An Ode to First Miles

I ran my first mile this morning. It was just as painful as you would expect. My back wouldn’t straighten up, my knees rattled, my feet felt heavy like cement shoes. The turnaround couldn’t come soon enough. My calves felt like they were going to pop every time my foot hit the ground. To say it sucked would be a glorious understatement.

“You expected this,” I said breathlessly to myself. “This is part of the process.” I forced my back upright and staggered onward.

In truth, this was more like mile number 790. But even experienced runners can have another first mile.

I haven’t trained in a long time. Depression sidelined me. Whether it’s the inability to leave bed some days or the painful leg cramps from the anti-depressants, completing a run is unlikely. My running coach and I stopped talking about training runs along time ago. Now I try to talk about anything but running.

Each week I read these encouraging stories about how “running saved my life.” I hear how people ran their way out of depression. For me, it’s the opposite. My current lack of running says more about my battle with mental illness than any distance I’ve run in the past.

The runs I miss are notches on a belt I’ve been forced to wear. Each race I don’t attend is another medal my depression can claim. I want to run well but, right now, I’ll settle for just having the desire to run. I simply don’t want to. I’m back to where I was years ago, before all this marathoning stuff. I’m back to being afraid of it. I’m scared of the discomfort, the distance, all of it. I haven’t been here in years.

But that is totally okay. It’s okay to accept where you’re at as long as you refuse to let that be your destination. I’m not going to be here forever, and here’s why:

We all have first miles

For some of us each Monday is a first mile. It’s that day we’re going to eat right and exercise. That day we’re finally going to do it right. We often screw it up and then the following Monday becomes another first mile for us. (Hint: If you screw up you don’t have to wait until next Monday. Tomorrow is another good day to start.)

No matter your epic goal in life, the first mile is always a painful, certainly dissatisfying, experience. First miles are just bad. The good news is because they are common, first miles are proven to be pretty survivable. So just strap in and get it over with.

First miles are required

You know what sucks the most about mile one? I can’t get to mile twenty-six without it. There’s no way around it. I’m a Lifehacker through and through, and I know how to hack my running if I want, but I can’t shortcut those early miles. Even if I shortcut the physical mileage, I still need it for mental strength.

So you just can’t avoid them. First miles are a pre-requisite for awesomeness.

First miles are worth celebrating

I laced up my shoes early this morning and ran a mile. Yes, it was just as painful as I was afraid it would be. But I’m a fighter, a survivor. I met my commitment to myself. I went to bed last night and said I would wake up and run a mile, and that’s exactly what I did this morning.

There was no race, no spectators, but I might as well have crossed a finish line and grabbed a medal. I should have chest bumped the gardener when I hit that mile mark.

The marathon of your life could be anything worth fighting for. It could be a career, some outlandish goal, anything. For many of us, surviving our severe depression is a marathon itself. Whatever it is, if you take a step, any step, in the right direction then celebrate it.

First Miles are short

I didn’t run five or ten or thirty miles this morning. I ran one. I’m so thankful it was only one. Just a few minutes of pain. Yes, I was scared of the run but I told myself it was only a mile, and so it couldn’t hurt for that long. (Note, this rationale only works when I’m training in short distances. I’ve never said, “It’s only eighteen miles.”)

First Miles add up

I heaved myself over the 0.80-mile mark, and I looked down at my GPS. I hoped it said 1.0 but sadly I still had more to run. “How am I ever going run a marathon?” This thought creeped into my head, and I swear the run became even more painful.

“Shut up,” I said aloud to myself. “You’ve been here before.”

I’ve always been a big thinker. Big pictures are the kinds I like to paint. But big pictures are often intimidating when you’re starting out. “How am I going to build a career when I can’t even get out the door?” “How am I going to live drug-free when my illness makes me take all these meds.”

Focusing on the big picture can be motivating but often it can be debilitating. If the mountain looks too big, you may not even try. I didn’t need to think about a marathon today. That first mile was scary enough.

Instead of always thinking about the big picture, start focusing on the little steps that, if done consistently, will bring that big picture into view. Let me explain.

If I run, consistently, over any long period, eventually I know I will run a marathon. I know that if I run today and run Wednesday and then Saturday and the next week and the next week my miles will gradually increase and eventually I will cross a finish line at 26.2 miles.

So why do I need to focus and stress over that distance? Instead why don’t I focus all my energy on making sure I get up and complete my next run?

Trust that the miles in your life add up to something great and then just go to work on your next mile. There is a life-changing book on this very phenomenon that I can’t recommend enough. It’s called The Compound Effect.

First Miles don’t hurt forever

I remember the first half-marathon I ran. I was in San Jose for the Rock n’ Roll series. As Kristen, my wife, and I turned a corner we entered downtown. We heard the crowd cheering, and my pace began to pick up. I looked down at my GPS and realized that we had already crossed 10k. I smiled even bigger at that moment. It wasn’t the crowd or the music. It was the fact that I remembered how hard it used to be for me to run a 10k. At this moment, as my pace picked up, I realized that I just finished warming up and the distance that I had such a hard time completing in the past was now just my warm up.

I know for a fact that mile 1 is way harder than mile 26.2. My mile today was awful. But if I keep doing what I do, one day, I won’t even fully wake up before my 6th or even 10th mile.

Time for your first mile

I don’t know what your marathon is. I don’t know if it’s finishing law school or finishing chemo. You may be like me, and your marathon is figuring out how to thrive despite your mental illness.

Whatever your marathon, today is an opportunity to go out for your first mile. It’ll probably suck. I doubt you’ll enjoy it. But you can do it. You can knock out that first mile and put it in the past.

Take it from a guy with as many miles as I do, my favorite mile is the one behind me. So go put your mile behind you. You may be scared today. That’s fine. I was too. But you can do it. You can finish that first mile.

Like this story? Read more from Adam by going to Each week Sad Runner publishes encouraging and motivating stories for friends and families dealing with depression and anxiety.