The weather is perfect for racing: not too hot, not too humid, not too windy. I dash down the twisted trails in the woods, trying not to stumble on the gnarled roots protruding from the dirt. My spikes puncture the soft earth with every stride, and my legs repeatedly pound on the ground, soreness surging through them.
As sweat trickles down my face and dirt smears across my aching calves, I ascend a steep hill, trying to bring forth the strength I have accumulated throughout endless hours of practice. Now that I am nearing the final two hundred meters, I must force my body to begin sprinting. Breathing heavily, I dart for the imminent finish line, trying to beat the relentless tick of the timer. Even though the crowd surrounds me, I can barely hear their animated cheers; all I can focus on is crossing the line before the girl next to me. I can feel the adrenaline surging through my body, and I widen my stride to cap off the remaining distance. When I glance at my Garmin watch, a new personal best time flashes across the screen. I realize that all of the grueling work I have put in is worth the final result: happiness.
As I stumble past the finish line, I am numb to the other racers in the chute, the overjoyed parents, and the intrusive volunteers who shove me down the line to keep it moving. I am numb to the sweltering heat and the stench of two hundred overworked, sweaty racers. I am not even bothered by the girl vomiting beside me, because all I can feel is happiness. The first thing I want to do is share this literally breathtaking moment with my teammates, the only ones who truly appreciate this feeling.
Once we locate each other, we share our times and experiences from the race. I am grateful to share my passion for running with so many wonderful people. In this moment, I realize that I have never appreciated a sport so much, and I have finally become part of a team that makes me feel like I belong to a family.
I carry this passion for running with me. Knowing that not everyone can do what I do fills me with a sense of pride. Not everyone understands the adrenaline rush that comes with finishing six plus miles at a time, and not everyone understands the godlike healing powers of an ice bath. Somewhere along the way, suffering through hours of early morning training transforms into racing my heart out alongside the people I love most. Seeing my times and distances on my wrist as I cross countless finish lines has instilled a deep love inside me that is irreplaceable.
When I first found cross-country, I discovered a hidden talent and a new meaning to my life. Running has not only given me confidence, but it has also made me a better person. I am tremendously grateful to share such a life-changing experience with 35 other teammates who understand the exact same feeling.
All runners can collectively agree that no two runs are ever the same. Sometimes, I feel as light as a feather, as if I could continue for hundreds of miles and never slow my pace. Being able to float through the mileage without complication is undoubtedly one of the greatest euphorias. Other times, however, the sun’s heat beats down on my back, or my legs feel as though they weigh 100 pounds each, and I cannot keep going no matter how hard I want to push myself. Even on days when every inch feels like a mile, I know that I cannot stop, because everything leads back to that feeling of success on the other side of the finish line.
Truthfully, I would take the relentless feeling of struggle any day over the feeling that has recently been haunting me. I am no longer able to float through my mileage, nor am I subject to melt in the sun’s harsh rays. Lately, I am only able to feel the heartbreak that ensues after an injury, and carrying this burden by myself every day feels like dead weight on my shoulders.
I know that my teammates are sympathetic; they do not want to see me fall behind after training so aggressively. I know that they wish I could race beside them and achieve new personal bests, but they do not understand my pain. They do not understand what it feels like to watch them dash through the woods with ease while I struggle just to walk. They do not understand how desperately I desire to sprint as fast as I can in an attempt to relieve some of this mental weight, but I physically cannot. I long for a chance to relieve my anger and worries during a four-mile trek, but instead I stand idly on the sidelines, by myself. Because of my injury, I can no longer share experiences with my team; I no longer belong. I no longer carry a passion for running with 35 other girls, because the weight of carrying my injury alone is already too much for me to bear.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.