I was probably ten. It was still dark. Long before the casino was built and long after the lights of the racetrack had been turned off, the dirt road to our house was crowned in a blanket of early morning stars. A few lights twinkled across the Kansas horizon… but not many. It was just me. My dad. And the cloudy puffs of hot breathe rhythmically making their way into the crisp morning air.
I don’t remember much else about that morning except that I didn’t want to be there.
I wanted to be in my bed listening to my mom run her bath water. I wanted to be nestled under the covers thinking about what I was gonna wear or what was for breakfast. I wanted to hear the birds waking up from my window. I wanted to be anywhere else but there. My feet pounding the packed dirt road. Stumbling in the dark over potholes and the occasional loose rock.
My dad was full of energy and excitement. Pushing harder. Pulling away just enough to try and make me run faster. C’mon Jen. C’mon Jen.
But I was done. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to push myself at 5am on a school day. I didn’t want to run down that horrible hill knowing that when I got to the stop sign I would have to turn around and run back up the stupid thing if I wanted to get back to my warm, cozy home that morning.
And as my feet remained steady, despite my dad’s encouragement, even he began to notice that we were not on the same page. We were not living the same dream. And when we got to the dip at the top of the hill, we slowed to a walk. Much to his heart’s dismay, he asked me point-blank, “Do you still want to do this? Because if you don’t, then we’ll just stop. And I’ll never ask you to run again.”
I was tired. My lungs hurt. It was cold. It was dark. And I was ten.
“I don’t want to do this.”
So in bitter silence mixed with sweet relief we turned and walked back down the hill.
I was torn that day. Part of me was so relieved to have the pressure and the pain gone. But another part of me felt horribly guilty. That I had failed. That I had disappointed my dad. That I had made a choice to not follow a dream through. Would I regret it later?
You see, I showed promise early in my life. Potential. Potential that I could be a good runner, and with the right training, I could maybe be a great runner. My dad’s goal for me on those cold, dark mornings, was to qualify for the 1998 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Not even kidding. So I was waking up at 5am to run a mile down our dirt road every morning. At ten.
Now, I’m not sure how this would have progressed. What was I going to do? Run increasingly longer distances and increasingly more complex workouts every day for eight years until I was the best of the best and qualify for the Olympic team? I don’t even know. It was the start of a dream that never got off the ground because deep deep down in my soul I didn’t want to run. Or at least… I didn’t want to work hard at running.
It came naturally.
I was fast. So I won the races. And I made the teams. And I broke the records. But when the summer running clubs called me, I weighed the pros and cons heavily, because honestly, I’d rather go to church camp and enjoy my family vacations than spend the summer pounding the roads in 100 degree heat. I went to State and earned medals, but not the top medals. And when I had to train harder and harder and run more and more events and compete with better and better girls, I just didn’t enjoy it anymore.
So when the college coaches starting poking around our meets, I hid behind trees and dodged their questions. I was a good runner, but down in my soul there was no way I wanted to run for four more years. My coach started telling them to not waste their time. And after my last third place finish at the State track meet, I stepped off the track and never ran competitively again.
But… I ran.
Of course I still ran.
I ran through the streets of Cambridge, England. I ran along the beaches of Thailand. I ran in the mountains of Taiwan and along the California Coastline. I ran half-marathons and 5Ks and 10Ks and relays. I ran the 9-mile trail around my college town. I ran early. I ran late. I ran through fields and mountains and thunderstorms and snow. I ran for exercise. I ran to clear my head. I ran for freedom. I joined a running club in Taiwan and ran the fastest I’ve ever run in my life. I ran races with lots of training. I ran races with no training at all. I was even running when I met my future husband for crying out loud!
Of course I still ran. But finally I was running for me.
It was a part of me then, and it is a part of me now… even if I don’t do it.
I will forever and always be a runner.
This past Spring I entered my 5-year-old daughter in a small race series with the local track club. We had so much fun running together. I loved seeing her speed and determination and the thrill of “victory” when she got her little prize at the end of the races. I was so proud of her (and of myself) for pushing through and finishing those little races. Because my girl? She’s just a runner…
(and might I add… she’s got potential…)