The First Five Miles

By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


When I was a summer associate at a big San Francisco law firm, one of the young lawyers they’d paired me up with said something to me, quite casually, about “the first five miles of a run.” I almost spat my coffee all over both of us with my combination snort and laugh. I ran a little bit. On a really ambitious day, I might have run three miles, but by the end I would feel like I couldn’t go another step. That phrase, I told him, was not in my vocabulary.

Less than a year later, I ran my first half-marathon. And now, despite my certainty that I never would, I understand something about the first five miles of a run.

A twinge that occurs in the first mile or so of a long run usually isn’t the worst pain of a run—that’s reserved for the second-to-last mile—but it can be the greatest test of mental strength, because it reminds me that running can hurt, that this is a long run that I’ve barely even started, that it’s almost certain to get worse before it gets better. If there is a moment where I’m going to think, this is too hard, a moment where I actually consider turning back, this is it, not because it hurts too much right now but because I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle what’s ahead.


Nothing terrible has happened. In fact, nothing has happened at all. We just took a closer look at some zoning regulations about the setbacks required on various sides of the property and compared it to the shape we’ve been looking at and concluded that it might not be as simple as we’d initially thought to build it that way. Not impossible; maybe not even a major challenge. Just not perfectly simple. It’s a tiny twinge, a reminder that there is going to be a series of obstacles to overcome. That’s what I signed up for. Building a house is a painful but rewarding process, I’ve been told by everyone I know who’s done it. Running long distances hurts, but the feeling of crossing that finish line and eating that celebratory sandwich and having that soak in the tub makes it all worthwhile.

That is what I have to remember when I’m still close to home, when I could, realistically, turn around and call the whole thing off: I would rather push through, persevere, and earn that prize at the end that wouldn’t be worth much if it hadn’t taken strength to get there.

For the house, turning back is no longer a realistic option: the sale closed on Friday. Now I own the lot. If I don’t build a house on it, it’s useless—and I know from the listing history that it probably wouldn’t be easy to turn around and sell. So I guess we’re doing this. Have courage, self! Problems get solved, one at a time. Joints ache. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes the sun beats down. Sometimes the laws say things we wish they didn’t, or an inspector gets a bug up his butt, or neighbors are unhappy, or materials are back-ordered. But where would I be if I took the path of least resistance? In this drafty rental with its ancient swamp cooler and leaky faucets.

I won’t go so far as to say “bring it on.” But I will keep running. There’s a finish line up there somewhere with Gatorade and bananas and cold beer and sometimes, a medal.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at or leave a comment here.
Bird Stories is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.