I've been asked several times how I started running. The truth of it is a really, really long story. In fact, there are two stories. This is the story of the fat kid in high school who wanted to try to make something for himself.
And not just another sandwich.
Later on we will get to the second story. The story about the 28 year old father who suddenly had a whole new outlook on life.
I was 12 or 13 when I started playing ice hockey. It was a good time. I loved the rink, the gear, the other kids. At one practice we were missing a goalie. So I volunteered. Guess what? Fat kids make great goalies because they take up more of the net. Off and on between age 13 and age 16 I would ride my bike to "get in shape" for hockey. You know, because riding a bike for three miles once or twice a month makes a huge difference come playoff time. At least that's what I told myself.
I first really considered running while at a hockey camp. The camp was part instructional and part tryout. We had to run a mile. A whole mile. I don't remember my time, but I remember it was incredibly slow. As I sat at the finish line trying hard to not vomit I overheard the camp director talking to the kid who won the mile race. Turns out the kid had run cross country the year before. To be honest, I had no idea what cross country even was, but the seed was planted.
As part of playing hockey, I did my best to keep up on all the news I could find about the sport. This was the days before the internet. If I wanted to read about hockey, I had to luck out and find an article in the newspaper, or the rare write up in Sports Illustrated. One such lucky day I was reading an article about my favorite goalie and about how he was revolutionizing the sport not only with his playing style, but his general athleticism. Turns out the guy would run marathons (and later ironman triathlons) in the off season. Talk about showing up to training camp in shape...
The next part is a bit blurry because it was a long, long time ago. I might even say it was many people ago. But there was something about going out for the cross country team at school. And I went. This would have been summer training. There was a meeting, and then a few days later, after school ended, there was an early morning practice. The night before I was out playing hockey until about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. The alarm went off early, I headed to the school, and I met with a couple dozen strangers who I was going to run "with."
I feel it is important to note the topic of shoes didn't come up at our meeting. I remember I showed up to the first run wearing a pair of Nike cross trainers.
After waiting around a bit for the stragglers, the group took off on a trip around the athletic fields at the school. One good loop. To this day I have no idea how long that loop really is. If I were to guess, I'd say it's about a half mile. And I gave that half mile everything I had.
When I returned to the group, they made a spot for me in the cirlce and we all stretched out. That wasn't so bad. I could see doing that again. Just one loop. And I thought I was going to die.
Imagine my surprise when the days training assignment was handed out while we were stretching. The "elites" were headed out five miles. Five miles. And yes, elite is the right term. One of the guys went on to set state records, run for a division 1 school, and even make the olympics. And the thought of them running FIVE miles after doing that loop just didn't even make sense in my mind.
There were three kids (including myself) who had never really run before and were shaped very much like the couch we were so used to sitting on. We all finished the half mile loop at about the same time (oddly enough, the same 1,2,3 order of fat kids would not change through the season) and we all thought we were going to die. Our assignment was to simply run that way to the trail, run on the trail, when one of the elites passed us, turn around and head back.
I don't remember much about that first run. I remember it was hot. I remember it was NOT fun. I remember how much my shoes sucked and my feet hurt.
But I was there to get in shape for hockey. So I came back.
The summer running went pretty well. I was able to play hockey all night, and run in the morning. Sleeping during the day didn't phase me because I was in high school and really only worked with my dad on the weekends.
After a couple weeks I managed to convince my dad this wasn't some passing fad and he finally caved in to buy me better shoes. I remember a few good times with the group. I remember a few miserable times by myself on long runs. (Of course, they were all long to me.) And the summer proceeded. And hockey got easier. And running got easier.
By the time school started and practices switched to after school instead of mornings I wasn't even all that ashamed to take off my shirt and tie it around my head to keep the sun off my neck and shoulders like some of the other kids. I know I was still one of the fat kids. I just wasn't quite as fat as I used to be.
As the cross country season kicked off it became clear that the coach wasn't going to cut anyone. She said she wouldn't, but I'm not sure I believed her. It was just a matter of who was the varsity squad, and who was the JV squad. That was a level of stress that I simply didn't have to worry about. Not only were there seven guys faster than me, there were seven guys faster than them. It was just me and the other two big guys rounding out the back of the pack. (Pun fully intended.)
I remember Uniform Day. This was a day I was dreading. I had seen pictures of the stuff runners wore. The shorts were... short. The shirts were... small. And all of this was rather foreign to me. But that was the uniform. And if I were to run, that's what I would wear.
The girls team took care of their stuff first. I remember it didn't take as long as I thought it would. I guess when there's no choice in color or style it goes pretty quick. The varsity men went in one or two at a time. Most the JV men went in one or two at a time. The Big Three just hung back in the hallway. I remember we all got quieter as the numbers dwindled. We were called into the room one by one. The fastest of us went first. Then I was called in. There were three uniforms laid out. Small, smaller, and smallest. There were words with the coach. I was embarassed. I grabbed the biggest of the smalls and held it up against my still plump frame. I had underwear bigger than this. I put it in the team duffle and slinked out. I kept my eyes on the floor as I left and sent the last guy in. There would be no eye contact. We were all going through the same thing, and like most fat kids, we were going to go through it alone.
I remember the last guy, the biggest of the three, walked out with a mostly empty duffle. I learned after the fact that the coach was going to cut up a couple old uniforms and build something that would work.
That should give some insight to the coach and the accepting nature of the team she built. We were not all equal runners. We knew that. We didn't need to address any of that. But we were all equal members of the team and deserving of a team uniform. And anyone in possession of that uniform was worthy of respect as an individual and an athlete. When the biggest of us wore the custom built uniform for the first time it was clear he was feeling uncomfortable. I was familiar with that feeling. I could read it in his eyes, even though they never looked up. I have to admit that my stomach dropped like a rock when some of the kids started to clap. But the rock didn't hit bottom. Before that happened, I realized this was not the typical teasing clap I was expecting. This was a TEAM welcoming a new member with respect and dignity. He still blushed, and I still felt kind of bad for him, but for a different reason. He wasn't used to being in the spotlight like that. But he kind of liked it. There was a smile. And his eyes came up off his shoes and he took a quick, happy, look around the room.
I didn't know it at the time, but this was one of my first true lessons in acceptance and tollerance. Coach didn't need to keep us all on the team. But she did. I don't want to say she did the three of us Big Guys a favor because that's the wrong word. But by inviting us in, and letting us stay, she taught me (and I assume the other two) a bit about human nature and kindness. I would say she taught the other runners something about how to give kindness, but I learned through the year that these kids didn't need to be taught that. They were all just good kids who only needed an opportunity to show it. I would learn later that most runners are like this.
That's going to conclude part one. The acceptance to the team. Part two will be on becoming a runner.
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