It’s amazing what 18 years can do to clarify things in your mind.
My husband maintains that cross-country isn’t really a sport. He, and other people I’ve heard, refers to cross-country as the refuge of the nerds that wanted to feel like athletes but couldn’t do anything athletic, so they ran. I maintain that many of the people that run cross-country are true athletes. I, on the other hand, was not. The summer before we entered high school a friend and I were trying to figure out what we were going to do to fit in for the next 4 years. Neither of us had been successful in sports to that point and when we heard there was a cross-country meeting at the high school in a few days we thought we’d go find out more. I had always wished I was better at team sports. I played softball in the rec league but then I never made the junior high school team. It couldn’t have happened as many times in my life as it has in my mind but my softball memories are always of me coming up to bat in the last inning with tying runs on the bases and me striking out, ending the game in defeat. I was always the catcher. At the most junior leagues when you have a player that’s not really good at throwing or catching and can’t really move fast- you make that person the catcher. I spent most of my time walking to the back stop to pick up the balls that the pitcher pitched that I couldn’t catch. I don’t have many memories of enjoying it, just hoping that I wouldn’t make any really big mistakes to call attention to myself. Running by myself sounded like something I might like. One thing I didn’t really take into account, however, is that I was always one of the kids that would nearly die doing the one mile run for the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge. In retrospect I’m glad I never put enough thought into it because I would have talked myself out of joining that team.
I remember my mom driving me and Missy down to the high school for the meeting that started at 5pm. Good thing we lived only 5 minutes from the school because by the time she got home I was already calling and asking her to bring me some shorts and shoes because this wasn’t just a meeting, it was a practice. We were going to run THREE miles! I had never run more than the mile for the fitness challenge and that generally took me 15 minutes or so followed by a long recovery period. I went to a small high school and there were about 10 people there for practice, the boys and girls teams practiced together. Off we went along route 1, I didn’t really have a concept of just how far 3 miles was but Missy and I were just hanging out together, pretty far behind the other runners. We turned and went through the neighborhood and we could just see the runners ahead of us as they turned the corner to the beach. We were about half way at this point and physically we were both done. We made a half hearted attempt to run on the beach but ended up walking most of it and then a good portion of the route back to the school. As we reached the parking lot the coach was just driving out to come and find us. Apparently he didn’t quite grasp that we were serious when we had said we had never run before. Never. The other members of the team had gone home, I think some of them might have had their dinner already because that “run” took us at least 45 minutes. We were hot and we were tired. But, holy cow we had just run THREE miles. We were awesome. We decided to join the team.
My first race was a pretty big invitational and out of the 278 runners that finished I was #278. I was a little disappointed when I heard that, but I got used to it. A few weeks later we had one of our only home meets and I came in last again. I had spent a good amount of time over the beginning of the season realizing I just wasn’t meant to be a runner as I watched the pack pull away at the start of every race and practice and I was getting discouraged. After that race I was asked whether I was going to quit because I really wasn’t very good. I’m not sure why I didn’t just take the suggestion but instead I decided to stay on the team. For the next 4 years I was the last runner for our team in every race, except if another girl was injured or unconscious or something. I was often the last runner to finish the race. I never got faster than a 10:00 mile and I was never really given any instruction on how to get better. There were times when I got frustrated and my mind would give in to my body, a little overweight and out of shape, screaming at how stupid I was to think I’d ever be any good at running. That’s when I would get hurt. They were legitimate injuries, I’d twist and ankle or pull something, but I think they were just my way of my mind giving my body an out for why I wasn’t better. I often thought it wasn’t fair that the other girls on the team didn’t have to work as hard as I did and they got better while I didn’t. On long run days they sometimes got picked up by boyfriends after they were out of sight of the school and then they’d get dropped off at the same spot and run back as if they’d run the whole route. But I was out there. It just didn’t seem fair.
I’ve realized that back then I was looking for something external with running, to beat a time or to beat another person and when it didn’t happen I would beat myself up. This time around, it’s just me. I still have days when I give in and don’t work as hard as I should, maybe training for more events will kick that weakness out of me. I’ve just got to maintain focus. I’m doing this for me. No one else would care if I walk up that hill, if I cut the run short or if I go for the lazy swim. But finally it’s not about them. I’ll never be the fastest, I’ll never be competing to win the race but as long as I keep competing with myself, I’ll win. All I’ve got is time.