Left, right. Left, right. My steps are uneven as I climb the hill. Left, right. Left, right. My breath tears its way out of my throat, leaving it raw. Left, right. Left, right. Just have to get up the hill.
This is my second year running up and down hills on the cross country team at East. I’m on the C-team, but I’m part of the team nonetheless. It’s my second year of going to practice five times a week and a meet every Saturday morning. And I love every minute of it.
I wasn’t always this optimistic. I used to hate sports all through elementary school. I would beg my parents to let me skip soccer practice; when that season ended, I begged them to let me skip softball practice. I hated how awkward and clumsy I felt wearing shin guards or a softball glove. Staying home and watching TV was a much more appealing idea. I would say almost anything to get out of doing exercise. Every attempt I made was a failure. Apparently, I wasn’t grateful to have so many opportunities.
“When I was a girl, I didn’t have any of this!” my mom told me. “All I did was make dinner for my brothers after their baseball practices. And just think about how Farmor would feel if you gave up.”
She had me. Whenever I thought of my grandma, or Farmor, as I’ve always called her, I felt guilty. So I signed up for cross country without knowing anything about it other than the fact that it is a running sport.
I stumbled into the cross country season blind my freshman year. I had no experience, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had missed the summer running groups and wasn’t even sure if I could do a mile without stopping. So after we were assigned three miles to run on the very first day, I was ready to quit.
And then Farmor came over for dinner. She was so proud of me for joining the cross country team. She told me how it’s such a great form of exercise, how it’s a wonderful outdoor sport and that I would make so many new friends. So I showed up to practice the next day. Another three miles.
When Farmor started running at the age of 52, she wasn’t very good either. Her self confidence was so low that she would wait until after the 10 o’clock news to go on her runs. She couldn’t even make it all the way around the block. But once she did, there was no turning back. A year later in 1984, at the age of 53, she ran her first marathon in New York City. This would be her fastest time at five hours and 30 minutes. That’s a bit slow, but she ran the entire 26.2 miles non-stop.
In the last 27 years, she has done walks, races and marathons all over the U.S. She’s competed in Portland, Greenbay, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Chicago, Anchorage and Washington, D.C. She finished her 20th and final marathon in Salmon, Idaho, on Sept. 10.
She’s also expanded her experiences beyond the U.S. She went to Athens, Greece, to run the original marathon Phidippides ran in 490 B.C. She ran another marathon 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle in Norway. She walked the 190 miles from the Irish sea to the North Sea, across northern England.
Running my two and a half miles in Topeka sounds bland in comparison, but it’s my reality. I’ve never known true pain until running cross country, the pain of my breath being squeezed out of my chest or the screaming in my legs as I struggle up that last hill. Yet, day after day, I come to practice. I do it for me, and I do it for Farmor. I do it for the woman who makes the best molasses cookies, who gives me socks for Christmas and buys me a book for my birthday every year. I do it for the ultra-marathon runner who has done nothing but support me.
She supported me when I ran my first race at the age of four. In second grade, my entire class put on the Italian Car Race, and she was cheering me on. For the past seven years in a row she has gotten me to run in the Mother’s Day 5K. This event I will always cherish, because it is something that reminds me of my Farmor. Even when I told her that my soccer team didn’t score any goals for an entire season, she still congratulated me on playing the game.
This woman has put so much faith in me. When I was born, she was hiking in Cuzco, Peru. After learning that she had a granddaughter, she cried. She cried and thought about all the different ways my life would be different from hers. My world would consist of Title IX, which was an act passed in 1972 that allowed participation in any club or sport regardless of gender. I would be able to do any sport I wanted to.
It’s odd to think that I once loathed having a sport to do. I was never a good soccer player, I was terrified of batting during a softball game and I’m on the C-team of cross country. I am not the strongest athlete, but I’m going to be an athlete no matter what.
Now when I think of Farmor, I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty about not being as athletic or as accomplished as her. I don’t feel guilty about once hating the thing she loves. I feel inspired.
Once, Farmor couldn’t run around her block without walking. But since then, she’s completed ultras, marathons, relay runs, 12Ks, 10Ks and 5Ks. And she’s always finished the race. For now, I can only say that I’ve run 5Ks and two and a half mile meets. For now.
Finally clearing the hill, I run towards the finish line. Farmor says it’s a “wonderful thrill” when you reach the end and the crowds are cheering for you. She’s right. The crowds keep me going. Farmor keeps me going.