Leading up to my wedding in the fall of 2013, during that time as a bride when you’re starting to get a little nit-picky about your appearance, I began to notice some discoloration on my face, mostly around my upper forehead and hairline. I pointed it out at my next dermatologist appointment and the response — “It’s definitely sunspots” — shocked me.
I was living a very indoors life at the time. I had a demanding desk job, I hadn’t been on vacation in a tragic amount of time, and I felt like the sun and I had become strangers. I racked my brain trying to figure out how I could possibly have developed sun-related hyperpigmentation.
And then I had one of those holy shit moments: “Oh, my God. I am outside nearly every morning running…with no sunscreen.”
I was a pretty active kid growing up. I played sports in high school (soccer, field hockey, and basketball were my jam), but when I went to college, I chose the University of Virginia where I was definitely not talented enough to make the teams. During those first couple years at school, I got into an exercise rut. Like most college kids, I was quickly caught up in the college life. I was taking a difficult course load and also had — ahem — social obligations to keep. I would try to go to the gym, but I just couldn’t get into the same groove on the elliptical that I used to have playing soccer.
Then, the summer after my third year, I lived with a close friend while interning in New York City. Alli (fun fact: I share a name with a weird number of my closest college friends) had just “retired” from the D1 field hockey team at U.Va. after breaking her jaw during practice, but she was trying to stay in shape by running. She invited me to join her one day, and we started running a two or three mile loop through the city a few times a week.
When the next school year started, Alli convinced me to sign up for a 10-mile race. By the time race day came around, I had fallen in love with the sport. There aren’t that many areas of your life where you can see your hard work pay off in such a linear fashion. With your job, you work hard and hope that you will see results eventually, but there are always zigs and zags along the way. In running, you set a seemingly impossible goal, work every day towards it, and then achieve it amid the excitement and adrenaline of race day. Needless to say, I was hooked.
My path to becoming a capital-R Runner was slow and steady. As I got more comfortable, I started signing up for races — 10K’s and half marathons — but it wasn’t until I stepped out of my Manhattan apartment one day and found myself in the middle of the New York City Marathon that I began to think about that elusive 26.2 miles. The crowd was like nothing I had ever seen. The atmosphere was contagious and I just thought it was the coolest thing.
Next thing I knew, I was training for and running multiple marathons a year. I loved the rush of endorphins and the supportive community of runners. But the one thing I wasn’t thinking about at the time was my skin.
I knew how important sunscreen was—at least in theory. At the time, I considered it a beach day accessory; if I was going to be outside for the whole day, I would put on sunscreen. Otherwise, I just didn’t think about it. Certainly not on my daily runs when I would be outside for only 30 minutes to an hour during the early mornings.
Then, my dermatologist dropped a truth bomb on me and I realized that, while I had been taking care of my physical and mental health, I had totally neglected my skin. I immediately began to lather up before I hit the streets every morning, and I saw a marked difference. My existing hyperpigmentation didn't go away, but I didn’t develop any additional damage.
I’m not perfect. There are still days when I head out and suddenly think, “Oh, crap, I forgot to put on sunscreen.” Do I turn around and run back in the house? No. It's not the one time you go out without protection that destroys your skin; it’s the cumulative exposure of 30 minutes every day when you’re running, commuting to work, or walking your dog that adds up.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self who was just starting to figure out routes and pacing and the best races that it was important to invest a very simple two extra minutes in my skin before heading out the door. It would have saved me — and my skin — so much grief.
I wouldn’t give up my journey as a runner for anything. It is now a big part of my identity, and I feel my healthiest when I am working up a sweat in the sun. Plus, there are so many known health benefits of getting outdoors and into the fresh air, and I firmly believe that you shouldn’t live your life afraid. But, at the same time, if you prioritize easy, necessary precautions like daily sunscreen, the benefits will pay off for decades.