BY SABRINA WANG
I remember my first “school run.” Two laps around the school field, down toward the classrooms, once around the playground and back up the field where a gym teacher holding a timer waited, screaming encouragements at the finish line.
To this day those memories still make me wince.
I was 10. I had just transferred from another elementary school (where physical activity had a lesser importance in the grand scheme of things); I had never really run before, and most of my classmates were hyperactive athletic kids whose parents encouraged them to move as much as possible.
Looking back I’m fairly certain that I didn’t even know how to run. As the gym teacher blew the whistle, the other kids burst from the starting line in a tangle of arms and legs, and I eagerly joined them because, really, what harm was there? My friends had moaned about the school run bitterly before P.E. even started, but I, being the amateur, didn’t understand what — or why — they hated it so much until around the second minute in.
It was just as horrible as they described it.
I lost my early sprint within 30 seconds (pacing? What was pacing?) and felt a stabbing pain on my side that increased to massive proportions with each plodding step. The uphill was the worst — a slow torturous incline where no end was visible until the very top, and it was here where I finally started walking, struggling to breathe and not cry and throw up all at once.
The worst part was that my asthmatic best friend, who is ironically a hockey player, finished long before me and was waiting at the finish line. I was dead last, clocking in at six minutes and forty seconds. I didn’t have even enough mental strength to feel embarrassed, plopping myself on the grass and leaning my forehead against the wire fence.
The gym teacher looked at me with pity.
“You’re not breathing right,” he said, mildly. “Also, you should tuck your arms in. Breathe in through your nose.”
The litany of helpful suggestions whistled past my ears. “Okay,” I replied, eyes closed, feeling half dead. The nausea still hadn’t gone away.
And that was the beginning of my relationship with running.
My best friend tried to console me in the locker room. “It wasn’t too bad,” she said, as she held her inhaler. But we both knew the truth.
For the next few school runs I performed almost as poorly. Almost. I’m not sure if it was cowardice or extreme desperation; In any case, I attribute my dread to my fear of coming in last.
“Anything but the last,” I would chant as I sped-walked up the hill. “Anything but the last,” as I circled the field. And finally there was a moment where I could run the entire thing. Soon after I improved tremendously, and my mantra no longer applied. By the end of the year I was one of the first ones to finish.
My time whittled down to three minutes. My gym teacher stupefied. He couldn’t believe it. To be honest, neither could I.
But now the problem was that I was experiencing moments of the “runner’s high,” and I didn’t want to let it go. So I joined the cross country team.
To anyone who doesn’t know what I look like, I am a very short person. But my now modest stature was bestowed upon me in full when I was in sixth grade — when I towered over most other girls, and cross country races resulted in me placing fairly well. In high school, however, all the other girls started shooting up vertically, while I grew only horizontally. My times became slower and more sluggish and I started to once again dread every practice.
I stopped running sophomore year of high school when the turning moment was when I became one of the last girls to cross the finish line.
“Running isn’t for me anymore,” I told anyone who asked. For the next few years I never touched a treadmill after that race. (I did occasionally run in the park near my house, where no one could see.)
For a long time running was part of my identity. And it was with great trepidation that I started running once again last year. As any runner will tell you, the first five to ten minutes are the worst. You wonder why you ever started the treadmill in the first place, why you decided to lace your sneakers and then the 15 to 20-minute mark hits and all the endorphins rush over you as you finish jubilantly.
And so it was this weekend, I just ran my first 5K in the Baltimore Running Festival.
I didn’t want to sign up at first. I had to be convinced. (Did I want to pay $45? No. Did I eventually? Yes.)
But at the starting line, when I was milling about with thousands of other people, all waiting to do the exact same activity, things began to change a little. Running became a little bigger than what I felt other people would think, if I would finish “first” or “last.” People are cheering at you as you thunder down the street, and you’re acknowledging everyone who you run with — a sense of togetherness not found anywhere else. Street bands play “Eye of the Tiger,” shopkeepers clap their hands in the brisk air and near the end of the race family and friends of other runners whistle as you cross the finish line. The sense of support I felt was empowering.
It was the most euphoric I had ever felt while running. So much so that after we finished, I looked at my boyfriend, grin still split over my face.
“Let’s do this again next year,” I said.
Sabrina Wang is a sophomore neuroscience major from Vancouver.