It was the summer of 1995. I was deliriously in love with my high school boyfriend… oh, wait, not that first time. My other first time – my first race!
I started thinking about that day because my friend Kat just started her first marathon training cycle (go Kat!!) and it took me back to the day that started me down my own path. I was a freshman in high school, toeing the line at my first competitive event (nevermind the ill-fated season of club soccer in the third grade where it became startlingly clear that I should never be involved in any sport where balls, coordination, catching and kicking are basic requirements. It was not pretty, folks). How did I get to that line to begin with? For that answer, we have to go back one more year, to Mr. Pierangeli’s (Mr. P’s) 8th grade class. By this age, most kids had gravitated towards a sport and were likely already playing it – soccer, football, softball, etc. But for those of us who had no direction when it came to high school athletics, Mr. P represented a hail mary. He was like one of those guys that you see on the documentaries that go sorting through the rubbish piles and pulls out stuff that no one else wants. We were his treasure.
He successfully recruited me and gave the team instructions to start running and building a base that summer, but I did not. I did use a stationary bike one time on a vacation at my grandparents and figured I was sufficiently prepared. I mean, it was just running. How hard could it be? I soon found out. My first day of practice involved me gasping, turning bright red and doing very little actual running. I was far behind the main pack but had the company of a few others who had also not heeded Coach P’s instructions and got my first introduction on how great it is to commiserate with fellow runners.
So, back to that starting line…
September 14, 1991 Schalick vs Audubon, scrimmage ( Sidebar: Audubon HS is the alma mater of a guy I dated in college, who was also the first of many things, and a friend who I consider like a sister-in-law. Combine those with the bird artist and my first race and you’ll agree the word Audubon has loomed large in my own personal history!).
Prior to the race, the opposing team’s coach showed us a map with the route drawn on it. I was too nervous to pay much attention and figured I would be all right (in those days, I did a lot of figuring that was wrong!). The gun went off and I was sprinting the main pack thinking “ok, this is not so bad, I can totally do this!”. About 10 seconds later I thought “ok, of course I cannot hang with them, they are the fastest boys on the team! But I will definitely not finish too far behind “. Cut to a mile or so into the race, and I was walking and cursing my poor attention at the pre-race meeting. It was a wooded area and there were turns we were supposed to know about that I did not. I was half walking/half jogging and trying to makes sense of the course through tears. I was so far behind everyone that there was no one to follow and I just did not know what to do. So I did what would later become second nature – I just kept putting on foot in front of the other. Eventually, the fast boys who had finished almost 20 minutes before came to find me. They showed me the way, and I ran to the finish line, mortified, as parents and students cheered me in. 34 minutes and 44 seconds had elapsed and even though I was a heaving mess who came in dead last (long, long after everyone else), I was now a competitive runner.
I am nothing if not sentimental (there is no escaping it, really, I come from a long line of nostalgia hounds and am a direct descendent of one of the biggest in the Kisiel clan, my dad) as evidenced by this picture of the tag off the first pair of running shoes I ever bought:
So it should not be a surprise that I have quite a collection of running “souvenirs” from the years. It brings me great comfort to have these physical reminders of my past. For me, it is like having a portkey of sorts (Harry Potter reference there the Muggles among you). I just touch one and am instantly transported to another place on the timeline of my life. One of my most cherished portkeys is a popsicle stick. Gather round, youngsters, let me tell you a little about how it used to be done. Back in the old days (being able to say this without irony is kind of a fun thing about getting older!), we did not have electronic chip tags or any other sort of technological tracking system to log runner’s times. What we did have were mom’s with popsicle sticks. In 1991, the way a cross-country race’s order of finishers was determined was to station a volunteer (usually someone’s mom, occasionally a dad) at the finish line. As you crossed it, she would hand you a popsicle stick with a number (your place in the race) on it. After catching your breath, you would bring it to whoever was roaming around with a clipboard so they could record your name and order you finished. A few calculations later and they would declare which school won.
Over the years, I amassed quite a few popsicle sticks. Here are the ones from my freshman year:
And the most cherished of them all, my first one:
Mr. P is responsible for an awful lot about me. Simply, he is the reason I run. There is no other conceivable route that I can picture that would have led me to find this true love of my life. But as with all unsung heroes of the coaching world, he is responsible for so much more. He helped shape the person I became – the discipline, the self-worth, the mindset that running is fun, and all the cheering I do for other athletes? Those seeds were planted and tended to by him, many years ago. When I PR in any race, I still half expect to see him at the finish line, arms open for a hug and cheering for me like I just won a spot in the Olympics as he did at the finish of every race I ran under his coaching.
I don’t regret a lot in life, but one of my biggies is that I did not run my senior year of high school. The anxiety of racing simply became too much for me because my teenage runner self had not yet learned the adage “the race is long, but it is only with yourself”. Instead I fretted too much over how my performance would affect the team and had not yet learned to funnel that nervous energy and direct it into a reserve to siphon strength from. I have since learned that skill and now count on race day nerves to propel me towards PRs. I wish I had figured it out sooner and had just one more season with Coach P. No matter though, he is always with me in my mind’s eye, wearing Schalick green and cheering me on. I hope he knows just how important he is to me, even now, 21 years later. Thank you, Mr. P. for seeing the runner inside me that was just begging to come out. You are the only one that noticed she was in there.
What was your first race like?
Who saw the runner (or triathlete or biker or dancer or Zumba fanatic) in you?