I found running eight years ago. I felt drawn to the trails and lakes in Austin, Texas, where I live. I knew that being outside, feeling the sun on my face, and moving next to the water, would help clear my mind and hopefully help me recover from depression and an eating disorder.
I tried both therapy and medication at first, but I did not have positive experiences with therapy because I did not receive culturally relevant care. In both individual and group therapy settings, I was put in the position of having to explain race and racism to my counselors and to the other people in my group. This resulted in me not getting the care I needed, which ultimately drove me to seek outdoor spaces a lot more because I knew I felt calm and a sense of relief there.
At first, I walked. Eventually, after watching others, I started to imagine myself running next to Lady Bird Lake. I started moving faster and worked up to running one mile without stopping. That was a huge accomplishment.
Things grew from there. I joined my first running group in September 2016 with the intention of completing a half marathon, which I did in May 2017. My first half did not feel easy, by any means, but it increased my confidence in my ability to run longer distances.
Seeing the other people in my running group complete marathons also increased my sense of self-efficacy in being able to run a marathon too. I realized it wasn’t about being an elite or pro runner, but it had everything to do with proper training and support from others. I didn’t have to run a race at a specific pace to be considered a “real” runner. In 2018, I ran my first marathon and followed that with an ultramarathon at the end of 2019.
Running has helped me heal. I’ve been able to shift my negative internal dialogue to something more positive and encouraging. And once that shift started to happen I knew I needed to keep moving.
Connecting To the Land
My relationship with running started to focus on my mental health, but at the same time, I was having conversations with my family about our ancestors. We talked about how our family gave up their Indigenous cultures and identities in order to be able to survive and assimilate into what is now Mexico.
My ancestor’s knowledge of the land was not passed down, but I see elements of it when my mom talks to me about plant medicine and remedies that her mom used with her and her siblings. Knowledge like that is ancestral and traditional, and is rooted in a close relationship with the plants around you. Both of my parents grew up on ranches for part of their lives and knew all about the animals and plants and trees around them. My dad was a migrant farmworker for a number of years, so his relationship with the land and awareness of seasonal cycles and caring for the land and plants was also unique.
I now run with a sense of purpose and awareness that no matter where I am, so many people have walked and run those trails—people who helped steward the land and have now been erased from the conversation.
Running has strengthened my connection to the land I’m on, and it’s given me a stronger appreciation for nature. Even when I’m walking or running in my neighborhood with asphalt and concrete, there is still an element of nature. Being able to feel the sun, the wind, see the flowers and bees gives me the ability to appreciate nature around me. And I find comfort in those things.
With my love for nature and my heritage as an Indigenous person, comes a passion for the environment and sustainability. When I was growing up there was an oil tank farm about a mile from my house. As a result of community-organizing efforts, the tank farm was shut down, but over the years, I learned that it polluted the soil, air, and water around it. After getting involved with an environmental justice organization based in East Austin, I learned that BIPOC are disproportionately harmed by environmental injustices.
Protecting the environment is crucial for the well-being of all humanity, and it’s why I feel directly connected to the mission of Allbirds, which takes a sustainable approach to its products. Allbirds uses renewable materials (like the castor bean resin and eucalyptus tree knit material in the new Allbirds Tree Flyer) and cleaner energy sources to make their products. As consumers, we should be demanding that companies take this approach because climate change is here.
Celebrating My Indigenous Heritage
Two years ago, a friend and I co-founded the Native Roots ATX running crew to connect with other Native and Indigenous people—although the group is open to anyone who wants to run, move, and reflect with us. We have folks from a range of experiences and backgrounds, and we do a mix of walking, running, and run-walking. Ultimately the group is about connecting with nature and one another.
My dad passed earlier this year. Throughout my grieving process, I’ve heard more stories about my dad and my family’s history. It also reaffirmed the importance of connecting with my community, so I’m thankful for my fellow Native Roots ATX runners.
The group doesn’t feel like an elite running space, where you may have to run a certain pace or distance to fit in. We’re creating an opportunity to connect and learn about our Native roots, whatever that journey may look like. Overall, I want to focus on supporting BIPOC in the running space, and expand the notion of wellness and running as practices that can heal our community and bring people together.
Heather is the former food and nutrition editor for Runner’s World, the author of The Runner’s World Vegetarian Cookbook, and a seven-time marathoner with a best of 3:31—but she is most proud of her 19:44 5K and 5:33 mile. Her work has been published in Health.com, Bicycling, Cooking Light, Popular Mechanics, The Boston Globe, CNN, Glamour, and The Associated Press.