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The RAD Journals

Born To Run Free

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RADJournals John Wardlaw writes on how running and the running community has been with him through all his life moves and transitions

As I sit to translate thoughts into words on New Year’s Day, my mind focuses on the celebration of life that 2022 will be. Celebrating old people in new ways, celebrating the transition to a country that my career has afforded me, and celebrating the fifth anniversary of two of my most consequential personal life decisions.  

In 2017, I found myself in the aftermath of several years of traumatic decoupling from any sense of a normal life. After spiraling heavily from a period of physical and mental abuse, my two best friends went away to rehabilitation programs on the same day leaving me to find myself in the ashes. I found myself having to reconcile who I thought I was with the reality of who I actually had become. The results were messy to say the least. I’d spend much time over the coming months in conversation with trusted friends and mentors who had watched my friend group tear itself apart from the inside. A set of words recurrently appeared in these conversations when I desperately asked what I could do to change my life. 

“Diet and exercise”.  

Those words. I loathed those hearing those words. About as foreign to me as the country I found myself soon to be living in within the next eight weeks. Adamant in my refusal to participate in such heretical atrocities, I pushed back, incessantly trying to find another way to improve my state of being. As much as I wanted to dismiss these ideas, I recall the day I took those first steps into running in the right direction for the first time. In what was already a rarity, I suggested to one of my roommates that we go for a hike in Cameron Park in Waco, which is roundabout adjacent to Baylor University where we were students. Part way into the hike, I gazed on an intriguing section of trail and in some divination suggested that we attempt to run down into the light parting the trees. Something was different, all of these things were peculiar and out of character for me. After taking those first few steps in glorious transcendence, my life would be changed forever.  

Nine months and some change from that day I would run my first marathon at the Chevron Houston Marathon (and ditch eating meat for good)finishing in a very painful 4:13As anyone that has run a marathon can attest, my first thoughts upon finishing were “that was terrible – let’s do it again!” Eight months from then, I moved to Kansas City to begin work on a master’s degree and I would finally start to discover who I was as a person.  

My saxophone professor at UMKC, Zach Shemon, is a fantastic triathlete and award-winning musician and thus I asked if there were any groups in KC that I could get with upon moving there. Zach recommended to me this store called Run816. What a magical place and what special people I would meet there. My first run with them was a 16 mile run around town after not running much over the summer. It was quite painful but it was my first time actually running with people in any significant way and I was blown away by how much it amplified my experience with the sport. Over the course of the two years I spent in Kansas City, I would meet some of my best friends through Run816, the Wyco Wolfpack, and random runs along the Trolley Track Trail. Some of these people are in this group (my coach and RADrabbit Randy Taylor and rabbitELITEtrail runner Lindsey McDonald). I would also run the Kansas City Marathon twice, run my first ultramarathon, my first trail race, and qualify for Boston for the first time.  

As my time in Kansas City came to a close and I moved to Memphis, TN for a Doctor of Music degree, I was quite saddened. Moving in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was not the most opportune time but the opportunity presented itself and I ran with it. During my one year in Memphis, I grew a lot as a runner though maybe regressed socially. I won two races setting course-records and broke five minutes in the mile for the first time, goals I’d had for some time. Feeling burnout from school, I decided to pack it up at the end of the spring semester and head out to Breckenridge, Colorado where I had scored a sweet summer job with the town.  

During my time in Colorado, I saw real beauty in the world and capitalized on an opportunity to pursue my music career with the US Navy. Over the summer, I’d get a chance to explore the tops of the Rockies with old friends that had managed to find themselves living in Colorado and new ones I’d meet along the way. It was exhilarating and many times I can’t believe that period of my life was a reality. In the last week before leaving for Navy boot camp, I had the opportunity to pace my friend Matt Dietrich for his first 100-miler at the Leadville Trail 100 where he would get that coveted sub-25 hour finisher buckle. Running for someone else was something new to me and it has stuck with me the emotions coming through those last 38 miles and back into Leadville to help someone else achieve their goals.  

As I wrap this up, I have since finished Navy boot camp and in March will be moving to Yokosuka, Japan to begin this next stage of life with the 7th Fleet Band. In addition to that, I celebrate five years of running and five years of vegetarianism/veganism in my life. I feel that embracing these changes in my life has made me more connected to people and to the world in ways that I would not have thought to ask for. I couldn’t be more thankful for how running and the people that run with me have helped me discover a life worth living when for so long I wasted the time I was being given. 

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