20210402-HUB-Anna Fay pic

Horsky Park is a natural area in the center of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

As the forested park’s central vein opens up in front of me, void of people yet full of life, I gleefully pull down my sweaty face mask. The air has the slightest bite in Bratislava’s Horský Park, but it feels so good to run freely, breathe deeply, and relish this rare break from masks and restrictions. In Slovakia, we can leave our homes only for essentials (grocery shopping, work, the doctor) but we’re also allowed to go into nature within our city district.

I feel like a kid at recess, set free from the classroom. I think I could run forever today.

I started running at the age of five in Singapore when my doctor, concerned about my lungs that had been weakened by a childhood lung infection, suggested running could do wonders for my health. My older brother was already enrolled in an after-school track and field program at the time, so my mom followed my doctor’s suggestion and signed me up, too.

I was slow when I started, and breathless most of the time, but I fell hard and fast for the sport. Under the guidance of Coach Jack, whose patience and impressive knowledge of physiology made a lasting impression, I slowly improved.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped having to use inhalers, and as my love grew for the sport, my confidence did, too. The freedom I felt running around and around the sun-baked track of Singapore carried over to my life in the U.S., and I continued to run cross-country and track competitively until 2016, when I graduated from Ithaca College.

It was a deep and fulfilling relationship I had formed with running, but after training all year long for years and years, I was exhausted. There were some days after that when my love for running inched toward hate. I still felt a duty to run most days, but the joy and the freedom of it was waning.

But 2020, a year dominated by restrictions, renewed my love for early morning runs alone in the woods. Some days, I wake up truly excited to run, to escape this restrictive environment most of us have lived under for a year. Those are the days that my childhood comes to life in technicolor; the bonds I have formed with my teammates and coaches and the many freedoms running has given me over the years bubble to the surface. Those days bring me equilibrium, pumping my veins full of a hopeful kind of adrenaline.

Even with a mask plastered to my face, running is that sacred childhood freedom that helps me cope with adult problems.

Anna Fay is a graduate of Keene High School and Ithaca College, where she studied creative writing. She has now returned to her childhood home of Bratislava, Slovakia, as a writer and editor for the Slovak Spectator.