This one’s for those of you who feel like you’ve never been further from your goals, and every step feels heavier than it should; for those trying to make a comeback; for those with doubts, for those with dreams. This is to remind you its okay, the first steps back are always the hardest, but they’re worth it.
The last time I stepped off the track from a race was the USA Outdoor Championships in Sacramento in June 2014. That is–until last Saturday when I finally got to line up for my first official race at the USATF Club Cross Country Nationals.
Three-and-a-half-years is a long time to be away from this sport, especially after running 20-some races a year for the last ten years. And after going through two major surgeries, and years without having a “pain-free” week of training, I honestly didn’t know if or when I’d ever race again.
To say that it was a joy to be able to compete again is an understatement. I praise God that after 3.5 years of dreaming of this moment it finally came true. Yet, to say that the race itself was pure joy would also be a lie. Instead, the best way to describe it was, well, IT WAS HARD!!!
Perhaps I’d been away from this sport too long and was finally getting a taste of what the outsiders see. Those people who stare at you with utter peculiarity when you tell them you “love to run.” Those people who associate this sport with nothing more than pain and punishment.
I’d forgotten what it felt like to have your toes sink into mud and your legs feel like lead and barely be able to move. I forgot what it felt like to get engulfed in a field of bodies that first mile, and have to fight for your dear life to own the ground in front of you. I forgot how bad you have to want it when your body is screaming to give up, but your heart is holding on for dear life.
And yet, despite everything I’d forgotten, it all felt so familiar. Like learning to ride a bike again, I just had to get past those awkward first few moments before I was gliding along to an old familiar rhythm. No, it still wasn’t easy, but by the last kilometer I finally began feeling alive again, as if I had never even taken a break.
After crossing the finish line in 63rd place, I wasn’t sure what to make of it right away. I had bigger goals in mind, but I also had to overcome bigger obstacles than most just to get to this race. After a bit of reflection, I remembered an old piece of advice my dad once gave me.
When I was 13 my dad and I went for our first run together. He took me down to the Cleveland Metroparks on an asphalt bike path winding through trees and weaving alongside the Rocky River. Excited that his daughter had taken up one of his own hobbies, he was eager to share some wisdom with me. As we ran past weeping willows, he whispered to me a piece of wisdom I’ll never forget,
“The first mile is always the hardest. Remember that. It’ll get easier once you find your rhythm.”
No, his words of wisdom weren’t rocket science. And yes, sometimes Dad turned out to be wrong when the first mile of a race felt much easier than the last! But that wasn’t the point he was trying to make. What he taught me on that run thirteen years ago was that if you stick with it, not only will it eventually get easier, it’ll be worth it.
Last Saturday’s cross country race, though it wasn’t the epic and victorious comeback race I wanted, was my first mile. It was those first few seconds on a bike after you haven’t ridden one for years. It was that first hill on the rollercoaster you have to get through before you can enjoy the loop-do-loops. It was a reminder that this sport was never meant to be easy, it’s a personal challenge, and that’s why I fell in love with it and never lost that love.
So for anyone out there feeling like you’re a million miles from where you want to be, don’t give up. Consider this moment your “first mile,” and know that as long as you keep going, it’ll get better from here.