Birth of a Runner
She was little, very little, frail, no muscles. She labored to breath in the mid-morning summer heat. Sweat drenched, muscles screaming. Only one thought crossed her mind: ‘keep going.’
‘Once, just this once, I want to jog the whole way. I want to make it without walking at all. I want to prove that I can do this.’ She had solidified her intentions on the school bus ride to the park, but the true challenge was now. Now. With every step, every labored breath, bead of sweat. ‘Don’t stop running. Do not walk. Keep going.’
In just over 30 minutes she finished the course, all 3.1 miles of it. Her only rewards were Gatorade, complete and utter exhaustion, and intense pride. In her 13 years of life, this felt like her greatest achievement. With her steps across the finish line she has surpassed her own limits. She had become something new. A runner.
It started as simply as that, with her goal to jog the 3.1 mile cross-country course without stopping to walk. The nation’s best high school athletes had tread upon this same course for many years before her and would for many years after. This same course would host many races, school records, and qualifying events for the national championships. But, she was oblivious to this fact. She did not aspire to newspaper write-ups, winning races, or Division I college running, all of which would come later. On this summer day, she had never dreamt of anything beyond finishing the 3.1 mile course based on stubbornness and sheer willpower. Mind over matter.
Later that day she was approached by the cross-country coach who relentlessly pursued her about joining the team. ‘But I’m slow’, she said.
‘You’ll get faster in no time’, he said. ‘And, we really need runners.’
She was always eager to please and needing that attention and approval. So, she said ‘yes. I’ll join the team.’
Of course, she doubted herself, and started to reconsider. She became nervous just thinking of racing and worried about getting dead last in a race. She remembered well her first junior high track meet. Her event was the 400 meter dash – one whole lap around the track. The field took off in front of her, and she barely jogged to the finish line, long after others had finished. She finished that race to the tune of sympathy clapping from those in the stands. She thought of how painfully long the sympathy clapping could go on if she finished last in a 3.1 mile race.
And yet, some part of her said, ‘I want to be a runner.’
She began drilling her older brother Matt about how fast the girls ran, seeking some assurance that she would not be the very slowest on the team, or worse, in the entire race. Matt was someone she always looked up to. She was said to ‘follow in his footsteps.’ Matt was 1 grade ahead of her and had run cross-country as a freshman. He had done well, as the number 3 runner on the boy’s team. ‘But, that doesn’ t mean I’ll be any good’ said her voice of doubt.
As the summer progressed, she realized she had limited time to back down from her agreement to join the team. As she ran every day, she solidified her commitment to run cross-country. Despite her fears, logic prevailed, and this was the logic. ‘ If I try hard every day, and I keep running, I have to get faster.’ And she held on tightly to this belief.
Finally, that first meet came. The Eyeopener meet in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She would feel herself start to sweat in the days before the race when the coach would mention logistics. She barely slept at all the day prior to the race. Before she knew it, she was climbing into the van to ride to the race. She felt nauseous with fear and progressively sicker during the drive to the race.
What if I don’t finish? What if I finish dead last? What if I get lost on the course?
The race started, and with the sound of the gun some butterflies flew out of her. She had been told to ‘never look back’, so she tried not to. Still, she had to look back periodically to make sure there were people behind her. And others were behind her. She was not last. In fact, she was even passing people.
She was truly running as hard as she could. Her legs and lungs were screaming at her, but her ego and her determination were yelling equally loudly for her to go faster.
Finally, she finished and went to find all of her teammates.
It took her a little while to comprehend that only 2 of them had finished; the rest were still running. This meant she was #3 on her team. This meant she was actually good at running.
She was quietly in awe of herself on the bus ride home. When she got to her house, her mom opened the door, and she said, ‘mom. I ran a 23:35! Mom, I finished 3rd on the team! I can’t believe it.'
Years later those who knew her would reflect on ‘the memory of that tiny little girl who was so happy to finally find something she loved and was good at.’ The girl was shy, unattractive, socially awkward, but none of this mattered on the cross-country course. Finally, she had found a place that was hers, a place where she ‘fit.’