This Valentine's day, I have one and only one plan to celebrate romance: hit the gym. I've had marathon dreams for the past decade, but I've steadily come up with excuses to avoid attempting a marathon. Marathons are for super humans who live on kale and work out six days a week, I reasoned. They are not for people like me who sleep in, subsist on pie, and self-identify with turtles and sloths.
Then, last May, my boyfriend of six years broke up with me unexpectedly. After my boxes had been packed up and then unpacked, I looked around my new apartment and had no idea what to do next. I had quit my job and moved coasts for this relationship. I had never imagined it could fail. I had no idea what to do with the huge, gaping hole in my life. After all, crying can only fill so many hours.
That's when a friend showed up at my doorstep. "We're going to run a marathon," she said. "It'll be good for you."
"How about a half?" I asked.
"Marathon," she insisted.
At the time, my longest runs were three miles. I figured running 26 miles was just as impossible as running 13 miles.
"Sure," I said, figuring running was cheaper than therapy.
Then there was nothing left to do except run. Distance running, which had seemed too difficult and too time-consuming, became a lifeline. I could no longer picture my future, but I could plan my runs: short runs during the weekday mornings, long runs on the empty weekends.
On weekday mornings, I shot out the door. Running gave my mornings purpose. At first, I raged as I ran. I thought unsayable thoughts about people who instigate breakups with no warning, and I imagined that with each step, I was kicking my ex in the face.
Later, as my new reality began to sink in, I cried as I ran. I figured anyone who saw me would chalk it up to stoic athletic tears instead of heartbreak. I wondered what my life was going to look like and how I'd ever find the guts to date again.
I ran until the pain in my legs was worse than my heartbreak, and then kept running through tunnels of trees, patches of shadows and pools of sunlight on the endless black road. By the time I was done, my head was quiet, and I was ready to carry on with the day.
On weekends, my friend ran with me. She listened to me rant as the hours passed -- our runs lasted for hours now. Each week, we passed milestones that had seemed impossible: 12 miles, then 14, then 16. I'd never believed I could run more than five miles, now I was doing double or triple that. If I could do this, I thought, perhaps I could do anything.
As the days and weeks melted by, the grief turned into a slow gratitude. As I ran, I began to say thank you with each step: thank you to my friends and family for showing up when I needed them; thank you to the world for giving me the good health to run and the resources to do so; thank you to my ex-boyfriend for sharing the past six years with me even if we'd failed to make it work long-term.
"You should start a dating profile," my friend said during one run. "Just see who is out there."
"Absolutely not; too soon," I said and then went home and wrote up a grouchy profile where I listed off workaholic tendencies, a devotion to cake, and zero tolerance for being jerked around.
In August, someone messaged me. He was on a business trip to India and squeezing in training for an October marathon.
Now, on runs, I composed emails to him. I wrote about watching the slow change of seasons, the confidence that comes with each new personal record, and the quiet space that fills your head when you run. I wrote about trying and failing and not wanting to try again. I didn't add my fears: that I wouldn't finish my marathon in Philly; that if I didn't finish it, I would never have the same drive to run again; that all of this extended to relationships.
He wrote back about squeezing in long runs between meetings and the importance of self-compassion. In September, my friend said she might have to pull out of the marathon. She had a knee injury.
"I don't know how I'm going to keep training," I wrote to my new pen pal. "True story: I'm a sloth-turtle."
"When I get back home, I'd be happy to train with you and run Philly together," he wrote back.
"You're insane, no one does two marathons in two months," I told him. It was also code for: I'm in a post-relationship pain cave, stay away from me.
Somehow, we ended up getting dinner when he came back. Dinner turned into plans for weekend long runs. As we ran, we talked about our values, past relationships and our fears. Sometimes we didn't talk and just watched the trees and sky go by.
And then it was marathon time.
The first 22 miles were fine. Fun, even. A man in the crowd yelled at me to stop looking so happy and channel that energy into running. I should have listened.
At mile 22, I hit the dreaded runner's wall. With each step, I felt like the screws and bolts holding my body together were falling apart. I slowed to a shuffle. Then a walk. If there was a way to quit, I would have. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to quit. I considered lying down on the road, but even then, I'd eventually have to get up and figure out how to walk to a taxi. I kept moving.
On mile 24, I stumbled and nearly fell over. I couldn't decide if breakup pain or runner's wall was worse.
"Keep going," the crowd roared. A woman waved a sign that read: "Trust your training."
"You're amazing," my pen pal cried, and I wanted to deck him but didn't have the energy. Easy for Mr. I ran-two-marathons-in-two-months to say.
It turns out marathon training is all about learning you can keep going no matter what happens. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other despite the pain that shot through my arches, plucked at my calves and thighs, and numbed my arms. If I had managed to survive six months of running through grief, I could survive the last two miles of a marathon. Or was it, if I could survive the last two miles of a marathon, I could survive anything -- anything at all?
My pen pal grabbed my hand as we crossed the finish line.
"I'm doing this again," I announced as we celebrated over dinner. "I'm trying again next year and I'm going to be better and faster."
"Can I come?" my pen pal asked.
I looked at him and decided to trust that he'd still be there in a year, and that even if he wasn't, I'd be just fine anyway.
"Sure," I said, and reached for his hand.
It's Valentine's day: a full seven months after my breakup and my new boyfriend and I have plans. We're both traveling so we can't be together but we know what we're going to do: run and then a phone call. After all, we have to get in shape for our next marathon and nothing says romance like sweat, discipline and joy.
Shalene Gupta is currently working on a novel about growing up Chinese-Indian in Minnesota. A former Fortune reporter, with an M.S. from Columbia Journalism School, she is currently a freelance writer living in Boston. Follow her @ShaleneGupta.