The wind was howling. It felt like daggers, biting and digging into my skin. My hair was whipping all over the place. The moment I brushed it off my face, it lashed back with greater ferocity. Also, it was cold. Like, 10 degrees below freezing cold.
Despite the hazardous weather, an eerie silence hung in the air. I, along with the six other members of the Groton varsity cross country team, was squished in a tiny box, on the line, waiting for the start gun to go off. I was taking deep breaths, in and out, in and out. One of my teammates, Aroon, turned and looked at me.
“We got this, right?” he asked.
“Yup,” I said. “We got this.” We nodded at each other and returned to our starting positions, still waiting for that gun.
I shifted in my feet. How had the gun still not gone off yet? Suddenly, I thought of a Taylor Swift lyric. Our team likes to prepare for races with Taylor Swift’s musical masterpieces, so they are always perpetually stuck in my head. This particular lyric, simple and dramatic, applied especially to my situation: Are you ready for it?
Was I ready for it? I didn’t know. I was certainly nervous. Very, very nervous. I get nervous before every race, but this time I was especially nervous. I was so nervous that I was somehow sweating in the frigid air.
Why was I so nervous? This wasn’t any old cross country race. This was the New England Cross Country Championships. This race was a gathering of the seven best cross country runners from sixteen schools across New England. It was the final race of the season, and it was freaking me out.
I’d always enjoyed running, even before I came to Groton. I’d tried a lot of different sports, to little success. I wasn’t tall enough for basketball. I was terrible at baseball and soccer, due to my subpar (which is an understatement) hand-eye/foot-eye coordination. I hated the water, so that threw swimming out the window. Needless to say, I didn’t think I was much of an athlete. When I came to Groton, I literally chose cross country as my fall sport using process of elimination. I had little expectation heading into, and for the first part of, the season.
But slowly, I began to fall in love with it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t even notice at first. But I found myself looking forward to cross country practice every day. During classes, during chapel, even during lunch, I found myself yearning for that moment at 3:45 where the entire cross country team jogged to the Whispering Bench. I found myself picturing the autumn leaves on the forest floor, and hearing the crunch of my shoes as I ran over them. I imagined the large “YEAHHHHHHHHHH!” that our coach, Mr. Capen, greeted us with at the beginning of every practice. And it helped that I wasn’t bad. In fact, as a Second Former, I realized this was something I was actually decent at. Goodbye, basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. I was a runner now.
So over the summer, heading into the next season, I trained. By training, I mean that I literally just ran around my neighborhood a few times every day. But it turned into a routine, to the point where not running felt strange. Heading into my Third Form year, I was excited for a great year. And I sure had one. I made my way onto varsity by the end of the season, not only getting faster, but also forming deep bonds with my teammates. It all came rather naturally. I was working hard, but it all came with little obstacles in my way. I went out there, ran, rested, then practiced for the next race. Run, rest, practice. Run, rest, practice. It was a breeze.
Then came Fourth Form. This was the year when I, as well as many of my friends and teammates, expected to really break out and start heading into my prime. But something about this felt different. I’d had an exceptionally busy summer, so I didn’t have as much time to train. The moment I went on my first run during pre-preseason at Mr. Capen’s house in Maine, it didn’t feel like a breeze anymore. Every step took twice as much effort as before. Every breath was labored and forced. Running no longer came naturally, or was as fun. It took every ounce of my effort and spirit.
At first, I attributed this change to just being out of shape. I pushed myself harder than ever before, too hard. In my three years running cross country, I’d never suffered an injury. I’d visited the trainer maybe once or twice. Now, I was practically living in the trainer’s. I was knocked out with injuries for two weeks. Now, for some, two weeks might not have been a lot. But for me, those might have been some of the longest two weeks I’ve ever lived through. I hated sitting on the sidelines, relegated to a glorified cheerleader role. I’d always loved cheering on my teammates, but that always included running and being cheered on as well. Just as my injuries started to improve, I got very sick, spending a few painful days in the Health Center and at home, which set me back even further in my recovery.
Long story short, the season was not going well. But those weeks on the sidelines changed my perspective on cross country and running as a whole. I realized that my “junior slump” wasn’t completely because of injuries, or sickness, or what shape I was in. It was because that routine I’d developed – race, rest, practice, repeat – had made me forget what had made me fall in love with running in the first place, pushing me to a point where I didn’t even know why I was even running every day. Not running for an extended period of time made me appreciate all the little things that make cross country so special. When I could finally run again, I paid close attention to those little things. The moment right before the starter presses the trigger on the gun. The rhythmic vibration of the ground after the start of every race. The euphoria of cresting a steep hill and the subsequent breeze as you cruise down that hill. The cacophony of assorted screams and cheers heading into the finish line. My speed and time might have still been off from my best, but I had rediscovered the beauty of running, which made cross country more enjoyable than it had ever been. It definitely helped that I had the best teammates and the best coaches in the world to appreciate that beauty with me.
So on that starting line at the New England Championships, all I thought about were the little things. I looked around and saw the enormous crowd cheering us on, along with the 111 other runners on the line, all probably freaking out just as much as I was. I pictured the trophy our team had just won the week before at the ISL Championships, another big race, and visualized another trophy, waiting for us at the end of this race. Time seemed to freeze and I settled myself into my starting position.
That Taylor Swift lyric circulated around my head: Are you ready for it?
Yes, Taylor. I thought. I am ready for it. We’re all ready for it.
Suddenly, the starter yelled: “Runners, take your marks!”
Time unfroze. The gun went off. The race had started.
And I ran.