I discovered in third grade that I was a fast runner, which meant I was no longer interested in the stupid girls’ jump rope and jacks games on the playground. I wanted to play Kill the Man With the Ball with the boys. Kickball was OK, but KMWB was IT. Once I got the ball, NO one caught me.
I ran everywhere. I NEVER walked if I could run. My favorite was the forest across the street from my neighborhood. As soon as I hit the big meadow, marked at the end by an ancient oak tree, I started running, racing to that tree that I truly loved. From there I ran the lacy network of trails through the forest.
In short, I ran and ran and ran and ran. I won all the races. So, 7th grade, sports day. I was what, 13? What was supposed to be a 400 meter relay had been changed to a race because not enough girls wanted to participate. “You’ll have to run the whole thing,” Coah Larsen told those of us who were ready to run. “I’m sorry.” It was supposed to have been teams of four, one 100 meter length per girl.
I was ready, though I do not know if I had run that far before. Probably, but no one had ever measured it.
The gun went off. I took off, barefoot on cool grass in the Nebraska springtime. I got to the finish line WAY ahead of everyone. The whole time had felt like flight. Coach Larsen pushed the button on the stopwatch and looked at the assistant coach. He said, “Under a minute. Wait here, Martha.” I was winded, and I won a blue ribbon.
The next year I was in public school. Track and field came up in the gym class rotation. We were tasked with running a quarter mile and a half mile. I did it again. Because I ran so much (like EVERYWHERE) I was able to sprint that distance, which is pretty much the way to win them. My coach took me aside and said, “Would you like to train to be a runner?”
What? What a question. I WAS a runner. She asked for my phone number and gave me a paper for my mom to sign. It was for Olympic Training Camp the coming summer in Colorado Springs. I wanted it SO bad. Who imagined? I never did.
I took the paper home and gave it to my mom. I told her I wanted to go to Olympic Training Camp and train to run 400 meters, 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles like my hero, Wilma Rudolph. I knew about Wilma Rudolph WELL because I often RAN to the library to read the latest Sports Illustrated.
My mom sat down and gently explained why girls don’t run. They don’t get periods. They lose their femininity. They hurt themselves and can’t have children. The boys can’t catch them (supposed to be a joke, but I wasn’t interested in boys — yet.).
Next gym class, I told my coach what my mom said. The coach said she’d call my mom. She would explain that I was a talented young runner and maybe I had a chance. It didn’t matter. My mom refused to sign the paper and that was that.
My mom could keep me from going to Olympic Training Camp, but she couldn’t stop me from running. I ran all my life until I couldn’t any more. Olympic Training Camp would have been great (maybe) but even so, nothing could remove the joy I felt plowing up hills, across ravines and around narrow curves on rocky trails with dogs.
One such moment stands out in my memory. I was with Truffle on a red dirt trail one late afternoon in spring. We were followed by a red-shouldered hawk. These hawks screech a lot when they hunt, and the hawk was hoping to get something from our run. How could we fail to chase something out from under a bush? I’m sure she had hungry little ones in a nest nearby. It was wonderful that she was so close to us. I could make out the filaments on the underside of her wings, see her beak and eyes. She swooped, screeched and eyed our trail. The hawk would NOT have been flying with us had we not been “flying” ourselves.
I expanded on my natural ability and ran longer distances over the years because we change. Older people are generally better at endurance than at explosive sports. In my late 40s and 50s I somehow made a transition into 8 and 12 miles/day. For someone like me that’s far.
Sometime in the late 1990s I was invited by a student to attend the Scholar Athletes Award dinner at San Diego State. She was a soccer player. Her fiancé was on the men’s soccer team. She was one of my all-time favorite students and we did some hikes and runs together. We shared a table with two petite, lithe, strong girls. I asked them what their sport was. They answered that they ran the 400 meters, 400 meter hurdles and the 800 meters. Like me, they were middle distance runners. Because of Title 9, they’d grown up competing. Like my student, they attended SDSU on a sports scholarship. They were beautiful, feminine, confident and happy. My eyes filled. It had sucked for me, but it wasn’t sucking for them. ❤
Today I got a message from Ancestry DNA. A couple years ago I took the spit test. Today Ancestry informed me of a new genetic trait — that basically I was born to “sprint.” Take that, Mom.
So, again, my “anthem.”
Featured photo: Eastern Nebraska forest trail. ❤