The moment I fell in love with running began with a failure. It was August 1998 -- I was 12 years old. I had just started middle school in the Bronx and was commuting solo from New Jersey without the protection of my parents or companionship of my younger brother.
Growing up, I loved playing Little League soccer and baseball in my small, suburban hometown. While I was not always the most gifted player on the team, I practiced hard and earned respect from my coaches and teammates. I was a key forward in soccer and starting pitcher in baseball.
So naturally, at my new school, I wanted to join the soccer team, the most prestigious given its winning record and competitive selection process. But on the first day of tryouts, I quickly realized my new classmates played on a whole other level! They demonstrated better dribbling skills, body control, size, and strength. I was cut.
I was still desperate to play a team sport. The only team I could join at that point was boys’ cross-country, and lucky for me, there were no tryouts. How hard could it be to run a few miles? I figured that even if I didn't enjoy it, running would get me in shape for winter swimming and spring tennis.
Our cross-country practices and races took place in the 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx with miles of cinder trails, including forgiving "flats" circumscribing the park and less forgiving "back hills" tucked away in the woods. Van Cortlandt was conveniently located a short half-mile jog downhill from my school and full of continual movement. Blue, black, maroon, and orange uniforms would crowd the wide-open flats -- athletes warming up, running, meditating.
My first week of cross-country preseason was more grueling than anything I had ever done before. The middle school and high school teams practiced together, and after our warmup and stretch, we were all ordered to run into the back hills for seemingly endless repeats of the 1.2-mile loop until we could no longer pick up our legs. I would feel myself getting progressively slower on each loop. When running up the last hill, I remember screaming encouragement to myself that escaped only as feeble grunts. Practice was a constant battle with pain. Everything hurt!
After practice, the saving grace was cheap pizza and a can of Coke at Broadway Joe’s across the Park. And after a race, we splurged on heavenly carrot cake from Lloyd’s, a hole-in-the-wall bakery that probably laced its frosting with something illegal. I would then trudge back onto the subway to go home and tackle a pile of homework. I soaked my legs in warm baths and applied copious amounts of Salonpas (the Japanese version of Bengay), praying that my legs would not feel like bricks forever. I knew that almost half of those who came to preseason every August dropped out before the season started, and I was determined not to quit.
As I persevered through cross-country practices and races, I often surprised myself by exceeding my own expectations. Every time I overcame pain, set a new record, or placed higher on my team, I gained confidence. I looked forward to testing and expanding my mental, physical, and emotional limits. Running began to fill me up with positive energy. I took my coach’s words to heart: “Pain is necessary. Suffering is optional.” I understood that the pain I experienced was temporary. It would go away and be replaced by a wonderful feeling of accomplishment -- a runner’s high.
It was this routine that made me an avid runner: the warmup to Van Cortlandt Park, the camaraderie, the gut-wrenching workout, the pain, the runner’s high, and of course the pizza and carrot cake! My failure in soccer turned into some semblance of success with running.
Running is now a part of my identity. It speaks about me, and it speaks to me. I will always remember the Van Cortlandt Park back hills and when I first fell in love with running.