When I was around 14, the cross-country coach came to me and said, “Have you considered running with us? You have the right build to be a good distance runner.” By this, he meant I was skinny. In Alabama, where I grew up, if you were not suited to play football, well, you needed to find something else. I was so desperate for some form of validation at that point in my life that I eagerly showed up for day 1 of cross-country practice, which was a hot weather torture session.
As a skinny kid, I might have been nominally suited to running, but there was a lot more missing, physically. I was a late bloomer, and I struggled to put on muscle. I lacked acceleration, kick, and since our events were all 3 miles, I never got a chance to do what I was best at, which was to set a pace and thrash it out for miles at a time.
From the beginning I did poorly at our races, but I thrived on long solo runs. I had a runner’s mindset. I enjoyed moving through space and feeling the power of being able to cover long distances, preferably alone. I understood the meditative state of running.
The coach who approached me way back when is in the National High School Track Hall of Fame. He has possibly won more state championships than anyone ever. The team I was on was highly competitive, and though I felt like a real also-ran, I suppose I was the slowest runner on a very fast team. Again, I suspect that has more to do with all the meets ending at 3 miles, when I’m built more for 6-10.
Even then, I don’t think I’d have made much of a mark, and that’s really fine with me too. My runner’s mindset doesn’t need to win things or be fast relative to other people. It just needs to run, to inhabit that space where my body is in motion, the world is passing by, my mind is floating free, everything is rhythm, and I can go wherever I want.
My high school coach was wrong about me. I was a hunch that didn’t pay off for him. But I ended up in the right place anyway, mostly centered between my ears, when I’m outside and moving.