When I entered my freshman year of high school, I was an unconfident, weak, and passive person. Up to that point in my life, I had quit every sport I ever tried. I didn’t know the value of hard work, I didn’t know what it meant to push myself, and I surely didn’t know that I was capable of succeeding in what I consider to be the hardest sport known to man. When I say that cross country changed my life, I really mean it.
I was never the athletic kid in elementary school. My mom made me try soccer in first grade, but apparently kicking the ball into your own goal isn’t how you’re supposed to earn points. I tried dance, but I was never passionate enough to practice on my own. I tried swimming but dropped out as soon as my personal coach wanted to put me on a team. I feared that the other swimmers would laugh at me, and this fear overpowered any appreciation I had for the sport (to be fair, I also hated pool water more than anything on the planet).
In 8th grade, I started running with my friend. She had been a runner for years at that point, so she had to slow down immensely to stay with me during these runs. Still, we would run for two minutes at most before I needed to stop and catch my breath. I knew that I wasn’t made for athletics, but I was still frustrated that I couldn’t even make it half a mile without keeling over.
However, there was something so hopeful about those runs. Even though I could barely run a mile in total, the endorphins I released brightened the rest of my day. I know it’s all a science, but from the start, running has truly made me the happiest version of myself.
Freshman year, I decided I would do spring track. Having barely any running experience, I was absolutely petrified. Nonetheless, I joined the team. The seniors seemed so intimidating, and I didn’t know how someone as slow as I was could possibly keep up with or even befriend anyone. I was extremely shy that first season. I had to ask people if it was okay if I did a workout with them, even though earlier my coach had instructed me to just join them. I didn’t know how to make friends in an athletic atmosphere, but slowly I found my group. My freshman year track friends are still my best friends on the team, and I love them more than they know.
My first few events were anything but successful. I literally stopped in the middle of my first 800 meter race and almost gave up. I then raced what was probably the world’s slowest 400.
A few weeks into the season, I hurt my foot and needed crutches for two weeks. It absolutely sucked, but when I came back, I finally began to improve. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t our top runner by ANY means, but my times slowly dropped, and I gradually started loving the sport.
I decided to join cross country the next school year. Easily the best decision of my life. Probably not for my body (I’ll get to that part soon), but definitely for my mind and heart.
Sophomore year cross country was so.much.fun. I don’t remember the workouts being too excruciating, and I got to run with all my freshman year friends and still make new ones. I began to come out of my shell and be my crazy self during practices and races. My times started out in the low 29’s, and by the end of the season I was running a 22:55. My coach gave me the most-improved award, and I really felt like I deserved it. Overall, it was an amazing season. Spring track that year was really fun too, but nothing too noteworthy happened.
Junior year is when all hell broke loose. I don’t know how, but my summer runs must have really paid off because before I knew it, I was running as one of the 7 girls on our varsity team. I never in a million years would have believed that I was capable of accomplishing what I did that season.
I was on accutane for my acne at the time, and I didn’t think it would be a huge issue in regards to my running success. Joint pain was a noted side effect, but I never believed it would tamper with my season the way it did. The weekend before our second-to-last race, I woke up with intense foot pain. I thought it was just a cramp, but after a couple days, I realized it was something serious. My dad took me to the doctor where I found out I had a bone contusion and would be unable to run the rest of the season. To say that I was crushed would be an understatement. This news was coming at a time when my skin was at its worst, my relationships were rocky, and my schoolwork was stressing the hell out of me. I didn’t know how to handle such a setback. I cried a lot, but the day of our league meet, I knew I had to be strong for my fellow teammates. I was holding it together pretty well, until my SAT score came out that morning. It was definitely not the score I wanted or expected. Whenever I had faced a challenge previously, I would go on a run to take my mind off it. This time, I couldn’t do that. I remember bawling my eyes out in the bathroom at Lehigh before putting on a fake smile so that none of my teammates would feel discouraged before their races.
That winter was the hardest stretch of time I’ve experienced. So many things were going wrong, and all I wanted to do was run my worries away. I visited countless doctors, all of whom diagnosed me with something different. From plantar fasciitis to bone effusion to heel spurs, I heard pretty much every diagnosis out there. I tried all the different stretches they gave me, I wore a boot on my injured foot, and I went to two different physical therapists. Nothing worked.
I was so sure that I would be back for track that year, but that wasn’t what fate had in store for me. When the track season came around, my pain was only getting worse, so there was no way I would be able to make it through a single workout. By this point, I was compensating so much for my foot pain that my hips started getting extremely weak because I put pressure on them to take pressure off my foot. I was pretty broken physically, but the mental pain was so much worse.
During that time, I heard someone say that injuries can make you stronger and teach you patience. As soon as I heard her utter those words, I wanted to slap her across the face because that sounded like the biggest load of bull. My injuries were making me bawl my eyes out every day. I thought there was no way they would make me stronger. And honestly, I don’t think I was wrong. I felt weaker in every aspect of my life because of those injuries. They made me fragile during that time period, and even now that I am lucky enough to run again, I don’t think I am stronger or more patient because of all that pain. Sure, now I get to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that doesn’t change how exhausted I am from that seemingly endless journey through it.
My pain wasn’t getting much better, but I decided that I would do cross country no matter what. There’s a song by Imagine Dragons called “Whatever it Takes,” and there’s a line in it that goes “I’m an apostrophe. I’m just a symbol to remind you that there’s more to see.” I listened to that song before every race, and it became my motto for my senior season. As ridiculous as it sounds, I wanted to prove to myself that my junior year roller coaster would not be the end of my running career. I was determined to have there be more to see. I made it clear to everyone (especially myself) that I only expected to last a few weeks at best. I genuinely swear on everything I own that I did not expect to have the season I did. I try to be humble when I talk about my accomplishments in anything, but I can’t help the fact that I’m proud as hell of myself for having the season I did. I’m also really freaking thankful for the miracle that happened the second week of the pre-season. The first week of the summer season was extremely painful on my foot, but on the Monday of the second week, I realized I had no pain in the place I had felt it for the past nine months. I didn’t know how to explain it other than as a miracle. I’m not too religious, but I prayed for that miracle for SO long, and it seriously strengthened my faith so much. After that, I raced faster with every meet, placed during some invitationals, beat my best time from my varsity season, and somehow made it to the end of the season in one piece. Our team won the league title, I got my all-time PR, and two of our girls qualified for states. I cried like a baby during our last few practices and races because I was so damn sad that it was all ending, but how could I not be? It was the best senior season I could possibly ask for.
Yesterday we had our team banquet to celebrate the season. I spent the morning stressing about college, homework, and the dream I had the night before. I was in such a terrible head space until I remembered the night I had ahead of me. Banquets feel like Christmas morning to me because getting to reunite with my favorite people while getting commended for all our hard work is the best feeling.
For months now, I have been planning the paper plate I would give my best friend on the team. I thought of the idea way back in October, and I told all the other seniors that I called dibs on giving her one of my paper plates. I wrote the speech in November, and our coach hadn’t even announced the banquet date yet. For months, I visualized how special of a moment it would be, and of course, something had to go wrong. She texted me when I got to the banquet and told me that her debate competition was running late and that she did not know if she would make it on time.
I tried to stall my paper plate for so long. I made everyone else go in front of me, but still, she didn’t make it in time. I’ve had beef with the debate coach for years now, and this incident only made the beef cook more, but that’s its own story. Anyways, I called her on Facetime and said the speech in front of everyone while on video call. I didn’t cry, which was unexpected. I went to sit down, and a minute later, she sprinted in and gave me the biggest hug. We both started bawling our eyes out, and I realized that no, this wasn’t the perfect moment I had envisioned- It was better.
Other than that moment, the night was as bittersweet as I imagined it to be. I somehow held it together when my coach talked about each of our accomplishments, but I lost it when we were watching our slideshow. Watching all of the pictures from the season was like getting shot with a marshmallow bullet. Weird analogy, but it’s the only way I can articulate how much it hurt to watch each picture fade away into memory. I felt like I was grieving a loss, but the thing I was losing was so special that I was just happy to have experienced it in the first place.
This sport taught me how to be confident. It taught me that if you put in the work, you will see results eventually. It taught me that I was capable of so much more than I thought possible. It taught me how to compartmentalize my struggles so that nothing would be pulling at my heartstrings once I stepped onto the line. It taught me that miracles exist, and that if you pray hard enough and are lucky enough, these miracles will come to you. It taught me that you don’t have to be captain to make your own impact. It taught me to listen to my body if something didn’t feel right, but to still cautiously push my limits. It taught me how to not procrastinate, for coming home from practice at 5 every night and having a boatload of homework is not easy. It taught me the power of a warm hug, a supportive text, and an uplifting cheer.
This sport has brought me so much genuine happiness. All of the post-win bus rides, summer practices, pasta parties, personal records (mine and my teammates’)- all of it made me so inexplicably happy.
My main coach is easily the best person I’ve met in high school. She’s so busy, yet she still makes time to memorize every girl’s personal record times. She let me break down in front of her on so many occasions, and she never judged me for it. She has such a genuine passion about this sport, and you could tell she loves coaching. Even when I didn’t agree with her on some things, I still was able to trust in the fact that she truly cared about my success and well-being. So many coaches only care about the varsity girls, but after having been in both the top and bottom 7 time-wise, I can easily say that she cared about every single person on that team. I’ll refrain from too much sucking up, but I will say that without her and our assistant coach (who is one of the funniest, most supportive and most knowledgeable people I know), I would have quit this sport so quickly.
I know I still (hopefully) have a spring track season ahead of me, but track and cross country feel like two completely different sports. There’s no real sense of community in track like there is in cross country. The races are much more stressful and much less fun (at least for me). Yes, the workouts are easier in track, but that stops you from really bonding with your teammates. Our team was SO much closer this cross country season than in past years, and I’ll miss that so much. I wasn’t best friends with everyone, but I got to know people who I barely talked to in years past, and I became so much closer to my old cross country friends.
I also know I have college running ahead of me. I didn’t get in contact with any D3 coaches because I wasn’t sure that having to manage the stress of freshman year with the rigors of a varsity college sport would be healthy. However, I cannot wait to run club and possibly take a risk and try out for the varsity team after my first semester. I know my body won’t like me for it, but my mind and heart will love me for it.
I’m now on my fifth page of text, and I’m starting to question if anyone can possibly make it this far. I know this post was just a collection of me complaining about the lows and bragging about the highs, but that’s what cross country is in some ways. You endure the hill repeats because you know they will pay off in a race. I also think this is a post that is written more for me than for you guys. While I want to share this element of my life with you, I want to have all the memories in writing for my own nostalgic purposes even more.
I’ll leave you all with this. If you want to try something but are too scared to, get the hell over that fear. Whatever it takes, get over that fear. If you try it, sure, you might end up hating it. You can quit if you have to, and no good person will judge you for it if you know you gave it your best shot. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be as lucky as I was. Maybe you’ll meet the strongest, most resilient people and somehow convince them to become your friends. Maybe you’ll evolve as a person completely. Maybe you’ll be joining the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You won’t know unless you give it a shot.