Losing Track and Finding Myself: Learning to Run a New Race

I remember my first day of track practice: walking into a room full of kids skipping and skirting about, some giggling, others moaning in exaggerative pain. Whichever case, it was enough for me to get the jitters, to scour the room looking for kids my age. “The Big Kids,” our team captains, would round everyone up, putting them in lines for warm-ups, stretches and drills. Then we broke into our groups—groups that told us which events we would be running—practicing for hours. I made my first track friends in the sprinter group.

My first track meet was traumatic, to say the least. It was my first time being at a large indoor sports complex and I was so excited to get out there. To this day, I can never compare anything else to the feeling of awe I got walking into a track meet, seeing all the colorful clusters of teams bouncing, dashing and moving all over. For eight-year-old me, it looked like a huge, open playground. Little did I know, it wouldn’t be fun for long. The announcers called the sub-bantam girls' 200-meter dash, so I laced up my spikes and went to the bullpen to check-in and get my lane assignment. They lined us up in our heats and walked us to our starting lines. I was in lane one. I don’t remember being nervous, I just wanted to put my training to the test.

“Runners, take your marks…”

“Set.”

BOOM! 

I was off, dashing around the first curve, focused on catching the girls in front of me. Then the second curve came–no one told me about the cut-in zone. The girls slid to lane one, and I don’t remember if I tripped over myself or if another girl tripped me. Regardless, I went down hard. Everything was quiet around me; the race hadn’t stopped. No one told me I could fall in track! I got up, walked right off the track and went under a set of bleachers, bawling my eyes out. A boy ran up to me, one of those “big kids,” asking me if I was okay and telling me to come out so we could get help.

“Everyone is going to laugh at me!” I was so embarrassed.

Eventually, my parents found me, and after rushing around to get bandages, we went home. My face was scraped up pretty badly—so much so that my eye was swollen shut. The weeks ahead were worse, as I began forming scabs over half of my face. It was a pretty rough time for me, being that I was the new kid at school and I was insecure about my injuries. They healed with time, as with most things. I continued track, despite this traumatic event, and it transformed my life. The people I met in the track community I would remember forever.

As time went on, I worked harder and got faster, improving the most on the team if you ask me. Sonya Richards-Ross, the fastest woman in the world in the 400-meter dash, became my idol. I went through countless teams and coaches, my dad being one of them. We practiced for what seemed like forever. There were long meets every weekend and countless injuries. Track was my life, my entirety. When I started competing in high school, things got tough. I competed at my local high school, which unfortunately did not have the best team. Deciding that it would be in my best interest to pursue track in college, I knew I would have to transfer to a school with a better track team. So, I did just that. I transferred to Elizabeth Seton, an all-girls Catholic school, with one of the best track teams in Maryland. Year-round, I would train, compete and repeat. I was no longer just a sprinter; I would run anything from the 200 (half a lap outdoors) to the 800 (2 laps outdoors) and even hurdles, which are a whole different story. Of course, my main event was the 400 (one lap) and it gave me the most anxiety over the course of my track career. We would compete at exclusive meets, our relays broke records (as did our girls) and we were 10-time WCAC champions. I was proud to be a part of that team. I was proud to be a track-lete.

Something changed my senior year of high school—I’m still not entirely sure what it was. I began to fall out of love with track. I was plagued with injuries, mental and physical, and didn’t have the confidence or the drive to compete. My times plateaued and I went through a tough time trying to figure out if I wanted to continue to pursue a track career in college or say goodbye to my days as an athlete. Schools were recruiting me, small schools I had no interest in and didn’t see myself attending. When I chose Florida State, I knew that I would not be able to join their track team. They hadn’t recruited me and I wasn’t running their walk-on times. I had to let go of something that had been a part of my life for so long. I had to let go of what I thought defined me. It was a big adjustment for me to come to Florida State, a huge sports school, just to be another student. I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore. I would hear people chat about their high school athletic days and how they might have dabbled in sports. But track was who I was for so long, I didn’t know how to be anyone else.

Now, in my second year of college, I look back at the old me and ask myself, “What can I do to honor the track girl I used to be?” For a very long time, I wasn’t focused on losing track but instead was excited to gain a new experience of college life. For a while, I loved it. It was like an off-season after eight straight years of track. I had fun exploring, meeting new people and not having the stress of practice or dropping times on my mind. It wasn’t until my second semester of college that I felt a shift. I was disappointed in myself. I was comparing my life in college to my past track life—something I might continue to do now. It was a big deal for me to go to track meets every weekend, dropping times and winning races, watching all the practice pay off. It was a big deal for my family to come to my meets, using many of them as excuses to take vacations and travel across the country. They loved watching kids I grew up with in the track community grow, just as much as they loved watching me do the same. I thought I was giving my parents something special, something I took from them when I decided to stop running. This guilt clung to me.

I started to self-reflect more than usual and I found out that I was discovering one of the hardest parts of growing up. I could be independent and I could adapt to being away from home; these were no issue to me. The hardest part was not that my parents wouldn’t be there to tell me what to do and what not to do. The hardest part was understanding that I had to learn to do things not only BY myself but truly FOR myself. Now that might sound simple, obvious even, but it was a lot harder for me to do than it seems. My parents weren’t very strict, so I set boundaries for myself and made my own rules to abide by. Everything our family was, was built on and around track. I knew that every time I practiced hard, dropped times, won races or made the teams for special meets, I made my parents proud. Though I loved track and always will, it was something I did to make everyone else happy. I realize this when I think back to meets where I didn’t drop times or place on the podium. I would be so harsh on myself because I felt like I let down my entire family. Of course, I still want to make my parents proud, but I have to learn to live to please myself. I can’t do things entirely for my parents or for other people. I now get to find myself, be who I want to be and do things that make me proud. I always relied on the satisfaction of people around me to determine if my achievements meant something. Making myself proud seemed selfish when I could make everyone around me proud.

When I ran track, I knew exactly who I was. College has molded me into an entirely different person. It has changed my opinion of growing up. I still don’t know what really makes me happy, what I love to do or what makes me, me. It is a journey of self-discovery, learning to know myself and do things for myself. I would not have realized this if it hadn’t been for me taking the step to let track, a big chunk of my life, go. I never grieved my old life and, turns out, that is an important step in growth. I hadn’t learned to let go. I had to tell myself that it was okay to let track go, that change is okay. And it’s hard; with life moving fast, you forget to bask in the moment, to appreciate where you are and accept that it might not always be like this. Instead of challenging change, you must embrace it, flow with it not against it. At the end of the day, it isn’t about who you are, it’s about all the different versions of yourself. My life now does not exclude who I used to be or the life I used to have. If anything, it formed a foundation for who I am today.  It’s through the hustle and bustle of college life that I have learned to let go. I hope that everyone can experience how good it feels when you let the fluidity of change guide you instead of fearing it.

All photos courtesy of the author.