Diana Strauss’ story is her own, of course, but it will be familiar to many others who recognize their own metamorphoses through running in it. Strauss ran her first mile ever in 2018, at the age of 52. Just over a year later, she has completed 18 New York Road Runners races, constantly challenging her fitness and her sense of self. Now she is facing a pay cut and a possible layoff from her job as a graphic artist in Manhattan as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but she has vowed to keep running as long as it's safe for her to do so.
In a recent Facebook post, Strauss wrote, "I will not run from the discomfort, but use my strength to embrace it, face the uncertainty, and carry on. Because I’m tough and resilient and gritty. Together, we can see THIS race (the COVID-19 pandemic) - whether it be a short 5k or an ultra-marathon— through to the finish."
She has stuck to her schedule of running four days a week, usually early in the morning, which is both her preference and a time when fewer people are on the streets, making social distancing easier. "I need the structure of a training plan," she said, "especially in these unstructured days at home." She has reduced her overall weekly mileage and is running more by feel than by time, she said, in an effort to focus on wellness.
All of this talk of training plans and weekly mileage was as foreign to Strauss a year ago as the word "coronavirus."
“I was never an outdoor girl,” Strauss said. “I didn’t like to sweat.” She grew up in Manhattan, across the street from Central Park, where she played as a child.
Strauss struggled with eating disorders in her late teens and early 20s, she said, and was hospitalized for treatment at one point. She said she admires the young female runners now coming forward with their stories of complicated relationships with food, diet and their bodies.
“I do not run so I can eat more,” she said. “I will not run for calories.”
After moving around the country for several years, Strauss moved back to New York after a divorce. She had gained weight and found the city unfriendly. “People are fit and trim and zipping around,” she said. “I felt ashamed.” She compared herself from a plant deprived of sunlight. “You aren’t going to thrive,” she said. “You’re isolated from the energy of the city.”
She lost weight, using Weight Watchers and a wellness coach, and began taking dance/yoga fusion classes. Then one night, she said, she had a dream. “I was running, and in the dream it said you will like running, you will feel like you are flying.” She had never run of her own accord before, but soon after that dream, she went to the gym, got on a treadmill and ran nonstop for 10 minutes. She promised herself she would run a mile, and then once she achieved that goal, decided to tackle a 5K.
Despite the childhood spent playing in Central Park, she had never explored the park on foot as an adult. She said she was intimidated by the idea of running outdoors, and of running with and around others.
Signing up for an NYRR race was her way of facing that fear head-on. And once she signed up, she said, she decided to take her first run in Central Park. “When I took the run outside, the first moment felt like I was flying and I knew this was like nothing else,” she said. “I loved the connection with the sky and the earth and feeling grounded.”
Her first race ever was the Japan Run 4M last May. She ran 17 other NYRR races last year, including her first half-marathon, the NYRR Staten Island Half, in October. She volunteered at the TCS New York City Marathon to get a feel for that race, which she hopes to run herself this fall—one that, despite a childhood and young adulthood spent in the city, she had never attended as a spectator. She moved up two corrals at the NYRR starting lines.
Her son, 20, began running as well, inspired by watching his mother.
Strauss occasionally runs past sites from her past, and uses her run to reflect on the changes she has made in her life. She ran the NYRR New York Mini 10K last June, the course of which passes through the area on the Upper West Side where she grew up. “It felt like [the road] was closed just for me,” she said.
When she ran the Washington Heights Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K this month, she passed Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where she was hospitalized in her early 20s for eating-disorder treatment. “I was this woman who hated her body,” she said, “and here I am 30 years later without that obsession of the body.” She found it freeing, she said.
She said that running has done more for her mental health than anything else she has tried. “I truly feel liberated as a woman taking care of my health,” she said. “I run with joy.” Even in this stressful period, she said, joy remains at the forefront. And even though she must run alone these days, she draws on the connections she has made with other runners in the last year to remind her that we are all in this together.
"In the last 12 months, I have created more friendships and more of a family of friends than I did in my entire life," Strauss said. "And so even though I am alone in my tiny apartment, I do not feel isolated."