection was lost, gone forever. Or so I thought.
I increased my pace to drown out the brokenhearted ruminations that came flooding in like a tsunami, but it only magnified the physical suffering.

It felt like forever, being away from Avie, and scary, being alone with bottomless grief.

A Tipping Point
What I sought when I stepped out the door that day was the blissful runner’s high.

Running is what I was relying upon to relieve stress, anxiety and all things postpartum. 

Instead, what I got was a hard run mixed with pain, bewilderment, confusion and emotions erupting from every direction.

Running was having an unanticipated effect upon every aspect of my being. 

From that day forward, running changed for me, forever.

In a way, that run partially set the tone for the next eight years of running. Instead of constantly worrying, though, I ran to process the worries, let go of the nonsense ones, and to alleviate the real ones. I ran to cope with grief. 

Running allowed emotions to erupt. Then, one by one, running placated all those emotions. 

A hard run might not be the toughest trail or longest distance. Runner Brynn Cunningham made some surprising discoveries during a short run on a familiar shoreline trail near Ohiopyle, Penn.

The most difficult run of my life was not just difficult. It was essential.

Frightening, frantic and painful, but a tipping point.

One short, hard run ignited within my soul a desire, commitment, purpose, courage.  

At first glance, the run seemed pointless, perhaps reckless, running just 10 days postpartum.  

But peel back the veil of suffering, and something beautiful, wild, fresh was simmering. 

It was a passion never once tapped into prior to pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, death, all of which collided and coincided, as if those major life events stoked my innermost being with clear intent and confidence.  

No longer was I a 20-something free-spirited traveler running without a watch, with little aim, with little concern about when to return home or where the next path would take me. 

With my newborn son and my gone-forever father came a new self, and with it, a why. 

A New Why

Now I was a woman with a wildfire burning inside, yearning to express herself in ways never thought possible, in charge of a tiny life who needed me as much as I needed him and aware of how quickly our delicate bodies, and even lives, can change, or end.  

I channeled this awakened vitality into running and motherhood.  

Running had a purpose, and I ran my heart out, for my son, and eventually my second son, too, and my father. I was living for them, the new and the deceased, and that mindset carried over into running.   

With an enlivened sense of why, I ran distances I once thought reserved only for other stronger, actual long-distance runners much different from me and won races I never dreamed I could do, let alone win.   

Runner, Mother & Father’s Daughter

The most difficult run of my life, like all of our greatest defeats, was pivotal, the first step toward figuring out how to fit my identity as a runner into my new identity as a mother. 

Or rather, it was a step toward figuring out how to run and mother at the same time, while balancing life’s hardships, such as death. 

I could be both. 

I could do both. 

I am both: runner and mother.

And... my father’s daughter.

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, triathlete, cross country and backcountry skier...


Marci McGuinness Running to heal.:)

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