It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed. I was a spry young thing. The mysterious underdog. Everyone worried if I ate enough. And why on earth would I be up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, dressed and out the door regardless of the weather?
Sometimes, I look back on those days and question my own sanity. What was I running from? Was I that intolerant of my own feelings? Was I masochistic to my own burgeoning body as a young woman? Was I trying to prove something to someone? Reflecting on those days, I often feel sadness and regret for all that I missed out on. The normalcy of adolescence. The girly-girl stuff. The endless giggling about sissy stuff that I passed up as superficial or uninteresting. And yet, there are the moments when I look back on that time with gratitude. I appreciate the life lessons that those experiences have embedded in me. And after all these years later, I often find myself tapping into whatever it was that kept me going mile after mile.
As a nationally-ranked, award-winning long-distance runner, I was a force to be reckoned with. When I started out, I just ran as long and as fast as my legs would carry me. It wasn’t until later that I learned that even the boys had a hard time keeping up with me. I moved through the system – elementary school track team, summer Junior Olympics, middle school cross-country team. I was voted most valuable runner as a freshman on the varsity high school cross-country team. I was ranked nationally as a top miler, hitting sub-five minutes time and time again. I was awarded trips to national meets in California. The mailbox was filled with college scholarship interest. I won enough medals, trophies and ribbons to wallpaper a good-sized room.
But then, I grew up and in running years, I grew old. My knees creaked and cracked and could no longer bear the weight of the repetitive pounding. There were no more trophies to earn or newspaper reporters interested in talking to me. It was just me … facing life, without the constant pressure to perform and the corresponding glory of another race won. I had to find normalcy in the everyday that was not timed, recorded, applauded and rewarded.
The trophies are now packed away, gathering dust in a box in the basement. And I certainly have good stories to tell my children. However, the best showing I have for all that hard work are the internalized experiences that provide a constant supply of resources and reflections as my mid-life has taken on a different race – one that needs just as much stamina and strength. My life these days is like strapping on a backpack loaded with bricks, day in and dayout. Some of those bricks are long-term challenges that need daily tending and care, with no immediate outcome or relief in sight. Others are shameful mistakes I have made and represent one step, one day at a time, climbing out of a hole I dug myself. Yet, just like that ten-mile training run, I start. One foot in front of the other. And then another. And then the next one. There is no end in sight. You just do what you know to be right, mile after mile, day after day.
I recall one November when our team traveled to Idaho to compete. Cold and snowy was the forecast. What was supposed to be a national cross-country meet for high schoolers felt more like climbing Mt. Everest in a 30 mph wind while being timed. Being aware of the less than ideal race conditions, we joked amongst ourselves that there was to be no walking. (We were all such good runners that walking was out the question.) After we slogged through the horrendous race, we were doing our ritualistic post-race wrap-up when one team member admitted in humorous shame, that yes, indeed at one point, she had to stop and walk. The laughter, grief and shame we poured upon her were endless! But as I think back on that now, I so much appreciate her humility and her humanity.
I too find moments, even days, when all I can do is walk. Forget about trophies, medals and breaking records – I just want to get to the end of the day. The elements are so powerful and my backpack so full, that doing more than putting one foot in front of the other – whether it is run, walk or crawl – is all I can muster. On the most grueling of days, when I know that I have shown up with grit and integrity and stayed the course of my commitments, I long for that trophy, for that external hardware that says that I have won or at least been recognized for good effort. But I am an adult now- and we don’t have such things waiting for us at the finish line. The only response we receive for completing the task is the internal satisfaction of a job well done, which can be especially important in the face of other people’s criticism and disappointment.
I am a long way from being 92 pounds thin and having the reputation for being the little girl with fast legs. But whatever was inside me then is still inside me now. My steps are bigger now and dare I say, more important. However, all I have to do now is exactly what I did then … keep taking the next right step, again and again and again.