Part II: Lighting the Flame

As promised, Part II of my journey as an athlete and woman begins with my first-ever run. This fateful run was on a hot summer afternoon at sixth grade cross-country practice. I hated it. Every afternoon I purposely ran on the roots, sticks and uneven ground hoping I would trip, fall, break an ankle and never have to run again. I quit the team within two weeks.

Three months later, I found myself watching a video my science teacher had created about his mini-marathon training program. His classroom was adorned with race bibs and finisher medals, and he had an infectious endorphin-fueled outlook on life. In the dimly lit halls of my middle school, this teacher was a ray of light. Every year he coordinated a program for students to train and race the Indianapolis Mini Marathon together. It was a daunting challenge, especially considering I had declared my hatred for the sport, but with encouragement from my teacher and pressure from my peers, I signed up. My parents doubted me, and for good reason – I couldn’t finish a three-kilometer race – but I was determined.

Training began in February. We ran laps inside of the middle school, and by “ran,” I mean we sprinted down hallways, giggled at boys, and walked until we had to run and hide from our pre-pubescent emotions again. It was fun.

As we shifted our training to the outdoors in the spring, my dad decided to join me. Twice a week we ran, together. Slowly, deliberately, gleefully. While it wasn’t quite as “cool” to be running with my dad instead of chasing boys, I cherished these miles. My father taught me the mantra, “slow and steady wins the race,” and this became the soundtrack of my journey to become a runner. Miles ticked by as I vented to him about the tribulations of being a twelve-year-old girl. He listened as I lamented about boys, cliques, classes, and the constant lack of fairness in the world. He provided insight and wisdom, laughter and inspiration. He taught me confidence, self-belief and humility. He believed in me when I didn’t know how. He could see a soft flame flickering within me, just waiting to be ignited.

We ran my first half-marathon together, stride for stride, without walking a single step. It took three hours, and most of my peers beat me. But I finished my first race, with my best friend and greatest training partner, and it was exhilarating.

I kept running.

Over the next three years I ran multiple half marathons, each faster than the last. There was no more chasing boys, just miles. My dad continued to be my trusted training partner, and I started to run with my mom as well. She became my sounding board for life’s conflicts, failures, frustrations, and victories. We shared laughter, tears, wisdom, and love on the pavement. My parents were so much more than training partners; they became trusted confidants, mentors, and my best friends. They taught me to run, and eventually, like a child riding without training wheels for the first time, they let me run without them.

It was in this solitude that I found myself. Every footfall, mile, and race was an opportunity to discover another layer within myself, to dig deep into my twelve-year-old mind and find so much more than a mess of raging hormones. I unraveled every layer, finding my relentless drive, deep anxiety, and enduring tenacity; I found my need for acceptance, longing for validation, and hunger for a challenge. I continue to peel away these layers today. The solitude of a quiet run or ride pulls back each layer revealing my vulnerable, raw and unearthed remains, building this intricate account of myself I aspire to know.

The pavement is my sanctuary. It is where I leave the rubble in search of peace. It is where the comforting rhythm of my breathing reminds me I’m alive. It is where I find myself – broken, blessed, whole, and yet never complete. The pavement is where my story begins.

Middle-school Samantha realizing running is about more than chasing boys down the hallway.
Middle-school Samantha realizing running is about more than chasing boys down the hallway.

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