An only partly true story for those who run. A story for those who used to run with me. A story especially for my dad who still encourages me and is still my favorite running partner.
I started running in seventh grade. I joined the track team because in seventh grade every one joined the track team, every one including my friends. I was a chubby seventh grader who loved to read and write and sew but who did not do a lot of physical exercise. In seventh grade I could not even finish one lap around the track. My lungs would burn and feel as though they were being sliced with knives and nails. My coach who had also been my sixth grade teacher encouraged me to keep going, keep trying. Even though there were students who were clearly leaps and bounds ahead of me he took that time to push me to go further and harder even though further and harder for me was one lap. I remember the day that I ran that first quarter mile with out stopping. It was from the middle school parking lot to the credit union parking lot and I remember telling myself not to walk to keep going; one foot then another then another until I got to that bank. I remember my coach giving me a big hug and telling me how proud he was of me. I beamed, even though it was a measly quarter mile, I beamed.
We spent the summers at my Grandma’s house “down state” as we used to say. She lived on an old farm in the middle of the country. My dad who was the high school track and cross country coach was just happy to have a child that was old enough to run. He didn’t care that I was TERRIBLE he cared that I had begun the journey of running (It took him 25 years to get his wife to run so I guess he thought he was making good time with me). He figured that a lap around the perimeter of the property was roughly a quarter mile, in his words “you could definitely fit a football field in here.” So that summer I ran around the “yard” first one lap, then two, then three, then four.
I continued to struggle through track seasons and I continued to run around grammy’s house in the summers slowly getting thinner and slowly getting faster. Then we moved. I was half way through my sophomore year in high school and I did not run track that spring. However, while sitting through driver’s training that summer something inside me knew I had to figure out how to meet people how to make friends. Finally, with butterflies in my stomach, I told my dad I was joining the x-country team but only if he could get me in shape enough so that I could run the 3.2 miles with out stopping. His smile almost split his face in two.
And so began my running relationship with my dad. Hot muggy day after hot muggy day he trotted along beside me pointing out interesting vegetation and telling me stories about growing up in the area, as I gasped for oxygen beside him. Slowly I worked up to running three miles. Our first meet dawned clear and cool and I stood at the starting lines ready to puke my guts up with nerves. Then the gun shot and then nothing but sound of feet and heart pounding and ragged breath coming in. Agonizing steps and bewildered thoughts “why did I do this?” until I heard my dad’s voice ringing out through the air “Come on Jess!!! Your looking great, awesome pace babe!” I knew then that I would always be a runner because it connected me to my dad in a special way, a way unique to him and I; since my sisters hated running and I had no brothers. I did, indeed, finish that first race with out walking (I never did walk in a single 5k) but I finished last.
The races were torture but the camaraderie was a blessed relief from the half year of isolation I had just experienced. Even the girls on the opposing teams were nice, at least the ones finishing near me. They would breathlessly encourage me as they passed me by. The girls on my team? They were even better. No matter how fast they were they were so encouraging and nice. After they finished they would run back and cheer me on as I slowly made my way to the finish line. In fact Cross-Country was the first place outside my own family that I experienced true fellowship. And even though I was never one of dad’s star athletes I knew I was his star. He faithfully cheered me on every race and kept track of my personal best times. He worked with me in the off season as much as I wanted. He pushed me to be better but he never pushed me down. My dad did not expect things from me I couldn’t deliver he was simply proud and happy that I was now a “runner”. Proud with what I could do. He was the perfect coach and he was also the perfect fan.
And so dawned the track season of my senior year. All the hard work, all the tears and miles and miles of training leading up to this meet. I was finally being allowed to run the mile as there was an opening (there was always an opening in the two mile so that was usually where I was stuck running lap after lap after lap…).
I stood at the start line swallows flying around in my stomach. There was always that moment right before the gun goes off that every thing would go quiet, at least for me. When all I could hear was my own breathing, my own heart thumping right out of my chest. “Runners take your marks, get set…” bang. And we were off, a cloud of feet thundering their way towards the first curve, the crowd one big loud gelatinous sound.
“First lap” I thought to myself “sets the tone for the entire race. Not too fast but a good steady pace with a large gate.” I tried not to see the runners around me, tried not to focus on the people passing me or the ones I was passing as we began to thin out and find our own rhythm. “Rhythm that’s a funny word” which for some reason made me think of the song from church that went “I bring a sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord…” that song has a pretty good rhythm and it carried me swiftly around the first lap.
“Second lap” I blanked. How was I suppose to run the second lap? That’s when one voice began to separate from the roar of the crowd. It was my dad. “Keep it up jess!!! Great first lap!!! Keep swinging those arms, don’t tighten up your stride your doing great just keep it up!!!!!” he sounded more excited then normal. In my haze I lowered my arms and started “We bring a sacrifice…” one more time. I focused on the girl in front of me and slowly began creeping up on her. I felt a little bad when I passed her, but only a little.
“Third lap” the third lap is the hardest because you still have one more lap to go. And by now all your muscles are burning and your lungs are gasping. The only thing to do in the third lap is concentrate on your form, or at least thats what my dad told me. So, I lower my arms (they’ve been creeping up and I’m almost hugging myself). I think about my stride and try to keep it long try to keep it looking good. I start concentrating on the next runner; I can tell she’s struggling and I feel a little bit like a lion picking off a weak herd member as I pass her by.
“Fourth lap.” this it, this is where you leave it all on the line. I’ve been observing the 1600 meter race for six years now and I’ve seen people kick it in too much and too fast and burn out before they’re done and I’ve seen people never kick it in (I’ve also seen people walk off with out finishing, twist they’re ankles and one time I saw some one throw up on the finish line.) So I begin to lengthen my stride. I imagine that my arms are pulling me up the side of a mountain. I come around the first bend and begin to kick it in a little. I hear my dad screaming his head off. I really can’t make out what he’s saying it’s getting pretty loud, “someone must be finishing the race.” I think absently but I know what he’s saying; speed it up. So I speed it up. As I come around the back stretch I pretend I’m being chased by a dragon. The last curve and I stop thinking all together and I just start booking it as fast as I can. Faster, faster, faster. I’m running on jell-o legs now and I’m not sure I’m breathing. Faster, faster, faster.
The roar is so loud it almost startles me and then I see it, far out in front like a mirage on a desert quest, the finish line. But not just the finish line, the finish ribbon. It hasn’t been broken yet, no one has crossed the line. And it occurred to me that I might be in the lead. I don’t dare entertain the thought lest I loose my stride, I don’t dare look to the side or behind, but I give it the last bit I’ve got just in case there’s someone there right on my tail waiting for me to flag. And I push it and as the line draws near I stick out my chest like I’ve seen the olympic athletes do, (just in case it’s a photo finish and I win because I’ve got a bigger cup size). I fall over the line and can barely keep my feet and want to scream and jump (and puke) I can feel the blood pounding through my face. As I start to fall I’m in the air, being swung around by the greatest coach in the world, by the greatest dad in the world and he’s whooping and hollering like I’ve never seen and he’s crying too. Then I cry because I’m happy, because I’ve made him so proud, because he would have loved me the same even if I’d come in last.