It was my freshman year of high school, and I finally decided to join the track team. Fall 1995. The cross country season had just ended and indoor track was about to begin. My friends convinced me to join. You didn't have to 'try out' for track at my school, you just had to show up :) Tryouts for the pom squad weren't until January, and I had some free time on my hands. So I...showed up.
I started out running with the sprinters for some reason. It was quite the sight. I was barely 5 feet tall, skinnier than a stalk of asparagus, and nearly translucent after a summer of avoiding the sun. Everyone else was exceptionally tall, muscular, healthy looking, and FAST. But, I wanted to try it. I wanted to be FAST like the others.
I hated every bleeping minute of it. And, I was so not fast.
I could not for the life of me figure out the starting blocks.
These should be called Death Blocks...
I constantly fumbled with them, tripped, fell a few times, and was always, always the last one out of their block. And trying to run fast after starting from a near-kneeling position was ridiculously hard for me. I approached them with the same level of apprehension that I approach getting off of ski lifts. Gripped with the fear of a thousand hells.
But I kept after it in that arena, and after a few weeks I found my calling. It just wasn't where I thought I needed to look.
Our warm-up was a two mile run to Taylor Park and back (one mile each way). Every single time I made it back before the rest of the sprinting team, and ready for more. All the other girls came back gasping and worn out. Coach D suggested I practice with the distance team for a couple of days and see what I thought. Coach D scared me. He was a stoic and critical man. So any way to escape his critical eye was a most welcome escape. The next day, I was with the distance team, working with a wonderful woman of a coach. I can't believe I don't remember her name...but I remember what she looks like and how kind and welcoming she was to me. I was instantly hooked. Of course, it now meant workouts were longer, more difficult and I was never the first person back from a warm-up :) Speed workouts, fartleks (hehe, fart...lek...), hill repeats, funny stretches (which I still do to this day), striders, and best of all, no starting blocks!
I wore some chunky Reeboks with a bright purple and silver whoosh on the side. I saved up my babysitting money and allowances to purchase these coveted running shoes, and at $40 it nearly cleaned me out. My how times have changed. I was just glad to not have to wear the godawful clumsy Asics my parents bought for me from a sidewalk sale at the Competitive Foot in downtown Oak Park. They were two sizes too big and looked geriatric. But, all the other girls wore spikes on the track. So, I still managed to look geriatric next to them, in my Reeboks ;)
I started and finished every workout gasping for air. The cool and damp autumn air stung my lungs. My quads always itched from the wind burn, and my sides always cramped. I loved it. I often wondered why we did all our workouts outside for indoor track...
We had to set a goal for ourselves to reach by the end of the season, at the conference finals (assuming you were invited to run). I desperately wanted a six minute mile...I just wasn't very good at initiating an action plan. But, I set that incredibly arbitrary goal (I had no idea what I was even capable of at that point) in stone one afternoon as we did a core workout using playing cards off to the side of the indoor track in the field house. It smelled heavily of rubber and sweat. The sound of squeaky shoes on the basketball court echoed around the cavernous room. The boys' track team was gathering opposite where we were, gearing up for their workout. We were running to Concordia University a few miles away, doing some 800 meter sprints around their track, and then running back for a cool down. Colleen ran beside me the entire way there. She was a senior varsity runner, and she taught me how to run softly, how to roll my foot from heel to toe, rather than slapping. I think of that conversation almost every time I run. It is funny the things that stick with us.
I worked hard during practice, but I never ran outside of practice for some reason. At least not that year. I ran the 800 and the 1600 in various conferences and track meets, garnering modest times, but never coming close to winning any. I looked on in awe at the girls running the 3200. I wished so bad that I wanted to race that far! But I didn't for some reason. I only enjoyed practicing longer distance; I didn't actually want to race those distances. Again, how times have changed :)
The conference finals rolled around and I was invited to run in the 1600 meter event. It was at Hinsdale Central. My dad showed up to watch. It was cold, and a slight drizzle came down off and on throughout the meet. Nora offered me her spikes for my event. She could tell how much I wanted a pair. She was running the 3200 and there was plenty of time between our two events. I was downright giddy! They were a size or so too small for me, but what did I know? I jammed my feet into those gorgeous Nike spikes and lined up at the start with a smile so big I could have floated out of there. There were nine other girls on either side of me, and I glanced around to see what my competition looked like. I felt like one of them. A girl in a green uniform shook my hand and wished me luck. With the gun, we were off.
I don't recall much of the actual event, but I do remember how much it hurt. My feet ached, jammed uncomfortably into those spikes. My lungs burned as they always did running on cold days. Each time around the track I saw my dad standing there, umbrella in hand, waving and smiling. The tank top and shorts of my uniform were sticking to my skin as the drizzle picked up into a light rain. As I rounded the final curve and eyed the finish line, the girl in the green uniform caught up to me. We ran neck-and-neck, but she nudged her head forward as we crossed the line. She totally beat me. I felt so ripped off. But, that was quickly disbursed as I was told my finishing time. A 6:09 mile, good enough for 8th. Not quite my 6 minute mile, but considering my previous best had been an 8 minute mile, I was pretty damn happy :) I just couldn't believe I came so close.
Coach D came over and congratulated me. I was stunned to say the least. He said he wanted to tell me 'I told you so', that he knew I'd be a good distance runner. My dad walked up to us and shook Coach D's hand, "every time I watch her around the track, all I see are those blue shorts and legs for days. She's a distance runner!" boasted Coach D. The giddiness in my dad's voice, and the look on his face made me immeasurably happy.
I never did go back to the track team after that season. I made it onto the pom squad that January and never looked back. But obviously I was bitten. I enjoyed shedding the structure and rigor of the team and just going out for runs as I pleased. I do love looking back on that season, though. I learned a lot of things that have stuck with me through the years. Ah, such humble beginnings.
But, I still can't use a starting block properly ;)