I was in the fifth grade, and as is the case with most fifth graders, I had very few responsibilities. After school, with nothing better to do, I started tagging along with my dad to track practice. I knew that my dad was a runner, and I knew that he coached the 7th and 8th graders, but that was about the extent of my awareness of track and field. I quickly learned that track season in Ohio begins at a time of year when the best adjective to describe the great outdoors is “dreary,” and that this was not an excuse to stay inside. The evenings were, more often than not, wet, cool, and cloudy, and generally by the time we were finishing up, beginning to get dusky. That didn’t stop me from being impressed though! “How far is a mile?” I asked my dad. “Four laps around the track,” he answered. So I stepped onto the muddy old gravel track and slowly set off to see if I too could run a mile. Afterall, there was nothing else to do while the “big kids” practiced. A mile, in my mind, was about the longest distance anyone could probably run. It was the longest race distance at the middle school meets, and thus, it must be the limit of human potential. One lap after another painstakingly crept by at a shuffling pace. I wonder now how long it took me. I would bet that most people could walk a mile faster than I ran that first one, but I was oblivious to that fact. I was immeasurably pleased with myself! To me, the sound of “running a mile” might as well have been “running a marathon” not that I knew what that was. I only knew that it was a LONG WAY.
If only we could all be lucky enough to retrace our steps and once again enjoy the innocence and absence of judgement that only a child can have. I defined my success simply by the fact that I had run a mile. That was the accomplishment, regardless of how fast I went. I didn’t have to compare myself to the “big kids” because it was obvious to me that I didn’t need to compete with them, and I didn’t spend time wondering how fast other kids my age could run a mile. I didn’t know any other fifth graders who were out running just to run (as opposed to running laps around the soccer field for punishment), and because of that, I felt tremendously special. I think that was the first time in my whole life that I ever felt like I was unique because I had run, because I was a “runner.” I don’t think I would have referred to myself as a “runner” just because of that run, but the mental adjustment was the same. I knew I had accomplished something that had required effort, and it set me apart from all the people who hadn’t accomplished that thing or put forth that effort. And I loved that.
I headed home that night on top of the world, ready to brag to my mom and scarf down some dinner. And I returned to track practice many more times that season. I honestly don’t recall if I ever bothered to undertake another mile or any other run after that first one. Afterall, it wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t looking to wear myself out for no reason. Let’s not get carried away! Nonetheless, I learned so much more that season than the number of laps in a mile. I learned about taping ankles and track spikes, I learned about spandex pants, I learned the difference between distance running and intervals and that middle school track practice was more of a social endeavor than an athletic one, I learned that the fastest runners would get the inside lane, and it was my job to high-tail it out of the way if I was in front of them on the track. I learned what it meant to be “lapped” and what it means when someone yells, “TRACK!” I admired the runners, not only because they were runners, but because 8th graders were unequivocally the coolest people I knew.
It may have been another year or more before I ever even ran another mile – I truly don’t recall. There would eventually come a next phase of my running journey, but that was most certainly the beginning and my earliest memory of being a runner. It would be inaccurate to say that I knew back then that running would be part of my life forever. However, as luck would have it, running HAS been part of my life (on and off, but mostly on) with only minor interruptions ever since. There has never been a day or a moment when I knew I was hooked. Running has just casually, without my noticing, dug its claws in, and has become one of the core factors that defines who I am. I mean that in a couple of ways. Certainly, I mean it in the traditional sense – when I tell people about my interests, running is on the list. But I also mean it in a greater sense. Without the countless hours and miles on the road, the track, the treadmill, the trail, and without the countless opportunities to be alone with myself or bonding with a friend and to learn about my limitations, to find my will to continue through discomfort, to accept my failures, to set goals, and to celebrate my victories, I wouldn’t even have become the same person. Not only is running part of the vocabulary I use to describe my present-day self, running is also the reason that I am my present-day self. I have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t been a runner. And so I am grateful for that cinder track which is no longer there and for the fact that my dad wanted to be a coach, and grateful that I had nothing else to do that spring evening that I tagged along to track practice. How fortuitous.