As you may remember from Part One I had just joined the cross country team.
For most of the cross country season I was not a runner. I was a hockey player. Ever see the movie Happy Gilmore? It was kind of like that, only I didn't get to punch Bob Barker, and there were no checks. Not even the big goofy ones.
I was running to get in shape for hockey. Whenever the going got tough (and the going was frequently tough) I would reflect on why I was there. I would visualize playing an overtime game and needing to work extra hard to be able to reach the puck first. That translated well to "just make it to the next tree."
One small push at a time I became stronger. One small push at a time I became a better runner. And by being a better runner I became a better hockey player.
There are two points of the cross country season that stand out as me becoming an "actual" runner. The first is the peak of my training season.
Coach had 12 miles on deck for me and a few of the other JV runners. The turn around point for that 12 miles was the top of one of the biggest hills around. And I ran. I don't remember much of anything about the run. I do remember reaching the summit and finding the other guys were still there. They hadn't really waited, I just sort of showed up before they thought I would. (For some reason, the other slow guys weren't there that day.) We joked for a few minutes and then headed back. We ran as a loose pack trading spots, going slow and easy. And joking. It was the joking that stands out. I was running TWELVE miles and joking.
The next runner-defining moment happened a few weeks later at the last race of the season dedicated to upperclass JV runners who simply were not going to make it to state. For many (myself included) this was to be the last race wearing school colors. This was the second race of the year on this course. I knew it. I knew it was flat, fast, and fun. Fun. That's a word only a runner would use. I toed the line in the number two spot (2nd fastest senior on the JV team) behind the fastest big guy, in front of the slowest big guy, and we were all in front of a bunch of juniors who would push us out of the chute, pass us, and meet up with us at the finish line.
20 years later I still remember the details of this race. That is the strength of the impression it left in me. This was the race where I was not running against the clock, or the voice in my mind, or the fire in my lungs. This was the first (and so far only) race where I was running against another person. Shortly after the start there was a short, but steep hill. The mass of bodies climbed. Some dropped at the hill, some powered through. I powered. The guy next to me powered. At the top we wound up shoulder to shoulder. He and I battled shoulder to shoulder for nearly the whole three miles. I'm not ashamed to admit he beat me in the last 400 meters. I am not ashamed of that because there is no doubt in my mind that I gave that race everything I could. I didn't colapse at the finish, but that was more a testament to the others on the team holding me up than any residual strength in my legs.
Hockey players don't run that way. Runners run that way.
Right around the timing of that race was the first official hockey meeting of the year. Coach didn't recognize me. It's a good thing baggy clothes were in style, because nothing I owned fit. After a short discussion about what I had been doing all summer and fall coach put me in charge of off ice fitness for the pre-season. I'm positive the guys on the team hated me for me. But we ran. We all ran. We ran as a team. After the team exercises the guys would split up. And I'd go for a run. One day, one of the younger kids on the team came with me. And we ran together as team mates and as runners.
But here's the catch. All of that? That's what it took for me to recognize myself as a runner. The coach saw me as a runner when I kept coming back. She saw a kid running on a three hour nap between hockey practice and cross country practice. The rest of the team? They saw me as a runner the moment I didn't quit on that first run. They saw my determination as I got faster every time I went out.
Stop saying you aren't a runner. If you show up, you're a runner.