I Ran Every Street in Santa Barbara

My Feet Have Carried Me Through Addiction Recovery and the Death of My Son

Emily was joined by friends for the last leg of her journey. | Credit: Courtesy

On May 16, 2020, I was out on my usual run through San Marcos Foothill Preserve. I was running west on Foothill Road when, rather than head home, I took a left turn down La Cumbre. Thus began my journey to run every single street in Santa Barbara. Now, more than a year and 498.74 miles later, I am finally finished.

My last run was on September 5, which also happens to be my 42nd birthday. It was a typical foggy Santa Barbara morning. Me and a few of my friends, who have been following my journey on Instagram, set out along Cabrillo Boulevard and ended at the Bird Refuge. I’d spent the last 16 months running almost exclusively alone, and as I drifted between my runner friends, chatting about life and school starting, it felt correct to be ending this project with community. What began as a way to steal some time for myself during lockdown became a source of healing and connection to my city that I never would have experienced had I not seen every bit of it. 

I began this series by saying running is like sweaty meditation. I lace up my shoes and listen to my feet pound the road, and by the time I get home, I have some clarity on whatever problem I was facing. When in doubt, I always follow my feet. 

Over the last 16 months, Emily Henderson ran all 498.74 miles of Santa Barbara’s streets. | Credit: Courtesy

Two years ago, our 17-month-old son, Aiden, was diagnosed with brain cancer, and four months later, he died from complications during surgery. For us, the pandemic was the most normal part of the last two years. 

My COVID project to run every street was as much about filling time during lockdown as it was about processing my grief. This isn’t the first time I’ve used running to get me through a difficult time.

In 2008, I woke up hungover for the last time. A few days later, shaking and filled with anxiety, I signed up to run a marathon. I trained for four months. I went to meetings and tried not to drink. The week before the race, I had swelling and pain in the top of my left foot. I figured it was broken, but I also knew I wouldn’t drop out of the race, so I didn’t tell anybody.

At mile seven of the 26.2-mile race, I felt the small bones in the top of my foot clicking. I kept running anyway. Marathons are supposed to hurt. What’s one more thing? When you’re running down a closed freeway in the middle of San Diego, the fastest way home is through the finish line. 

Once, I told this story in a recovery meeting, and the room roared with laughter. I was confused. I thought I was telling a compelling story of perseverance and showing off what a badass I am. After the meeting, people told me to “keep coming back.”

My marathon stunt put me in a walking boot for nine weeks. At the time, I was working as a server in two restaurants. The extra tips I got out of sympathy did not outweigh the annoyance of being stuck in that boot. Limping around, I came to understand that I ran that race on a broken foot not because I’m a badass, but because I’m an alcoholic. Humility is something that cannot be sought or chased or acquired; it is delivered. Whether you want it or not.

It seems like forever and yesterday since my son died. That day was the worst day of my life, but it was still better than my best day drinking. That might be impossible to believe unless you are an alcoholic in recovery. It boils down to the profound gratitude for the ability to feel anything, whether it is the joy of the day my son was born or the incomprehensible pain on the day he died. You can’t feel one without the other.

The pain is the privilege I hold for having known my son, for sheltering my older children through their grief, for holding my husband’s hand through ours.

I do my best to listen to my feet. I’ve learned that my heart is too big and my head is too scared to be reliable, but my feet always know what to do. My feet have run me up mountains; they’ve walked me into recovery meetings; they carried me out of the hospital when it was time to say goodbye to Aiden. And now, they have run me through every single street in Santa Barbara.

Honestly, I’m a bit shocked I finished this project. I can’t think of a time when I set my sights on a long-term goal and actually completed it. It has me wondering what else I can do. Maybe write a book or run another marathon. I’ll have to wait to hear what my feet have to say.

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