By: Audrianna Imka

Many of my peers wonder how it is possible for someone to love running. They often mention things about how physically difficult it is, to which I genuinely have no response. I cannot argue the fact that running takes a toll on you physically, especially without stretching, warm-ups, and cooldowns. However, many people fail to address the mentally challenging and rewarding aspects of running.

I was always a very active kid. I played soccer through kindergarten and was dedicated to volleyball beginning in third grade. I began Running Club as a wee seven year old in second grade, in which about seven other primary schoolers and I worked towards being able to run a mile. When the long awaited day arrived, our parents pulled into the parking lot and walked to the edge of the field to watch their children run laps around the field, sweaty and red-faced, as fast as they possibly could. I was more than proud of myself when I completed the mile in nine minutes. I thought of myself as a “real runner”. That was the moment at which I decided to continue my running journey.

I was in running club for the next four years, until the excessive homework load (or at least what I thought of as excessive at the time) got to me. I began pursuing theatre, which, combined with homework, took up most of my time. I was on the track and field team in seventh grade, but something didn’t feel right. After our run to the track at University School, I would be itching to run laps around the track rather than practice block starts or do core workouts. Once again, in eighth grade, I joined the track and field team, but I lasted a mere week and a half before deciding it wasn’t the sport for me. I had lost all hope that I would ever be a good runner. I began comparing my athletic ability to those of other people in my class, and decided that I could never be “athletic”, and that I would be better off focusing on theatre and my studies.

The more time I spent away from running, the more out of shape I became and the more confidence I lost. Without the persuasion from my family members, I never would have believed that I could run cross country. I thought that my days as a “real runner” were behind me. Little did I know, a love for running is something that can never be lost, and can only be strengthened.

My first week of cross country practice was devastating. I was the last runner in the group, and the gap between me and my teammates as we ran seemed to keep growing as the days passed. I was wondering why I participated in a sport which had designated trash cans at the finish line in case people became sick. The sight of multiple girls limping while leaning against their parents or friends, seated on the ground crying, or eagerly gulping water out of a house were far from encouraging.

However, after a few weeks and many instances in which I almost left the team, I began to see an improvement. Any doubt in my mind about my running abilities vanished when my advancement became noticeable. I was decreasing my race time by vast numbers, running in the middle of the pack, and completing a four mile run without stopping. Not only was I becoming a stronger person on the outside, but my inner strength was larger than it had ever been before.

One day I will never forget was the cross country meet at Cardinal Middle School in Middlefield. It was a crisp fall day, one of the first of the season. We were at a school which was virtually in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Amish country and farmland. Nearly all of the tents set up around the fields belonged to familiar schools, and I was able to reunite with some old friends. After a brief delay, our JV/open team gathered at the starting line. We thought the time had been changed once again, as to our left, there were twelve girls belonging to only three different teams. In case you need some context, most JV/open races consist of around 125 runners. Our coach later referred to this race as “a time trial for the Blazers”, as our runners made up nearly the entire results sheet.

By the time of this race, I had begun to adjust to the way my body felt after the gun went off. I was usually rattled from nerves, causing me to be unsteady on my feet. After the initial adrenaline rush wore off, I would begin to feel the pain in my legs caused by sprinted the beginning stretch. However, at this meet, rather than starting out strong and gradually falling behind, I kept moving up, passing runners as I went. After less than half a mile, I passed our team’s assistant coach. She later recalled to me the look of bewilderment on my face which seemed to read, “how the heck did I get up here?” I managed to maintain my long, confident strides for the entirety of the race, only allowing two girls to pass me. I even found myself smiling during portions of the race, including the peaceful half mile stretch through the woods. As I crossed the finish line, a woman pointed to a nearby trash can and said, “there’s a garbage can over there if you’re gonna be sick”. Only in cross country, I thought to myself.

I placed 13th out of 28 runners in this race. Mediocre by the standards of some, but exceptional to me. Additionally, I decreased my personal best time by four minutes, and a ran a pace of 9:09 per mile. This was the day that I realized what it means to be a “real runner”. Real runners are not always those who finish in the top ten, earn medals, make it to state championships, or even lead their pack on runs during practice. Real runners are the people who do not give up. They push away the voices in their head saying, “you could just walk”, or “you should quit”.  They set goals for themselves and do everything in their power to achieve them. They break the stereotypes of who a “real runner” should be.

I often find myself needing to run. Usually this occurs at times when my brain seems full to bursting with information that I can’t seem to organize. Whenever my motivation falters, I think back to my last run, and how exceptional I felt afterwards. I have experienced the phenomenon known as a “runner’s high”, during which, even after you have completed your most challenging workout, you just want to do it again. Sometimes I have magically found myself in my driveway wearing shorts and running shoes, and to be honest, I’m still not quite sure how I got there.

I would like to leave you with three things to consider about running, whether you despise it with a burning passion or you are considering joining the track team. Number one: very rarely are the most rewarding things in life easy. It may seem nearly impossible at first. You may find the overwhelming urge to compare yourself to others or to embark on a simpler journey, but I guarantee that there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Number two: running is not about being fast. Rather, it is about passion, whether this passion be for physical activity, nature, encouraging others, or even challenging yourself. And finally, number three: running is about you. Although your journey may consist of people who encourage you along the way, running is ultimately about pushing your physical and mental limits and challenging the standards you have set for yourself.