It was late August, 1994. I was nineteen years old and headed to Idaho to try out for the college cross-country team.My life was shoved into a mustard-colored Nissan Sentra; mostly clothes, cheap jewelry, books and, of course – running shoes. On my lap I held a CD player and a green plant the entire 1000 miles.
My dad and I drove eight hours through Nebraska, the golden corn lined up in rows along the highway, and into the desert of Wyoming. I detested Wyoming at that time of day, in the middle of the afternoon when it was dry and pounding hot, along the highway with only semi-trucks and gas stations for miles around. “I hate Wyoming,” I said. At 3 in the afternoon it reminded me of serial killers and overheated cattle. But I could get over Wyoming – there was hope coming and I could see it. In the distance, as if a mirage with snowy white caps, the Rocky Mountains were coming into view, and my pulse quickened, began to rise and fall with each point and valley. “We’ll be there before the sun goes down,” my dad said.
Hours later we passed the Idaho state sign just as my father launched into singing. “And here we have Idaho, winning her way to fame…” The Idaho state song was a song all my siblings and I knew since our months in the womb and there was no way I would get away without joining in. So I sang and my dad laughed, and I looked out the window, at the ascension into what heaven would surely look like for me. The air thinned as we climbed the narrow twisting highway. The earth was golden; the sun hitting the burnt grass just the right way. The yellowed wheat and cattails were untouched. They covered every surface, interspersed with pine trees that climbed higher into the sky. It was dry and brown but began to turn greener the farther North we went.
We blasted Carly Simon’s, Let the River Run through the entire Bear Lake Canyon and to this day, that canyon will always be singing that song. Let the river run, let all the dreamers shake the nation…come…it’s asking for the taking…
My dad grinned at me, “Nervous?”
“A little bit.”
Actually, “A little bit” was a colossal understatement. I was a good runner in high school. Maybe even great. As a skinny little thing, the coach placed me on the JV team after taking one look at me. After I won the first race he grinned, “Looks like a varsity runner to me.” I made State as a sophomore and my coach began talking junior and senior year, and college offers. And then. Senior year I quit. To this day I can’t tell you exactly why except I was scared of a lot of things. And the thing about quitting, is that it feels rotton. I hated that piece of me; my lack of mental toughness. I avoided my coaches and teammates, dreaded their questions and my lack of answers. I hated that I couldn’t trust myself. I hated that I kept saying,”next year.” I hated that every time I looked at my parents I felt badly. Even then I sensed that most times you just can’t get back the things you give away. If there was one thing I could do differently in my life, that decision ranks #1.
I was so ashamed of the quitter.
Then, as a college freshman, I saw the cross-country team run. And it just so happened that there was a girl who lived across the lawn from my dorm. Her name was Tara. Tara was the first girl runner I saw spit while she ran.She was brave that way, I always thought. We had a small falling out over a boy, but that’s another story. We began to run in the early morning. This is where my obsession began: the 5:15 a.m. run in frigid Rexburg, Idaho. Every morning my alarm would go off. The quitter was still hanging around. Half the time I jumped out of bed, turned off the alarm, and jumped back into bed. But it ate at me. I could not be a quitter forever.
But slowly, over that year, I began to change. A resolve took root. There was a stirring in me. I knew that time was not standing still. If I wanted to run with a team, this was it – my last shot. And I finally wanted it. I wanted to run. I didn’t want to be the quitter. Fool. Talent thrown away. This was my chance at redemption. Many an afternoon I watched practice; the intervals, the sweat, the time trials. Later I moved to the bleachers and saw the bigger picture; the best runners, the strategy of a win, the kick at the end of a leg. At the end of the spring I gathered my courage and asked Coach for a try-out. He was skeptical of my story, skeptical that I was even a runner (runners don’t quit!!)
“You’ll be trying out with some of the best female runners in the country,” Coach said.He didn’t need to tell me; I knew they were All-Americans who competed nation wide.They were hard core.
But Coach studied me and finally said, “Come back in the fall to try-out.” He was giving me my last shot.
I went home to Omaha and trained all summer. I had no coach, no training plan. I just ran. My parents were ecstatic. Their daughter would be a college athlete.
When my dad and I got to campus we walked to the athletics department and through the gym, the spacious room reverently quiet. Our feet hit the wooden court, and I tried to tiptoe, not disturb the silence as my dad’s sneakers squished quietly across the entire court. Coach was there; a wiry, small-boned man typical of a cross-country runner obsessed with running.
The next day we were to come back at 5 a.m. for the official team try-out. My dad shook the coach’s hand; his dreams for me sealed with a handshake.
“Oh, Amy, I love to see you run,” my dad said on our way back to my apartment.
My stomach began to wind tight.
We went to bed early. I set the alarm for 4:30 and slept fitfully, jumping up with the alarm’s first beep. The desert always turned so cold at night and I shivered while peering outside into the darkness. Only the stars were awake, twinkling brightly over my head. I had slept in my try-out clothes, but before I laced up my shoes I dropped to the side of the bed and onto my knees. I clasped my hands together and half-whispered, half-thought a prayer, “Please Heavenly Father, please help me run fast. Please help me run my best…please.” Cause I truly believed he could hear me, that he wanted me to run. And if he wanted me to run, I might as well be fast.
I walked to the kitchen, my arms wound tightly around my skinny body and opened a can of Campbell’s Pork ‘n Beans, my new energy experiment specifically brought for this moment, hoping it was the perfect pre-race food.
I began to eat the beans cold, mentally going through the way I would start my run: go out fast but not too fast. Don’t need to be first but keep up with the top of the pack. To go out too fast would be a rookie mistake. This was intuitive to me; I had understood it even as a kid. I must be patient, show restraint. My final kick was my strength. Don’t let the first runner get so far ahead that you can’t catch up. Watch the front runner. It will take careful timing.
I could hear my dad in the other room. Drawers shutting, water running. I closed my eyes and hummed Carly Simon, “Let the river run…come, the new Jerusalem. It’s asking for the taking… runnin’ for the water…”
It’s asking for the taking. Take it.
*** This is not where the story ended, but since this is a blog, not a novel, I’ll fill you in with two words: I failed. It was extremely cold that morning, and my legs reacted like taut rubber bands. My time was off. In the end, my name wasn’t on the list. I suppose this sounds like a sad story. For awhile it was, and then it wasn’t. I didn’t make the team. But there are two parts of this story that are important. One is about making things right. The second is that although this is a story about running and quitting and trying, it’s also one of my favorite stories about my dad. My dad grew up a hard-working farm boy in Bear Lake, Idaho. He was a runner too. He loved that I ran; both my parents did. They’ve seen me fail a lot. But even though I’ve failed, I’ve never felt like a failure – at least not for long. I grew up with an unfailing knowledge that my dad believed in me; that with enough work, anything was possible. It is his belief in me, a comment he kept making over the years, that made me start writing; this story was one of them. It was my mother’s validation that has kept me at it. And though my dad lives too far away, I know he’s there. Still cheering. When I think of him I see the kindness in his eyes, the smile that always comes to his face. And every once in awhile he’ll say, “I’ll never forget that trip we took,” and then he’ll start singing Carly Simon. Not everyone is blessed to have a dad like mine, so today I’m grateful. So grateful. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
We love this guy. So much.
Grandpa Art, we love you.
Picture entitled, “She Thinks He Hung the Moon.”
I’ve heard it said that the greatest gift a father can give to to his children is to love their mother. My children are blessed beyond measure. I love this man and the good father he is.
And someday, after all the training and the talking and the wrestling and the cajoling and the farting and burping, and dirty socks and the wise cracks and the lessons, and the failing, my son will be a father. He’ll know what to do; he’s been given tremendous examples.
Today I am grateful for good fathers, and the great compliment they are to mothers.