I have always been a runner! I don't remember life before running. There have been times in my life when I wasn't running for one reason or another (injured, too busy, unsuitable weather, bad headspace about not being as fast as I used to be), but the condition of not running always feels wrong to me, like I'm not being true to who I am.
As a kid I was always trying to get a game of tag going. Unfortunately for me, the other kids on my street did not like running as much as I did and would only agree to play if I agreed to stupid rules such as "every fence post is a home free zone". (For them. There was never a home free zone for me.) Boring. At one point I convinced them a better handicap system would be no home free zone for anyone, but I was only allowed to use one leg. This worked for a couple of games until the other kids realized I could still tire them out and catch them, even when I was only allowed to hop.
In school I was introduced to competitive running races in I think the 4th grade. A day off school to go run around a track a bunch of times and get shiny red ribbons embossed with gold foil for winning? Sign me up! In middle school (grades 6-8) running was a serious sport, with school teams for both cross country in the fall and track and field in the spring. We had practice after school every day and competitions most weekends. It was awesome!
One thing I learned to love about running when I was in middle school was that it was a sport I could excel at on my own. It didn't matter if the other kids were slow or lazy or didn't want to show up at all. I could still show up, I could still compete, and I could still win. (Contrast this with soccer, which my father finally allowed me to play around the same time, after eight years of me begging and him saying, "No. Soccer is a boys' game," and me throwing temper tantrums over my outrage at his position on this matter. But by that age, all the serious soccer players were playing rep. And my father would only sign me up for house league. Soccer is awesome when you actually get to play it, because soccer = running. But when your team loses over 50% of its games by default because not enough players show up to field a team, it sucks royally.)
In high school running switched from being an individual pursuit to being a team sport and the centre of my social life. My school already had a very good girls' cross country team before I got there. The school also had an excellent running coach who knew what he was doing and who invested more of himself into the team than any other teacher in the school invested into any extra-curricular activity. They were regularly winning regional competitions before I got there but had not yet managed to pull off a provincial championship. Enter little Laura--a scrawny little "minor niner" (slang for grade nine student), but immediately the 4th fastest runner on the team.
The 4th runner is a big deal on a cross country team. Your team score is the sum of the finishing places of your top 4 runners, with the lowest score winning the competition. So even if your top three runners are very good (which they were on this team), if your 4th runner cannot pull off a strong finishing position, you won't win. The trouble was, the fastest girls on the team were all two and three years older than me. I would have to move up an age group to run with them. This would mean both racing a longer distance (my coach was nervous about this because I was scrawny) and giving up my chance to excel as an individual by competing against runners my own age. My coach was very clear that the decision on whether or not to move up was mine and mine alone. No one was allowed to pressure me. For me though, it was a no-brainer: You mean that if I run junior we'll win? We'll win OFSAA (Ontario high school championship)? Sign me up!
So I did. And we did. My coach registered us as a club (open to everyone, not just school teams) junior team and we won the OTFA (Ontario club) championship as well.
The next year, the high school team was split up for school competition as two members were by then seniors, one was still a junior (and wanted to run as a junior), and I was still a midget. But we had new grade nine kids join the school who were good runners and a transfer into grade ten who was even faster than me, and we won OFSAA as a midget team that year. The age category for club juniors was under twenty, so we still had the full team for that (plus 3 runners from other high schools who joined our club team) and we won both OTFA and CTFA (Canadian) championships that year. I wasn't a scoring member of the club team, due to the addition of the girls from other schools. But I still got to travel to Newfoundland with the team and compete in nationals.
Nationals was an adventure of a different nature: horrible for me at the time but ultimately a defining moment in my life and an accomplishment I am still proud of today.
CTFA junior team cross country championships are held in the middle of November. Mid-November has a decent chance of already being winter in much of Canada. When St. John's put their name forward to host the championships in 1985, they boasted that theirs was an excellent location because it had not snowed on the championship weekend in St. John's in 11 years. In 1985, on the Friday night before the Saturday morning competition, St. John's got dumped on with 8 inches of snow. High winds created snow drifts up to 2 feet deep on some portions of the course. The club hosting the event actually sent people out first thing Saturday morning with snow shovels to manually clear the starting line for us so we wouldn't be standing in shin-deep snow waiting for the starter's pistol to sound.
To add insult to injury: the kitchen at the Holiday Inn (where all of the out-of-town athletes were staying) infected over half the field with gastroenteritis. I spent the night before my one and only opportunity to compete in nationals worshipping the porcelain god. By morning I was no longer puking, but I had a throbbing headache, was exhausted, and could only eat about two bites of toast. My coach didn't want me to run. But there was no way I was missing that race! So I lined up on the starting line with everyone else. It was still snowing, and still windy. I ran 5K that day with my eyelashes glued together by the blowing snow, at times barely able to drag my feet out of the snow drifts which were deeper than my knees in places. That was the one and only race in my life in which I finished dead last. But I finished the race. Half the people who had lined up on the starting line with me that morning did not.
The next year, two members of the core team had graduated high school (including our top runner, who won a full sports scholarship to Stanford), and the coach dropped our club team. But we continued to do well in high school competition. My team placed fourth in provincials when I was in 11th grade and won again the next two years. In the 12th grade, on the strength of our OFSAA win, my team was chosen to be the first Canadian team to represent Canada at an international high school championship race in Luxembourg. I got a ten-day trip to Belgium and Luxembourg out of that (for free, thanks to my coach being an excellent fundraiser and the Belgian government putting us up for a week for free at their Olympic rowing teams training facility).
So yeah. Running was a pretty huge freaking deal to me in high school and also a major refuge from my home life (which had become pretty awful my first year of high school when my grandmother died and I immediately became the new scapegoat and primary target of my mother's abuse).
After high school, running was not the same. I tried running varsity my first year at university. But the team was not very good, and I was the only first year on it, and the only team member living in residence. Running varsity meant I missed eating dinner with my res friends and had to eat at the special late dinner they put on for athletes--which was just football players and me at that time of year. Not fun. Plus, by second year I had switched majors to drama and was busy with extra-curricular dramatic productions most of the time. So running fell by the wayside.
As an adult, running is harder. It's harder to find the time. It's hard to find the money. I don't have a team anymore. I had a back injury which messed up my ability to run for about nine years. And I'm no where near as fast as I used to be, which is tough mentally. But I still try to do it, because I still feel better and more like myself when I'm running.
Currently my goal is to run 20km per week. It's still hard to find the time for that some weeks. And I cannot handle extreme weather as well as I could in my youth, which limits my ability to get out there both in the summer and the winter. But I'm more or less managing it most of the time, and I've more or less moved beyond my mental baggage about no longer being a fast runner.
Middle School (my teammates nick-named me "Darth" because they said I look like Darth Vader when I'm running):
Our first OFSAA championship win. When our school principal found out we had won, she drove out to the event site and gave us all blue and white (school colours) carnations:
My grade 12 team and the girls' team from Israel outside our cabins at the Belgian Olympic rowing facility:
After the ISF race in Luxembourg. It snowed for that race too! (The Israelis went out the morning of the race and purchased running shoes. They had never run in snow before and were accustomed to racing barefoot.):
Me and my best friends in high school--my teammates!--hiding out from the rain at some race or another. I still miss these gals!: