This is a boring account of my life with running. I just felt inspired to write it after assistant coaching and coming back from a track meet, which made me nostalgic and reflective of my own running experience. If you don’t like self-indulgent crap, please read no further.
Never before I was in high school did I ever imagine I would be a runner. Runners were athletes. I was not an athlete. It pained me to have to run for the Presidential Fitness Awards. It pained me to run even half a mile, and I got cramps like nobody’s business.
Well, after sixth grade, I decided I was no good at soccer and that soccer was getting to be too big a time commitment (after all, middle schoolers have so many places to go!), so for seventh and eighth grade, I was sportless.
Once ninth grade rolled around, though, I thought I should probably do a sport, since it would look good for college admissions (I don’t know if it actually did), and knowing I had terrible hand-eye coordination, I opted for running. Cross-country seemed like suicide, so I waited for winter track (aka indoor track). It was only after I signed up for track that I realized that all the other freshmen who had done cross-country during fall were in much better shape than I was. I was definitely the slowest person on the track team. At first, the coaches stuck me with the girls, but I couldn’t keep up with them. It took me a while to run a mile without stopping, and I think the only reason I stuck it out was the encouragement and good modeling of my teammates.
No matter how good they were, no matter how much better runners they were than I was, everyone on the team (superstars to solid runners to slow runners who were still faster than I was) congratulated me on every small bit of progress I made and showed me through their actions how to be serious about training and competition while also having fun. The coaches knew my skill level and gave me appropriate challenges for my body’s condition (i.e., out of shape).
I did make progress, though. I set a goal for myself to run a sub-six-minute mile by the end of the year, and I did (just barely—I think my time was 5:58). I also made a commitment to try cross-country to be in better shape for winter and spring track of my next year. The payoff came in the middle of winter track my sophomore year. I was in the middle of what felt like an extremely long run (somewhere between four and five miles). Suddenly, in the middle of the run I just felt like Hey, I have energy. I think I can run a little faster. I think, actually, I could run a lot faster! And that’s what I did. I caught up to the faster runners on the team and run with them to the end of the run. It was a huge turning point. I finally felt as if I was making big improvements. Unfortunately, all of the improvement was in my body and not in my mind. Throughout high school, my coaches and teammates kept telling me running was 20% physical and 80% mental, and I couldn’t believe it. Not believing it had a negative impact on my races. Sure, I was keeping up with “the big boys” in practice, but my race times were improving only marginally. My spring track coach thought I could easily go sub-five in the mile by the end of the season, but I didn’t. He thought that come my junior year I would be the number three runner on the cross-country team.
I had consciously agreed with him and had high hopes for myself, but my unconscious was still saying You’re slow. You can’t keep up with these guys.
During preseason before junior-year cross-country, we had some pretty hard workouts, and I was keeping up with our top two runners (who eventually broke our home course’s longstanding course record—together). My coach still had it in his head that I would be the number three runner. When our first meet came around, he told me to go out with Mike and James at around 5:30 pace for the first mile and then see how I feel. I couldn’t even keep up with them for the first mile. I got passed by most of the varsity squad during that race, and as the season progressed I moved down in the rankings until the coaches couldn’t, in good conscience, keep me on varsity (I was below the top seven runners).
Somehow, I managed to earn a varsity letter in winter track that year, but that was it. The other three varsity letters I got were the ones they automatically give seniors who’d been running track all four years of high school. By the time senior year rolled around, both of my track coaches were visibly disappointed in me. They saw me race and were just scratching their heads. They saw what I did in practice and knew I could race better than that. I was probably the worst racer on the whole team, even though I wasn’t the slowest runner.
The problem, from their standpoint, was that I was the biggest waste of talent. The problem, from my standpoint, was that I enjoyed running but didn’t enjoy racing and didn’t have that killer instinct, that drive to win. Good racers feel the pain and say “I’m going to fight through the pain.” Good racers say, “This runner’s better than me, faster than me, but I am not going to be passed. I am going to win this thing. I have decided I’m going to win.” My mindset was “Let me give this an honest effort. Ouch. This really hurts. I think I have to slow down a bit.”
Do I have any regrets? Well, it’d be easy to say in retrospect that I should have tried harder, adopted a different mindset, become more competitive. It’s hard to say whether my mind and willpower were in the right place at that time to do that. I definitely don’t regret running. I loved the camaraderie and loved being in shape. Given how out of shape I was to begin with, it’s amazing how my coaches and teammates were able to help me improve so much. Even now, sluggish non-athlete that I am, running maybe two times a week and then walking the other days, I still consider myself a runner at heart. I won’t ever probably be a racer, but I do love the track and the rush of the runner’s high.