Kind of an odd distance, just short of half a mile. Inconsequential really. Would take about a minute and thirty seconds at top speed, almost three at cruising pace. But it has a special significance to me, one I discovered very recently while mulling over the reason I run. What I discovered shocked me, and made me look at running in a new light.
When people ask when I started running I can mention sixth grade. Freshly arrived in Oregon the spring before, my mom suggested that I try out for a sport. As much as I loved football, the fact that I was a good foot shorter and twenty pounds lighter than most of my peers due to the double factor of skipping a grade and being born premature, ruled that one out. Soccer didn’t hold much appeal, so she brought up cross country. Having never heard of it before, the first image that came to my head was literally running across the country. I was quickly corrected and after expressing some interest, was signed up. A nondescript rookie season began, and it was only logical to do track in the spring, continuing with a distance theme. The size difference wasn’t as much a factor as it would be in other sports, but I was one of the slowest out there.
But I have never considered that the beginning of my running career.
I can mention my freshman year of cross country, when I was 13 years old. Still one of the slowest, I had decided I honestly liked running. Obviously not born with the natural talent or build, it was going to take work to succeed. I decided that I was going to stick with it and do what it takes to reach any potential I might have. After a talk with my coach, Vic Downs, I walked away with a training plan and a desire to be the best possible runner I could. I ran as many as six days a week, even getting up early to get in an extra five miles in the morning before school on top of the planned workout. I ran all winter, had a lackluster track season, and trained through the summer. In my sophomore cross country season, I ran most of the meets as the 8th place varsity runner. I had learned the value of hard work, and my life was forever changed.
That is the story I tell people, but it is merely partially the truth. It is the easy story.
The other story is not nearly so pretty.
640 meters. Well, not exactly, but pretty close.
Before moving to Oregon, my family lived in Norwalk, California and that is the approximate distance between the elementary school two of my siblings and I attended, and our house. I learned many things in elementary school, but that is where I really learned to run. I did not know it at the time, but in that 640 meters, there was more to me than what I learned at school.
I learned very quickly, around first grade or so, that it was not good to be different. It was shameful to be a boy with long hair. It was embarrassing to be saddled with a body so much smaller than your classmates, and a factor that was constantly taken advantage of. I learned how to quickly stop the flow from a bleeding nose. I learned that even though due to the tutelage of a loving mom, you could learn enough to be skipped up a grade to ensure that school was mentally stimulating, it is often better to hide that knowledge. Books were a great escape from being incessantly picked last, or even picked at all, in games at recess or p.e. It was better to bite the bullet and sit up front in class, rather than hide in the back and deal with the embarrassment of rarely understanding the teacher. The expensive, irreplaceable hearing aids provided by my parents were worn for a very short period of time, as it was easier to be thought stupid at times for misunderstanding or not hearing the other kids than to be treated as mentally deficient.
In fifth grade, at the age of nine, the negative attention had become so harsh and regular, it was easier to just send me anywhere than to recess with the other kids. That time was spent in a siblings classroom, helping out, and going home to eat every lunch break.
Every lunch, heading home before class let out, and arriving back shortly after they got back in. I don’t remember why or when, but at some point, it became a run. Not sprinting with the wind, like so many kids do, out of breath and grasping their knees before they reach their destination, but one of smoothness, arriving calm and collected. It was an escape in every sense of the word.
I continued to repeat this journey, day after day. Through repeated talks with the teachers, Principal, police officers, and the school board. They said that the problem was either out of their jurisdiction or that they feared the retaliation of the gangs and families of those that tormented me.
Free from the worst of those problems, I continued that daily run. Home, and back again.
Sixth grade was more of the same, and it was never considered to allow me to return to recess.
So I continued to run.
This was one of the major factors contributing to the uprooting of our family to a new home over a thousand miles away. The problems persisted, but not to that degree. The tormentors were much fewer in number, and not nearly as savage. But I continued to get in ‘fights’ with guys whom I was was barely shoulder high, or even chest high to. As everyone got older, this mostly tapered off.
But I still felt as insignificant as the years of tormentors had led me to believe. Running became the outlet to prove them wrong, but subconsciously. I have never before thought of it in that manner until today. It was the ultimate leveling factor. Being small was no longer a negative factor, but something that allowed me to climb hills faster. Nobody cares if their competition is deaf in a race. It took a year of work to prove that I didn’t have to stay at the back of the pack. It took ten years of work to show that I could be strong enough to run away from the pack. With each race I run well those voices become a little quieter. With each win, their strength is diminished. Each year that I get stronger, not just my legs but as a whole, I no longer feel that I will be a victim of bullying. The biggest realization now is to know that I no longer run away from those voices to prove myself, I now run for me.
Even better, I can run for others. Building from an idea given to me by another runner, I have used the toughest half marathon in the area as a way to raise money for charity. When I get recruited for a team like Hood to Coast, Epic Relay, or the Dual Duel, I experience the honor that is other people respecting the work I have done. We combine our talents for a common goal and I am no longer the last kid in the gym with the teams arguing over who should be saddled with me.
But this was obviously not something that I did by myself. I owe thanks to some people.
First of all, my mom Beth. She has done so much and gave me the initial push in this direction. Ferried me to countless races and bought me shoes whenever I wore the old ones out. I learned the core lessons of running in the years that she allowed me to grow and flourish.
Secondly, my siblings. Summer, Cassie, Stephan, and Aspen. Combined, they have ridden countless miles on bikes, in my high school years and even after, to make the fast runs faster and the long ones less tedious. They were my original running buddies.
Next, Coach Downs. Eight seasons of tutelage and guidance in the off-season, he gave me the help I needed. Those four initial years gave me the basis for what it now seventeen years of continuous running.
My good friend Ximena. Also a runner, she gives me insight into my training and is part of the reason my thought processes regarding it has changed. I don’t believe this piece would even exist if it weren’t for her influence upon my life.
My running buddies/coaches (at this point they are interchangeable), Joe Dudman, Beth Armstrong, Chuck Coats, Dan Kaplan, Alfredo Cisneros and the VOQ Team. You guys make my running what it is.
Any runner that attends a race or I see on the streets. If you have cheered me on, I thank you. If you acknowledged me, you give me a reason to smile, I hope I did for you as well. I love this community and what it means. We help each other when we stumble, we encourage those that we are trying to beat, we shake hands whether we win or lose, we share our water when we see someone with a need greater than ours, we embody a sportsmanship and respect rarely seen in today’s world.
I may enter most races with the goal of finishing first, but the true reason I am here is because I never run alone.
640 meters no more…….