“I’m only here because my Mom is making me do this for two weeks.” These were the first words I ever said to my future best friend as a group of us changed into running clothes in our high school’s locker room before heading out to cross country practice.
Little did I know, those two weeks would turn into eight years of varsity and DI cross country and track in high school and college, the reason I met the majority of my closest friends, my current career and a lifelong love of running. In other words, the moral of this story is: listen to your Mom.
Anyways, my first exposure to running came before high school. In elementary school gym class we were tested on all different elements of fitness to determine how healthy we were. I was pretty average across the board; I could do just enough push-ups and stretch just far enough to be deemed a normally fit child. The only thing I ever excelled in was the pacer test. Chances are you had to do a variation of this same test in your childhood. All of us would line up at one side of the gym and try to make it to the other side before the CD track made a beeping noise. Every couple of beeps, the time you had to run across the gym would shorten. I don’t think I was particularly quick, but I knew how to pace myself. There was only one boy in my grade who could outlast me. “Lizzy, if you don’t get a college scholarship for running, I’ll call those coaches for you,” my gym teacher used to tell me. At that point I’m not sure I even understood what college was so those comments drifted right over my head.
In fifth grade, I ran my first 5K with an after-school program called Girls on the Run. Although to be honest, I don’t remember actually doing that much running leading up to the race. My Dad ran the 5K race with me and I ended up finishing third out of all the girls, with only two middle schoolers in front of me. Starting that day, running would be a special bond I shared with my Dad. I continued to run occasionally in middle school with a very low-key running club, but I mainly focused on soccer, dance and swimming.
My first 5K race – the closing activity of the Girls on the Run program (2004).
Then came high school sports try-outs. I went out for the soccer team, but as an only average player trying out for one of the most popular teams in the school, I was cut. Convinced that this meant I was bound to have a horrible high school experience, I was devastated. It was then that my mom decided that I was required to do a sport and suggested I join the cross country team. I can still remember flopping on my bed amidst tears and rage as I yelled, “I heard they ran eight miles yesterday, Mom. I CAN’T RUN EIGHT MILES!” It was decided that I would give the sport a try for two weeks and if I hated it after that, I could quit, hence me declaring this to everyone I met during my first day of practice.
Since I joined the team late, our second day of practice was a meet. I ran in a novice race and ended up improving my 5K time by about four minutes. Flash forward a week or two later and I somehow placed sixth on our team in a dual meet, running my way onto the varsity team for our first invitational. At this point I don’t even think I had a pair of spikes. Somehow I had a pair on my feet for that first major meet and we ended up winning. That would be the start of our magical season. We placed second in the elite race at Bull Run, one of the most competitive meets in Maryland; won county championships; placed second at regionals to qualify for the state championships; became state champions and traveled together to compete at Footlocker Northeast Regional meet.
My first varsity invitational (almost disqualified for rolling my shorts); posing after Bull Run (both 2008).
Every day, I practiced with some of the fastest girls in the state, came home and immediately passed out on the couch from exhaustion before waking up for dinner and homework. I was coming off a summer of almost no running and working hard to keep up. Somewhere between the killer practices, team dinners and medal winning, I fell in love with the sport of running. I was proud to be a runner and loved spending the hours after school training with my best friends. We wrapped up our season with a huge state championship win: a surprise to everyone but us. I will never forget the feeling of leaping off the bleachers, hand-in-hand with my teammates to accept our medals.
Accepting our state cross country championship medals; racing in the county championships (both 2008).
Sophomore and junior year were a lot less exciting and running became much harder for me. As a freshman, I was immediately wrapped up in the excitement of winning when I joined the team. I improved every meet without thinking about it, ran each race without knowing where I was going and diligently followed my coaches’ instructions every day – no questions asked. The next two years, I expected to be able to keep up that improvement with little extra effort. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. I still had a ton of fun with my team, but ran slower times and wasn’t fully committed to the sport.
Racing a mile on vacation; posing with high school team; racing next to my best friend (all 2009).
I finally got my act together and trained my butt off the summer before senior year. I ran doubles, did strengthening exercises every single day and focused on fueling myself with healthy food. I attended an amazing running camp in New Hampshire leading up to the season and enjoyed tripling every day with other hardworking high school runners. Unfortunately, my mental strength was not up to par with my physical abilities. No matter how well I trained, I couldn’t preform. I would work out with the boys on my team and then have disappointing finishes at our races. I wasn’t slow but my times in no way reflected how fast I ran every day at practice. I did have a few highlights: setting an indoor track relay school record and qualifying for my first outdoor track state championships, but overall it was a year spent crying after races and being constantly frustrated with myself.
Competing in a dual meet senior year (2012); track workout during summer cross country camp (2011).
I remember my coach handing me a blank index card one day to fill out. “Why do you run?,” he asked me. “Put that on this card.” I never filled it out. Why did I run? I didn’t know. At that point it was just what I did. But, I was running scared. Every race I stressed that I wouldn’t perform well. My solution was to just keep running as much as I could and try to work harder in the hopes that my physical determination would overcome my weak mental capabilities. At one point, My mom took me to a sports psychologist who suggested I try to smile while I raced to mimic being happy. I tried to convince myself that I was happy confident before every race, but my fear always revealed itself about halfway through when I gave up trying to fake that stupid smile and told myself, “you’re not fast enough” and “you’re doing horribly.”
Fortunately, despite all this, I was accepted into my number one college and set to join the cross country and track teams there. I looked forward to joining a new running program and improving my times at the college level but the summer leading up to freshman year, I suffered a pulled hamstring and ankle injuries, gained significant weight and, worst of all: experienced a bad case of low self-confidence in my running. I convinced myself that I would be the slowest on the team. And guess what? I WAS. I was so set against myself that my negative affirmations came true. In my first college meet, I ran my slowest 5K since I was 10 years old and finished dead last out of the whole field. This would set the tone for a disappointing freshman year.
Posing with my new teammates (and ice bags); racing for the first time in the Marist uniform (both 2012).
I think it took me until mid-way through my sophomore year to actually enjoy racing again. My coach and I met every week to plan positive mantras for me to repeat in my head over and over again during practices and races. We reviewed the race courses on sheets of paper and decided what times I needed to hit at certain checkpoints to trick my mind into thinking each race was just another workout. I raced with a watch, I said my affirmations and slowly, I started to perform better. Eventually, I actually started to like competing again. I tried to pass the ponytails in front of me and started to improve my times with each race. Sometimes, I was even proud of myself after races, a feeling I hadn’t allowed myself to truly experience since I was a freshman in high school.
Marist cross country team huddle (2013).
By senior year, I was a very different runner than the injured, slow freshman who started my college running career. I was voted a cross country captain by my fellow teammates, my proudest honor to-date. It still means so much to me that my team saw the passion and drive I had re-discovered for running and looked to me as a role model. I worked really hard to increase my weekly mileage, strengthen my mind and most importantly, enjoy running with a fantastic team. Every workout I pushed myself and let my teammates help push me. And then, the hard work showed during the races too. At this point my 6K times were faster than that first 5K I ran as a freshman. During track, I discovered my love for longer distance events like the 3K and 5K. Gone were my days of speed and racing the 800 from high school, but I found my new strength: endurance. I guess I should have known from that elementary school pacer test – I wasn’t quick, really my reaction to the gun starts was embarrassing, but I could keep on chugging at a steady pace.
My last cross country race (2015); first 5K on the track with great teammates (2016); last track race (2016).
I was never anywhere close to being one of the fastest runners on the team but I loved cheering on my teammates, pushing the girls beside me to run just a little bit faster during practice, knowing they would do the same for me, and traveling together every other weekend. Most importantly, I loved to race. I was excited to get out there and see what I could do. I no longer needed the watch or planned affirmations, because I was confident and positive. Racing was fun! I didn’t have to be the fastest but I loved ticking off ponytails, digging my spikes into the earth and embracing my teammates after crossing each finish line. The days leading up to each race, I felt my excitement grow instead of the dread I had felt for so many years. I still had many struggles during my college running years (three more pulled hamstrings, painful weekly ART and chiropractor appointments and fainting problems) but I had finally built a healthy mindset towards running and racing.
As I ran across the finish line of my last cross country race, I remember smiling so wide without being able to help it. I was so happy to be doing what I love with people I love. I cannot thank the coaches, supportive family members and lifelong teammates who were a part of my eight years of competitive running journey enough. You made the painful cross country workouts feel easier, the insanely long track meets more fun and gave me the power to believe in myself! I am forever grateful that running brought you all into my life.
Embracing and posing with my amazing teammates after senior cross country races (all 2015).
Now, I run six days a week without a coach telling me what to do or racing in a uniform every weekend. Despite this, a few weeks ago, when people asked me if I still run, I found myself replying, “ehhh, I’m still getting back there.” Then, the other day, on a run of course, I asked myself something: “where exactly am I getting back to?” I will never be the runner I was in college or high school, and that’s OK! I may be slower at times and faster at others but as a runner I am constantly evolving. I have finally started to enjoy what I am doing now and look forward what I am training for in the future. Releasing the goal of “getting back” to the exact runner I was a year ago has allowed me to make new goals and enjoy the continuation of my running journey.
Top female finisher at Run To Remember 5K (2016); running with co-workers (2017); Baltimore Running Festival with my Dad (2016).
Since graduating, I have run one half marathon and three 5ks. Now, I am training for (at least) two spring half marathons and enjoying the process. Running is my best friend and my most annoying chore; my career and my hobby; the way I exercise and the way I relax; something I do to socialize and something I do to spend time with myself; my time to solve some problems and escape from others. Some days I drag my feet getting out the door and other times I spring into action. I know that running will be a part of me for the rest of my life and I can’t wait to write the next few chapters of my story.
What’s your running story? Why do you run? I would love to hear about your own journey or a small snippet of it in the comments below!