Without This Woman, I Wouldn’t Know My Own Strength

Courtesy of Samantha Lefave

The power that comes from women helping other women is so often the driving force that gives us the strength to go further. In this series of essays, Bustle has teamed up with Tri State Ford to celebrate the women in our lives who exemplify strength, grit, fearlessness, and inspiration — and who ultimately help shape us into the strongest versions of ourselves.

“So, I’m doing a Ragnar Relay in Tennessee in a couple weeks and they need another runner. Want to come?”

My friend Ashley casually dropped this nugget of information while we were out logging miles in Central Park, taking advantage of a gloriously sunny February day in the middle of a cold New York City winter. As soon as she said it, my heart started beating harder. But it wasn’t because I was trying to push myself over the park’s infamously steep Harlem Hill. Though I also couldn’t tell if it was excitement I was feeling — or straight-up fear.

Normally, I’d say excitement, hands down. I love running. I have family in Tennessee. And I had always wanted to participate in a Ragnar event, an overnight relay that challenges you and 11 others to tag-team run about 200 miles over the span of a weekend. When you’re not the teammate running, you’re piled in a smelly van with sweaty clothes and sleep-deprived people, cowbell in hand to cheer your runner to the next exchange point. Some may think it's crazy, but to me it always sounded like a total blast.

But for the last year, I’d been battling injury after injury. First it was a sprained right knee, then a left shoulder strain, and of course there was a touch of tendonitis thrown in the mix. Each time I thought I was ready to take on more mileage, something new popped up, bringing with it a serious hit to my confidence. Sure, I had run 13 half-marathons and even a full marathon by that point. But I hadn’t run more than five miles in over a year, much less signed up for a race. Could I still call myself a runner?

Up until this point, I hadn’t really told Ashley about my deep-seated fears. We initially became friends after crossing paths in the magazine industry, exchanging pleasantries and seeing one another at work-related events. So she didn’t know about the little voice in my head that said I wasn’t good enough, strong enough, fast enough. She didn’t know that I didn’t always feel like I deserved to call myself an athlete, nor that I shied away from running with her because I thought she was the exact opposite of me — fast, strong, and fit AF. I had met (and run with) people I'd assumed were like her before: The ones that told you they were totally down to run with you and were happy to go your pace, only to passive aggressively shame your slower speeds, or worse, leave you in the dust without a second thought about how crappy that just might make you feel.

But as Ashley and I got to know each other, something compelled me to open up about my insecurities. And after being cooped up for a long winter, I finally agreed to that run with her. That’s when I confessed my self-confidence struggle, and even admitted the reasons for why I had refused to hit the pavement with her before. After all, I had been burned in the past.

I hadn’t run more than five miles in over a year, much less signed up for a race. Could I still call myself a runner?

While weaving around bikers, horse-drawn carriages, and ever-present tourists, Ashley didn’t say my reasons were unfounded or ridiculous — something that made me feel like she actually understood where I was coming from — but she did assure me that yes, I was runner. Otherwise, what would you call what were doing right at that exact moment? She reminded me that we, as fitness editors, write all the time about how it doesn’t matter how fast or how slow you go, and that I needed to remember the truth in those words. If you commit to running for long enough, everyone experiences their own highs and lows — and the last year just happened to be a low point for me. It happens.

As simple as it sounds, Ashley’s words were exactly what I needed to hear. Having that external voice — someone who unabashedly showed confidence in my abilities — was just what I needed to shut up my inner demons. So when she encouraged me again to join her on the Ragnar Relay team, I, in between short, quick breaths, said yes.

Fast-forward a few weeks later: We’re in the middle of our race, the sun has set, and I’m preparing to run my second batch of miles. I only had three and a half to get through this time (I had logged seven earlier that afternoon), but my run time was set for 1 a.m. through sleepy streets somewhere between Chattanooga and Nashville. I had never run at such an odd time, much less outside, in the dark, and on tired legs. It was then that the insecurities started to creep in again: Did my teammates think I was too slow? Did they wish I had stayed home so they could’ve brought on someone faster, stronger, better than me?

The negative thoughts swam through my head as I foam rolled to keep my legs loose. But then I wondered, "What can I do about this now?" I was here, it was almost my turn, and I had two options: do my best, or phone it in. And just as that realization popped into my mind, so did another of Ashley's encouraging reminders from that February run: Instead of letting my insecurities get the better of me, I could always use them as inspiration to work harder.

Determined to do exactly that, I set off through the night — with a headlamp and safety vest strapped on — and I repeated over and over that I could do this. When my legs got tired, I thought about my teammates waiting for me, and how I didn’t want to let them down. When that annoying inner voice tried to tell me I was too slow, I peeked at my watch to remind myself that I hadn’t actually dropped in pace. By the time I got back to the van, I saw that I had actually done the opposite, running my fastest mile pace in over a year. And Ashley, along with the rest of my teammates, had nothing but high fives, congratulations, and an ice cold water bottle waiting for me.

This post is sponsored by Tri State Ford.