Recently, during a conversation about running, I mentioned that I had cut back my workouts because I was suffering from shin splints. A well-intentioned person proceeded to give me all kinds of advice on how to overcome this challenge.
I listened politely, interjecting weak comments, like, “I know,” and “yes, I’ve done that before,” until the conversation drifted to other topics. While I appreciated the desire of this person to help, what I really wanted to say is, “Buddy, I’ve been running for twenty years. These aren’t my first shin splints and they won’t be my last. I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”
(I have a lot more sass in my head than I do in person.)
But the thing that stuck with me most wasn’t my inability to speak my true feelings, or any of the advice this person gave. It is, that I have been running for twenty years. Twenty years ago this summer, I started high school cross-country and became a runner. (I am suddenly feeling pretty old.) But I never would have made it past my very first run, if it wasn’t for a stranger who offered a lot more than advice.
When I showed up to my first cross-country practice at 6:30 am on a July morning, the coach and captains said something about “taking it easy” and “staying close by” for my first run. I was mortified at being singled out because I wasn’t good enough for the normal run. So when they all forgot to give me the beginner workout, I sighed with relief and took off after a dozen girls, out of the high school fields, and onto the streets of our quaint southern California town.
Things went swimmingly. For about a half a mile.
My lungs burned. My thighs burned. My calves burned. And everyone was leaving me behind. I pushed myself harder, thinking if I could just keep them in sight on the unfamiliar road, that I would be okay. We were going up a hill. The sun already blazed down on my scalp and as the first girls turned out of sight, the panic building in my stomach put all my other burning body parts to shame.
My first day as a runner, and I was going to be lost and forgotten. Some poor old lady would find my body on her perfectly manicured lawn tomorrow where I would have collapsed after wandering unknown suburban streets until my muscles failed me completely.
(Yes, fourteen-year-old me and thirty-four-year-old me are both highly dramatic, but also only internally.)
The burning in my lungs forced my feet to stop running. It didn’t matter anyway. I’d been left behind and forgotten. No use trying to keep up anymore.
“It helps…if you…keep jogging…even…if…it’s really…slowly.” A skinny girl stepped beside me, matching her pace to my shuffling walk.
I gulped air and nodded but didn’t start running. Despite the fact that I fully expected to be lost in a maze of sidewalks for the rest of my life, this was still less embarrassing that admitting that I was so far in over my head that I needed rescue.
The girl at my side didn’t jog ahead after giving me her advice like I expected her to. She kept my pace until I started jogging again. She kept my pace as I stumbled around the next corner.
“It’s better…to run…on the street or…sidewalk,” my companion said between breathes. “The gutter isn’t…good…for you.”
I looked down. Sure enough, I was running in the gutter. She shifted so that I had room next to her on the sidewalk. I looked up and she smiled.
“You’re doing great.”
I almost laughed. I almost cried. It was such a blatant lie, but she really seemed to believe it. She began talking more, telling me how she was a freshman. How she was leaving tomorrow on a vacation with her family. How she had summer school. It started in a half hour.
“Try picking up the pace,” she suggested as we headed down a hill and my disoriented brain realized we must be turning back toward the high school.
I didn’t pick up the pace. My face was baking in the sun. I dripped sweat. I shuffled along. My friend didn’t leave my side. We turned again. Street names started to look familiar. I was no longer in danger of becoming hopelessly lost.
The high school came into view. My inner self burst into tears and kissed the ground beneath my running shoes as we stepped onto the prickly grass. Outwardly I continued wheezing, continued moving forward.
There was no one expecting us. Half the team was already gone. We didn’t sprint to the finish line. There wasn’t a finish line. Our feet slowed and stopped and that was it.
“Well, I need to go get changed for school,” My friend said.
I nodded. Still too out of breath and too shy to say what I really felt, which was, “Thank you. I owe my future as a runner, my sanity, and my life to you. You are an angel and I’ll never forget the great service you have done me.”
“I’ll see you when I get back.”
Only she never came back. Not to cross-country. A girl I didn’t know rescued me from myself on my first ever cross-country run. I doubt I ever would have run again, if I’d been forced to find my way alone. I would have been traumatized.
Twenty years later, I run alone every morning. I run alone every season. In the dark, in the rain, in the snow and sun. I run because I love it, but it all started on that one terrifying day when I was fourteen. Every run since then has happened because of the kindness of a fourteen-year-old girl who didn’t just give advice. She stayed by my side. I never even knew her name.