I began running in middle school, in sixth grade. Over the course of junior high, I went from being someone who had to be forced to participate in Run Club, to being known as “the girl who runs.” I ran before school, and extra in P.E. I even became a T.A. for P.E. in eighth grade so that I could hop right back into my still-sweaty, mandatory workout suit and take to the track during an extra class period. In track meets, I set school records with my times. I was something of an athletic celebrity—or weirdo phenomenon. That’s not to toot my own tuba, necessarily; where people saw a dedicated, promising runner, there was, in reality, a deteriorating and dependent girl.
After four years of obsessive long-distance running (a quarter of my life, to give you some perspective), I quit. Since then, I’ve had to invent new ways to answer a question I’ve gotten again and again: “Why’d you stop?” I have gotten the feeling that, “I am struggling with depression and anxiety, and, for me, this sport is a trigger for both,” would not be an easily understood answer.
The peak—and absolute pit—of my running career happened during my freshman year of high school. For several years, our girls’ cross-country team has been hopping between first and fifth in national rankings. Despite this fact—more like because of this fact—my parents drove a wedge between me and my plans to run for the team with a marathon-sized “No.”
I understood why: There was my consuming obsession over monthly, timed mile runs in middle school P.E.; the anxiety and tears that followed suit could have been described as unhealthy. I understood their fear, but I also understood the force of will inside me. I decided to start practicing with the team anyway, behind their backs.
The summer before freshman year started, I had my friend pick me up at 7 AM every weekday morning so I could go run myself ragged at cross country practice, in the hopes of catching the attention of the famed and feared coaches. They were there to win and to make us into winners. During roll call on a hot day, I was exposed as a “rebel runner” (runner without a cause?)—meaning that I was there to run for the summer but wouldn’t be participating in the actual cross country season.
Flabbergasted, a coach serenaded me with praise for my talent and skill. He was apparently aware of my junior high reputation and had been dreaming of coaching me in high school. He kneeled on the ground before me, and asked me to reconsider. Never before had anyone—especially an adult male who wasn’t my dad—go on endlessly about how amazing, necessary, and special I was. At this point, it was up to my parents.
Upon meeting my folks at the end of practice, Coach went full car salesman on them. Needless to say, we didn’t leave without an agreement to let me run—and that is how this story was borne. The following three months were the beginning and the end of my high school running career.
Let’s flash back to the first race of the season. Only runners selected by Coach got to go, and I was one of them (having been declared “necessary” and “special” and all). The meet would require an overnight stay in another town, so I got to leave class early on Friday, which added to my growing sense that I was among the “better” runners. After all, Coach had projected me to be the fastest freshman girl, and my teammates knew it.
The moment I opened my eyes the morning of the race, a demon of a feeling—one that had been gaining power all summer during practice, and that I had been pushing down since middle school—pounded at the door.
There was no part of that meet that wasn’t painful. There was no part that wasn’t impacted by emotions that I desperately wanted to keep in check. Under 100 degree heat, my confidence eroded. I couldn’t stop shaking during warm-ups. During a warm-up lap before my race, I already felt too exhausted to pull a step ahead of a girl who was a foot in front of me. If she was ahead of me already, what did that mean for the race?
Tears blanketed my eyes while I waited on the starting line. I not only remember, but feel, the intensity of the demon-feeling as it reached peak power. My parents proudly smiled on the sideline, but I couldn’t smile back, and that confused them. I was a statue. How could a statue smile back at them, let alone run an immaculate race? I don’t remember what place I came in. I just know that as the fastest freshman, it wasn’t the place I was “supposed” to come in.
After I recovered from the wave of physical shock that resulted from running miles at one’s absolute fastest, I was hit by another shock: I felt like I was being dragged under a torrential sea of emotions. I didn’t want to cry or let anyone see what I was feeling. That would mean acknowledging that the demon-feeling had broken out. If my parents saw, the season would be over for me. I couldn’t allow that to happen because Coach said I was “supposed to” be one of the best. I grew to resent the idea of “supposed to.”