As long as I can remember, I have loved to race. As parents often resort to bribing their children to meet certain goals (going to bed, eating vegetables, not screaming in grocery stores…), mine learned from an early age that I responded well to running competitions against my sister. And, since I was the eldest and my younger sister followed my lead most of the time, they really only need to manipulate me to get us both to behave. Thus began the nightly “race to bed” competition. We would line up on the imaginary start line in our family room and race across the room, up a half flight of stairs, through the kitchen, up another flight of stairs to our bedrooms. The first person in bed was the winner. I had three major advantages that protected my victory streak: I was older (although not really bigger!), I was very competitive (27 years later we still have the same pre-race expressions), and, my bedroom was closer to the top of the stairs. Nevertheless, those wins were very important to my early running career!
I started racing more seriously and officially in grade 8 for my Kelowna Secondary School OWLS Cross Country team. Trading my thermal long underwear uniform for a school jersey and bright aerobic tights, I had my work cut out. In BC, all grade 8 through grade 12 students race in an “open division” so I remember being in complete awe of the grade 11/12 runners. I had great respect and admiration for them and was reluctant to challenge my older role models, especially my grade 12 teammate, Gillian Moody, who 10 years later, was again a teammate at the 2003 Pan Am Games (she for triathlon, me for track). With 250 runners and limited spots on the start line, each school lined up in order of fastest to slowest runners; therefore, as the consistently fourth place finisher at earlier races, I was 4th runner from the start line. This was a foreign and confusing concept to me at the time and I remember asking my coach if I had to stay in 4th place on my team the whole race? He was very adamant that I should race as hard as I could and not to worry what the other girls on my team were doing. So I did and surprised myself with a top 10 finish that led our team to the team Championship title.
The next year I was not quite so naïve, and planned to improve my position from the previous year. I was lucky because once again an older teammate, Jennifer, was a strong runner and I stuck to her like glue. She shot off the line into the lead. So I followed on her heals. By the second loop, Jenn was fading a bit and so I decided to keep the pace rolling. I remember singing a song in my head as I splashed through the mud on the final lap, enjoying every moment of feeling strong and fluid. I won the race, which took me (and many others) by complete surprise. It was the first time a grade 9 student had won BC High School Championships (although a few other girls have since). In many ways, that race changed everything.
After winning BC High School Championships, I began to see myself as a much more serious and legitimate runner. I started to get letters from prospective universities, and my coach and I began to set bigger goals such as racing Nationals and trying for a spot on the World Junior Team. But it was not always easy. After successfully defending my title in grade 10, I started to put a ton of pressure on myself. The following year, our team (favored to win individually and as a team) fell apart at the race in Victoria, and three of us ending up in the medical tent. I ended up being transferred to the hospital in an ambulance for treatment and observation, and although I denied it at the time, I can look back in retrospect and realize how much my self-induced pressure was negatively impacting me. I was no longer running free and happy, instead I was running under my own expectations that anything less than a victory or a record was a failure. I went through a period of time where I hated running and was not too keen on myself either.
Thankfully and with the help of supportive friends, family and coach, I was able to re-gain perspective and confidence. I realize that running is a choice and a gift, and not an obligation. No matter what happened, my family still loved me. Even though I was only 15 years old, this memory remains one of my most powerful life lessons. I have had many highs and lows in running since, but I always come back to my grade 11 experience to jolt myself back into a happy and grateful place.
I approached my final BC High School race (grade 12) with a completely different attitude. My goal was to score as few points as possible to secure a team victory. We had won the team Championships when I was grade 8, and had been second twice in the middle years, so I really wanted to go out with a bang. For me, running is always more fun when there is a greater purpose than simply my own individual goals. Cross Country is a team sport which is fun and motivating, and many of my best running memories are from being on the Stanford and Canadian Cross Country teams. In any case, we won our coveted team title, and although I fell short of also winning the individual race (2nd place) I was thrilled to not end up as a DNF and semi-conscious in an ambulance, puking my brains out, as I had the previous year. I had learned a lot about myself in that year.
Although it has been thirteen years since I was a high school runner, my experiences and memories of high school cross country are still a big part of me today. It was as a high school runner that I decided that my big picture dream was to run in the Olympics, and as a quote of an unknown source once said “there is no miracle without desire”. I achieved my Olympic dream in 2004 but I still have big dreams for 2012. Much like my high school experience, I continue to have ups and downs, and lessons learned and re-learned.
So when I found out that my alma mater, KSS, is hosting the BC High School Championships this fall, I was thrilled. I know what it meant to me and how many doors I did not even know existed opened because of this race.
These events are not possible without the help of many volunteers. If you want to help with an event that could be a defining moment in a high school student’s life, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be sure to find you a super cool job!