When I was 9 years old my mom signed me up for Thousand Oaks Flyers, our local running program. I’d already been running competitively for 3 years - we had an amazing PE teacher at my elementary school that got me hooked in kindergarten - and I impatiently awaited our first race. I entered the mile and earned a green ribbon for my effort. Oh boy, did I ever love that ribbon. When I got home later that afternoon, I pinned it to my bedpost and just stared at it for hours, trying to pinpoint the source of its magic.
At the second meet I entered every race from the 200m up to the mile. I even convinced Coach Jan to let me high jump. The sum of my efforts racked up another 5 ribbons. I spent the rest of the season hopping from one event to the next. After each meet I’d take my loot home and ceremoniously collate the ribbons into the shoebox that housed my growing collection of sky blue, green, white, red, and blue ribbons.
I’ve always been a sucker for collecting things (I used to compulsively collect those brochures on display in hotel lobbies), so those ribbons were the perfect motivator to keep me coming back to practice 5 days a week and signing up for every event I could. After almost 30 years of competitive running, I still find myself a little too easily motivated by the same desire to collect those external rewards. I’ve since swapped out my shoebox of ribbons for a closet wall lined with race bibs, shirts, trophies, and participation medals.
Somewhere along the way, however, I started realizing that running was good for things other than acquiring colorful scraps of cloth. Sure those ribbons gave me a reason to show up to the practices and meets, but I also started tapping into this sense that there was a deeper meaning to running, and it was this feeling that motivated me to push myself in practice and confront my limitations in races. After hundreds of races, I now know why I’m drawn back to the starting line over and over again. I love trying to quiet that nervous storm before the starting gun’s thunderous crack, channeling my scattered energy into a competitive focus, feeling the strain of my eager heart pushing my tired legs around the track, the exhaustion giving way to endorphins. Plus, training for a race gives me the competitive edge in the constant battle with that nagging demon perched on my shoulder telling me to slow down, take a day off, cut my workout short.
But over the last couple weeks there’s been this growing sense of inevitability hanging around every conversation. Regardless of the topic it seems not so much a matter of if but of when. My calendar is filling with red Xs: race canceled, classes postponed, social events scrapped. As with the rest of the VCM hopefuls, the Junior Milers training for the relay, and all of the other community members that make marathon day possible, I’m waiting with trepidation for news one way or the other about the fate of the race.
And with the prospect of no race at the end of this training block, I find it hard, despite the 40,000+ miles I’ve run in my life, to clearly articulate that more basic question of why I’m so compelled to run. It crosses my mind that maybe I only run to race. Is that it, am I really running every day just because I’m racing on one particular day in May? Am I still just collecting ribbons? How I’m training is certainly informed by what I hope to accomplish on race day. But I’m out there every day because - even without the race - I’ve found my own internal motivation.
Simply put, I love to run. I love feeling connected to my body and exploring the world around me. And it drives me out into the frosty spring winds and pouring rains, onto the mucky trails and yes, even the dreaded treadmill. Today a train of several thousand grackles and red-winged blackbirds alighted on the Norway spruces just as I jogged down Colchester Ave. There was a tranquility in the rustling remnant black locust pods wagging in the wind that carried me down into Winooski. My companion was not that incessant demon telling me to stop, but a raven with nesting material, the sound of my steady breath, and a sense of control and elegance as I glided along the bike path. Without a guarantee that I’ll be racing in May, I ran today not because it was on my schedule, but because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. With the news cycle an endless torrent of information that draws me outward, running is an endless wellspring of joy that draws me inward.