(From Saturday’s St. Patrick’s 4-Mile run. I’m in the middle.)
Today I ran a Saint Patrick’s four mile run with my friends. The fun run was casual and social, and none of us had anything to prove. But as I approached the finish line, I instinctually pushed myself to sprint hard up the last steep hill, a “muscle” memory.
I’ve been running ever since I can remember. My earliest memories take me back to first grade in the 1970s. At recess I would challenge my fellow first graders to race me to the back fence and back. There was something very special about being the fastest student, especially as a girl. Even after we moved and I started at a new elementary, new fence, new students, I remained the fastest second grader. I was a novelty. I was the girl the boys lined up to race. To beat. To put in her place.
“On your marks, get set, go!” Our sinewy second grade bodies take off from the black-top pavement connecting to the ground with only the balls of our feet. We spray gray gravel from beneath our soles as we sprint over the pebbles near the swing sets, and then dash through the grassy field until we touch the chain-link fence, approximately 100 yards at the back of the school yard. We pivot after bouncing off the metal mesh and fly as fast as our eight year old legs will carry us back to the blacktop.
I remained the fastest student in my elementary until fifth grade when Jim Slezak turned 11. While Jim was fast, he consistently placed second in our race-offs, but that all changed spring of 1977. Curious classmates looked on as Jim and I lined up to race each other during the last recess of the day. He wore cutoff jean shorts revealing denser muscles than I had remembered and his facial expression was serious. His confident demeanor rattled me.
“On your mark. Get set. Go!” We took off for the field, both of us pushing to reach the fence first. Jim touched the chain link, but I was only a second behind. I turned hard. Digging deep to increase my turnover rate, my long hair flying behind me in wispy waves. I pumped my arms willing my legs to run faster and increased my stride, but Jim reached the pebbles first. He crossed the blacktop first. I came in second. I was no longer the fastest. He had won and would remain faster than me throughout the rest of our school years.
To be the strongest girl, even for just five years, greatly impacted who I am today. I am relatively fearless when it comes to speaking my mind and standing up for what I believe is just. I attribute much of this to those years when I was the girl that the boys couldn’t beat. The girl who had to be respected. The one you couldn’t mess with because she could challenge your sexist stereotypes.
I finished my race today a slower, mediocre runner, who is now in her fifties. But despite my aging body, I still love a race challenge. Running continues to make me feel strong and powerful, and I am thankful for this gift.