I stand with about fifty other fourth grade girls at the starting line. We gently sway and stretch as we await the gun. Dread, anxiety, and nerves fills my stomach like a boulder. I don't have high hopes. POP! and we're off. I see the other girls in our matching red and blue uniforms spring to the front of the line and disappear behind a sea of multicolored jerseys. Meanwhile, my legs drag me to the middle of the pack. We pound across fields and through narrow paths in the forest. I focus all my energy on avoiding the stumps; hitting and sliding along the hard, dry dirt leaves a mark. I know from experience. Halfway through it's as if someone strapped weights to my ankles. I cannot go further. I cannot speed up. Girls are passing me left and right while I huff and puff and push my legs to keep moving. Finally, I see the finish where my parents and coach are waiting. They're yelling at me to finish strong and speed up, and I try, but I feel like I'm going to collapse. 44/50. Back of the pack as usual. This was the story that unfolded every week at my cross country meets.
When I was growing up, I played every sport known to man: soccer, basketball, golf, cheerleading, softball, track, horseback riding, tumbling, and cross country. I was that kid who after being put in the game for three minutes was begging the coach to bench me, and after about five minutes on the bench, I was begging to go back out again. I was impatient, but I was also anemic and I didn't find out until I was eleven. My parents both played sports growing up. My dad played golf in college and his dad was an all star basketball player in college. My brother and I watched as our mom constantly trained for the next half or full marathon.
My parents signed me up for cross country when I was in fourth grade, and I hated it. I am a very competitive person, so coming in around the 44/50 mark every race shot my confidence and endlessly frustrated me. We only had to run two miles through the woods of Shelby Farms Park, but somehow I could not make it through the race without stopping to walk. In the car on the way home, my parents would always encourage me, but they also said they knew I could do better. Two years later, we found out that I was anemic. After taking an iron supplement for a few months, I didn't mind running. I even voluntarily joined the track team at my school a year later.
Running the 800 at a track meet or even two miles at practice is VERY different from running a half marathon, though. My sophomore year of high school my parents signed me up for the St. Jude Half Marathon without consulting me. I tried to get out of it, but they thought it was time. My mom had been running long distances for years, and even my dad had started doing the half. They would wake me up at 5:30 or 6:00am to go for runs before school. The day my dad did his longest run, my mom forced me to go with him, and my brother rode circles around on his bike for 10 miles. I thought I was going to die. When race day came, my mom and I stuck together the whole way, finishing in around 2:20. Crossing the finish line was one of the greatest feelings I have ever had, and I knew I had to run it again next year. Finishing a half marathon is an incredibly rewarding experience, but running through the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital campus brings tears to everyone's eyes. We run for the kids. We run for a cure. Danny Thomas put it the best when he said, "No child should die in the dawn of life." We fight cancer with every step.