This photo was taken just weeks into my freshman cross country campaign at Northside and got a crazy number of likes on Facebook by people who have known me throughout various stages of my life. In considering this and the ways which the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives, I thought it might be helpful to share a little about how my self-narrative shifted as a result of choosing to run cross country.
My dad began training for his first and only marathon (Chicago 2002) at the end of my elementary school days. In preparation, he signed up for a 10k and asked me if I wanted to try running the corresponding 5k. Having basically no athletic background and carrying the awkward burden of being a (former) chubby kid I figured running might be a good way to "get in shape." The narrative I told myself was that as a (former) chubby, Asian kid with glasses, I wasn't "tough" and would never be an athlete. Without a background in traditional team sports or much natural speed, strength, or stature, I had written off athletic activity as an opportunity to be embarrassed, and was entirely content to view physical activity as a necessary evil of a healthy lifestyle akin to brushing my teeth. I allowed this narrative to limit my potential not just as an athlete but also as a person.
I ran that first 5k in 29:36 and figured that this would probably be the extent of my running "career." I didn't train much and figured running a bit faster than my dad's planned marathon pace for the distance would be respectable. It fit perfectly into the narrative I told myself: I was healthy enough to finish, I'd maybe jog once or twice a week and run a 5k for charity once in a while, but I wasn't about to win any races.
Fast forward a few months to my transition from home school to public school for the first time in five years. The only person I knew at my new school played lacrosse (shout out to Tori, haha). I hadn't really played organized team sports, but figured this sounded cool (tough or whatever) and sort of had an idea that not many (Chicago) kids had experience playing lacrosse prior to high school so I might have a shot at this "new" sport. Again to "get into shape" and develop some toughness, I surprised myself and my parents by deciding to run cross country the fall of my freshman year of high school (I don't think there is any "going out" for cross country as everyone makes the team).
Racing for the first time!
My self-narrative began to change in my first cross country race. I finished the Gordon Tech Invite Freshman Two Mile in under 13 minutes, truly racing for the first time and off little training. I believe I placed 19th or 20th in this race and received a medal or ribbon for this finish. Prior to the race, I realized I couldn't fail if I never backed down. No matter how slow I ran, I couldn't question my toughness if I ran through the pain. This thought was freeing for a failure fearing teen. Thus unhindered by paralyzing fear, I had objectively achieved something in cross country. In light of this evidence, my narrative had to change. I could no longer truthfully tell myself I was an athletic non-achiever and that I wasn't tough.
I still have miles to go in terms of refining my self-narrative, but this experience is one of the most significant to date. This mile (or two miles as it were) of my journey began to reset parts of my narrative that kept me from achieving my potential as an athlete and a person. I'm finding it difficult to connect this transformation of self-narrative to things beyond running at the moment. I will say that what this revealed was my ability/worth in a totally unexpected area, a foreshadowing of a (growing) realization of my worth regardless of achievement or ability.
How would you describe your first race experience?
Have you experienced a transformation as an athlete that has changed the stories you tell yourself?
Leave a comment or question below!
Note: A lot of the thought processes I describe above were fueled by an unhealthy fear of failure which characterized my adolescent mind. Perhaps another time I'll write about running "scared." Another adolescent fantasy to dispel is there is only so much "toughness" can overcome (sorry Pre fans). Being mentally tough and staying positive counts but I believe its dangerous to disconnect those things from our natural ability, current fitness, and the limits they impose. In fact, the lack of sprint speed, explosive strength, and stature that make team sports challenging for me is probably the flip side of the physiology that allows me to run well in the marathon.
Also thanks Dan McDowell for editing this piece!