I joined the triathlon team shortly after arriving at Virginia Tech and figured it would provide a means of making new friends if nothing else. I can't say I was running a lot during this time frame, nor that I particularly liked it, but running, biking and swimming served as a temporary escape from the messy reality that was my life at the moment. They kept me moving forward, eased my anxiety and gave me a general hope that things might get better.
In my second semester of freshman year I pretty much hit rock bottom in that I barely attended classes and had to request medical withdrawal from about half my courses that semester. That following summer was spent in and out of doctors offices and being flown across the country to an inpatient eating disorder center for about a month, all which provided some much needed support and momentum for recovery. Triathlon-wise I wasn't "training" towards anything and I had little desire to race. My investment in the sport was about maintaining a support system, getting back to a place of mental and physical health and hopefully getting back to being ME.
By the spring of 2007, things were changing for the better. With the help of medications and therapy, my depression and eating disorder weren't completely out of the picture, but their impact on my life were significantly reduced. It wasn't an easy road getting there, but with the help of family friends and in giving my life over to Christ, a renewed sense of hope, faith and life began to return. That spring, I was baptized by my church, NLCF, I was elected president of the triathlon team and I somehow found myself dating this cute, fun loving crazy-about-all-things-running Asian kid on the team (Jordan), all which have significantly impacted my relationship with the sport since then.
I don't remember why I decided to run a marathon, it was probably because of peer pressure (ahem, Jordan), but I signed up for the Shamrock Marathon in the spring of 2008 and convinced dad to run with me. I also don't recall the training, probably because I didn't really train for it. On race day, I essentially walked the entire 2nd half, but dad never left my side and we finished in 4:46:45. Afterward I swore I'd never run another marathon again.
Running that first marathon reinforced my desire to focus on triathlons and up until graduation, I focused my time and energy on training with the team, earning my degree from Virginia Tech and my church. During that time, I fell in love with cycling, grew to somewhat like swimming and me and running were getting "better."
I can't say when my enjoyment of running truly began to "click" again, but I know that making a point to share in the training with others and having it be a friend and family affair versus performance-focused definitely helped. Running and triathlon had become a means for me to manage my depression and stress and in turn develop a healthier relationship with food. In the fall of 2008 I signed up for my first ultra-marathon and naturally, convinced dad to run it with me :)
Later in 2009, with the help of my wonderful friends as training partners, I completed my first century road ride (Mountains of Misery) in May 2009 and my first 70.3 distance triathlon at the Patriot's Half in Williamsburg in September 2009. My goal for the half ironman was <6 hrs and I finished in 5:54:55. I don't remember much of anything about this race other than it hurt A LOT, but I do remember that I LOVED training towards it. I also learned later that the hubby took advantage of my time out on the course to corner my dad and ask permission to marry me :D
In May 2010, just prior to graduating from college and my 23rd birthday, I completed my 2nd half-iron distance triathlon at the Kinetic Half at Lake Anna State Park. I recently found my race report for this event which I reported post race: "When I sat down I felt as if I was going to either throw up or fall face first into my plate. But I didn’t....This race was tough both mentally and physically. I honestly couldn’t imagine ever doubling this distance for the ironman, but we will see."
After graduating with my master's degree in December 2010, I moved home to live with my family for about 6 months and felt it was an ideal opportunity to give the marathon another shot. Partially because I wanted to take advantage of the time home to run with dad, and partially because I knew I'd soon be marrying a crazy ultra-endurance runner and decided it might be smart to "embrace" the whole long-distance thing again. I had always wanted to visit Nashville, so dad and I settled on running the Rock n' Roll Country Music Marathon.
My post-race reflections for the race went something like this: "My favorite parts of the marathon: the first awesome 20 miles and the finish where I walked around as a delusional cripple. We'll pretend those last 6 miles were awesome too ;) And all I know is the next marathon better watch out because I seek revenge and I like happy endings-- I expect another 40 minute PR! (And to that I say I think I've been hanging around Jordan Chang too long haha)"
After that marathon, life started getting a bit crazy: I got married that summer, moved and started my dietetic internship. With all the change, transitions and moving, I decided to set triathlon aside for a while and invest in running for simplicity sake.
Getting married was certainly a turning point in regards to my running as Jordan's enthusiasm for the sport and dedication to training quickly rubbed off on me. My confidence as a runner was improving and I fell in love with the idea of the marathon. I decided I wanted to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon with dad, something I had always dreamed of doing. For the first time since high school, my competitive spirit re-emerged and I felt ready to 100% invest myself into training towards a concrete goal.
Since I qualified for Boston in 2012 but wouldn't be able to run it until April 2014, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and sign up for the 2013 Lynchburg Ultra Series. I also decided it was time to invest in some quality coaching to help me gain the appropriate fitness while staying sane and healthy (best decision ever). Many months later, thanks to the guidance of coach Jim and the amazing support from my dad and Jordan, I completed the series by finishing the Mountain Masochist Trail Run (50 miles!) in just under 10 hours.
While training for Mountain Masochist, I found out that I missed out on entry into the 2014 Boston Marathon. If at first you don't succeed, try try again... I signed up for the Shamrock Marathon the following spring to re-qualify. Afterward, I REALLY stepped outside my comfort zone by re-entering the triathlon scene and signing up for my first ironman, Beach 2 Battleship. Because, well... why not?
Over the years, running has taught me many invaluable life lessons, the greatest of which has been the importance of patience, perseverance, and getting outside my comfort zone. It has given me the strength to navigate the tough terrain and highs and lows that life often presents. Everyone runs for their own reasons. Some days I run to "train" and improve my fitness, some days I run for the pure joy of it, and some days I run to manage life's emotions and the depression and anxiety that still occasionally plague me. Running has given me the means of uniquely experiencing the world around me and it has given me back my life. The moments of intense joy, the moments of intense struggle, pushing my body to the max... those are the moments that I feel most alive.
In the words of my very wise coach, "Challenges are there to build character and provide experiences that make you the person you become." Although the road to where I am today has been full of challenges unexpected twists, turns, speed bumps and potholes, I couldn't imagine trading in those experiences for something different. Those challenges have given me the strength, wisdom and experience to grow into the person I am today. And while I can't predict the challenges in store for the roads I've yet to travel, I do know that to be able to run is a beautiful gift that I hope to cherish for MANY more years to come!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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