Constance Roberts
Constance Roberts Credit: COURTESY CONROY ZIEN

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I’m less than a week away from stepping across the start line of my first marathon: the 43rd Marine Corps Marathon. There are many reasons to love running. It provides stress relief, self-discipline, and health benefits. But marathoners are often motivated by something bigger than the simple joys. For me, the marathon represents conquering the impossible.

Life, in many ways, gave me running.

As a child I was far from athletic. I was chubby and wore glasses and braces. I liked to draw and read, but most of all, I liked to eat. While I obsessed over my next snack, my father went for frequent jogs. One day, I decided I wanted to go with him. We warmed up on the sidewalk and he easily pulled ahead of me with his long strides on a humid Virginia summer day. Meanwhile, my chest hurt and my legs itched from the exercise.

I was enrolled in all sorts of activities and sports, from basketball and soccer to Irish dancing. I excelled at none of them. The physical education fitness test was the one time of year I couldn’t get away from the activity I dreaded mostrunning. The one-mile run (four loops around the track) was the worst day of the semester for me.

I remember walking down from the gym to the outdoor track with my classmates. We kept the conversations light. My friends promised they’d stick with me and claimed that they were slow, too. I told myself I was going to walk the corners and run the straightaways.

During the race, I quickly ended up in the back of pack, and eventually, I was the last runner on the track. When I finished my final lap, I heard the whispers and snickering from the bleachers. I could tell people were making fun of me. It was palpable.

Over time, my hatred of running became part of my identity. But soon, I began to face more serious challenges.

My parents divorced and shortly after, my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer found in bone marrow. After she passed away the week of Thanksgiving, I fell into depression as I entered high school. My weight skyrocketed as I found numbness in binge eating. Eventually, I was 22 years old, 320 pounds, and an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital ward.

It took years of healing from mental illness before I could face my physical health. I found walking workouts on YouTube and walked in place at home in front of my computer screen. Without realizing it, I had built a cardio base over a course of months. One day, I faced my nemesis: a treadmill. I got on it and pressed the buttons until I reached a brisk walk. I remember wondering, “Can I run?”

I increased the settings and eased into a light jog. That moment changed me. Something I thought was out of my realm of capability suddenly became doable. I hopped off the treadmill and ran paces in my room, back and forth. Running had re-entered my life and I loved it.

I hadn’t even covered a mile.

Constance Roberts, left, with her coach, Glenda Garcia Credit: COURTESY CONROY ZIEN

Half a mile became a huge achievement, then a mile, then a mile and a half. With every minute I ran longer and every step I ran further, I believed in myself a little more. I ignored all doubts and found myself signing up for my first 5K, a small community race. The race I chose had huge rolling hills, but I refused to walk. I chugged along at the most sustainable pace I could. Spectators cheered my number and gave me high-fives. I had never felt such positivity associated with physical activity.

Crossing the finish of this first race inspired me to run a marathon.

I imagined the thousands of spectators, the long and difficult miles, the race swag and medal. Most of all, I imagined the pride and sense of accomplishment I would feel. I became fixated on the distance and my two-year project to the marathon began. I knew I needed to have realistic goals, so I focused on building up to each common race distance. I kept training and ran my first 10K, then a 10-miler.

Soon, I registered for a half marathon. Things were getting serious. I signed up to train with the Montgomery County Road Runners Club, which offers training programs for a variety of distances. I had never run with anybody by my side, and I wasn’t sure how I would fit in.

Joining a running club changed my journey.

I became even more motivated to show up to my Sunday morning long runs knowing that others runners in my pace group would be there with me. I felt more confident that if I followed the training plans, I would reach my goals. Most of all, I realized that there was a place for me in the running community. The diversity of body sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities in the running club inspired me. Anyone can be a runner, regardless of how you look. 

My eyes welled up with tears at the finish line of my first half marathon. I had conquered a 5K, a 10K, a 10-miler, and now 13.1 miles. Pursuing the marathon would be more than just twice as difficult. It would consume my life. 

I signed up for the MCRRC First Time Marathoners program. I’d heard rumors about the program, as if participating were more of a badge of honor than just a training cycle. For the past six months, I’ve run dozens of miles a week and woken up before sunrise to join my training group for long runs up to 20 miles. My pace group has become my family. Running has become my lifestyle.

Today, at 27 years old, I can envision myself running 26.2 miles through the streets of D.C. and Virginia. I am 140 pounds lighter and running has given me a new lease on life, physically and mentally. I’ve learned that there are many roads to healing. Running was my pathway. 

It’s strange and ironic how I fell in love with the very thing that I once hated so much. I’ve learned that maybe you’re not always who you’re taught to think you are. And that can be a wonderful and amazing thing. You can’t wake up and immediately change who you are, but you can wake up and change what you do.

There’s potential within all of us that’s simply untouched. Soon, I’ll be a marathon runner.

Constance Roberts is an academic writing tutor and UMBC student majoring in social work at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville. Outside of running, she is passionate about a variety of social issues and likes to experiment with vegan recipes.